When Chris Boucher was growing up in Montreal as a tall, gangly teenager without a clear direction or a plan, there was never a moment he could have realistically expected to be where he is now: an NBA veteran in possession of a new three-year contract worth $35.25 million as a respected role player on the Toronto Raptors.
He also feels he's on the verge of starting what he believes will be the most productive phase of his career.
Let’s be real: there were points last season when he it was hard to imagine any of that, at least with the Raptors. After missing training camp with a broken finger and getting his contract year off to a horrible start, Boucher was having thoughts that his run in Toronto might be coming to an end.
Could he see himself being introduced as one of the team’s key off-season signings at that stage?
“No. [After] the first 20 games? No, there's no way,” the 29-year-old Montrealer said during his media availability at the OVO Athletic Centre on Thursday. “I mean, to be honest with you, me and Ibrahim [his trainer and mentor, Ibrahim Appiah] joke about that all the time. We were saying ‘we’re probably gonna have to pack our bags and stuff’ because it didn't look too nice at the beginning and to be honest with you … I was like, I'm not playing well. I might not get traded but I might get waived or whatever, so that's how we were taking it.
“… I just thought they would either not play me and [I’d] be done at the end of the year,” added Boucher. “If you get to the point where you are not playing and then you don’t play at all, you kind of know what’s coming next, man. That’s pretty much what I was scared about.”
Fortunately for all concerned, at NBA season is more than 20 games long. Boucher shook off his rust and, perhaps most importantly, fully accepted the role the Raptors wanted him to play as a chaos-causing energizer off the bench and turned his season around.
He fully hit his stride after one more low point -- the unfortunate game against Cleveland on Boxing Day when the COVID-ravaged Raptors dressed only eight players, with Boucher the only regular. He took it as an opportunity to spread his wings offensively and it wasn’t pretty -- he was -30 in a 45-point loss and went 5-of-19 with five turnovers.
It was a turning point and from then on Boucher was the kind of effective big many NBA teams would be willing to pay for. He had other offers in his first chance as an unrestricted free agent after five professional seasons, but never considered them.
“Hearing from other teams … was a good thing for me,” Boucher said. “But like I said, it doesn't stop there. You know, I wanted to be comfortable, you play your best basketball when you feel like you're at home, when you feel like you know everything, and things are going smooth and so I don't think I would have felt that more appreciated or felt like home anywhere else.”
Boucher’s back story – he was an 18-year-old out of school, working in a fast-food restaurant and playing basketball only recreationally before being discovered at local youth tournament, starting an odyssey through northern Quebec, New Mexico, Wyoming and Oregon and eventually making the NBA as an undrafted free agent -- is one of steps backward and forward, and not always predictably. But in the end, he always advances.
“Chris epitomizes hard work and perseverance. He has shown us that he values being a member of this team through his commitment to continual improvement and finding ways to impact winning on the court. Even after his successes last season, he has told us he’s not satisfied – and that mindset is why we’re excited to welcome him back to Toronto,” general manager Bobby Webster said in a statement released by the team.
“Toronto has become his basketball home, and we believe that his familiarity with our franchise, with how we work and what we expect, will allow him to continue to flourish and contribute.”
After Boxing Day, Boucher averaged 10.3 points, seven rebounds and a block in 21 minutes a game. He three-point shooting -- which had deserted him early in the season -- rebounded and he made strides as a team defender.
Being rewarded for a simpler approach and role has been a revelation for Boucher and has inspired him to find ways to elevate his game that don’t require more touches offensively -- a transition that is hard for a lot of players to make, Boucher included.
“It was hard at first because there’s a lot of ego, a lot of pride that you put down. I saw myself as [a more offensive] player and I had to learn that I was better at other stuff and those things I have not been focused on before,” he said.
“It was just changing the focus and I think the people around me helped with that. They did a really good job of showing me film, showing me what I was capable of doing. Making me watch other people just to see that there were so many other ways to be impactful and have a great career in the NBA. I think that really helped me out. Not everybody is a scorer. Not everybody can do what Kevin Durant does or what Kyrie [Irving] does. So that really helped me out.”
Now, with the security of his contract and clarity with his role, Boucher wants to help others. His path to the NBA was far from conventional and his journey in the league has had plenty of ups and downs, too. But by playing in Toronto, not far from where he grew up, he’s hopeful his story can be an example for others.
“I want to make young kids think that it's really possible to make it to the NBA and all that and I think I have a great platform here to do that,” said Boucher.
“And I think Toronto gave me that platform. I didn't have it anywhere else. So, when you start looking at that from where I started and where I am now, the city did a lot for me … I can't put one word to describe what Toronto did for me, but I know they did a lot and that's one thing I'm grateful about and hopefully I can keep doing that because like I said, it's just the beginning, really.”