TORONTO -- A former high school dropout who famously worked to help his family by becoming a cook and a dishwasher in a St-Hubert restaurant in his hometown of Montreal, Toronto Raptors big man Chris Boucher now has enough cash to open his own place, if he so desires.
The two-year, $13.5-million contract Boucher inked to re-sign with the Raptors was made official Wednesday and while it’s probably unlikely Boucher will be looking to become a St-Hubert franchise owner, the sentiment behind why he first took that job as a teenager remains the same.
“I don’t want my mom to work anymore,” Boucher said in a media call Wednesday. “That’s definitely one thing I’m gonna try to take care of.”
A sweet gesture, and one that Boucher will be able to accomplish thanks to the work he’s put in going from a pick-up hoops god in Montreal, to an AAU program, to junior college, to Division I ball with Oregon, to a G League MVP and defensive player of the year, to the NBA, where he’s won two championships, albeit in smaller roles.
Now, however, coming into this 2020-21 NBA campaign, Boucher has an opportunity in front of him that he’s never had in his whole three-season NBA career.
With the departures of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency, the Raptors opted to shore up their centre depth for at least this season with the free-agent acquisitions of Aron Baynes and Alex Len, and the re-signing of Boucher.
Looking logically, Baynes would figure as the team’s starting five, but backing him up, the most obvious candidate — purely from a talent perspective — would be Boucher.
A player who had never averaged much more than 13 minutes per game in his NBA career could suddenly see his minutes increase to 20 or more.
This will be plenty of rope for Boucher to finally show what he can do over an extended period of time, and he’s looking forward to it.
“I think last year we weren't sure what my role was going to be and whenever they were putting me in I had to stay ready and be able to play and all that,” Boucher said. “So I think that coming in this year my role is more clear. I think I kind of know what to expect and, I mean, there’s always surprises in life, but I come in with a different mindset where I know, ‘OK, I might be one of the main guys.’ I might be one of the guys that knows the system more, especially with new guys coming in and all that. I’ve become a vet, kind of.
“There’s a lot of stuff that will change, but it’s always great for me. Like I said, more learning can only get me better. So I think my role will definitely grow and more expectations are going to come in, but I can say I’ve never backed down from a challenge. I’ve never seen anything like something I can’t do, so I’ll just adjust through the season, but I think I’m ready to help this team get somewhere and make some noise in the league.”
Boucher has prepared for this moment for the past two seasons by watching and getting advice from his two ex-teammates, Gasol and Ibaka, of whom he credits for a fair bit of his growth as a player.
“They are two different players that definitely gave me two aspects of the game,” Boucher said. “Marc was a facilitator, his basketball IQ is really high and now I've learned so much about being able to put your team in a good position and also knowing, ‘no, you don't have to be the fastest guy, but you always got some techniques that you can use.’ He helped me a lot with that.
"And when it comes to Serge, just knowing what it takes to be ready all the time and his shot and how much he was working. I think that really helped me out, especially when I came in my first year. He helped me out a lot with just realizing that it's just the beginning, that there's a lot of work to be put in and I think he helped me out a lot with this. Unfortunately, he left but he helped me out a lot with this and he was a good vet for me.”
In particular, Boucher learned the value of how to get his body ready to play at the NBA level. Listed at six-foot-11 and a slender 200 pounds, Boucher is never going to be the most physically imposing player out there. But between the COVID-19-mandated league suspension and the start of the bubble, he did put on 15 pounds and has now spent this off-season working to not just get bigger, but stronger and more agile as well, to help with his game’s natural strengths.
“Gaining weight was one thing, but also being able to play with the weight and being able to adjust,” Boucher said. “There was a lot of stuff I had to get stronger. I’ve got to get my core better and there are a lot of little things that will get me better.
“For example, I think we spent a lot of time during the summer watching clips and realizing the stuff that I can do because I might not get super big, but I’m able to get stronger, and I’m also able to use my speed, use my hands and my athleticism. Those are most of the stuff that I didn’t really see until I started watching film and realized, ‘OK, you settled for this shot, you probably could have beat him going right, left, and just footwork and conditioning.’
"And there’s a bunch of stuff we’ve been working on just trying to figure out what we could do to push my game to another level. And in going to the bubble I saw that little bit of change, I saw I was getting more comfortable, I was feeling a lot better, just with my body, and now we’re trying to do the same thing for this season knowing that we might play a lot more.
“That’s why you’ve got to take care of your body as much as possible so this is the stuff we’re working on now.”
Those are the exact words you want to hear from Boucher if you’re the Raptors. Turning 28 in January, Boucher has appeared to not only have learned how to train harder, but smarter, too, and it could translate into previously unforeseen dividends for the Raptors.
As evidenced by what we saw last season, Toronto head coach Nick Nurse has a penchant for experimenting with bigger lineups. Boucher might be a player who could be used in these configurations, possibly playing the four alongside a player like Baynes or Len at the five.
This would be huge for Boucher as his natural position is more at power forward and he has been learning to play the five in the NBA. Now, however, it looks like he’ll have more opportunity to slide in at both big-man spots and get even more chances to prove himself.
“The best way [to succeed] in [the Raptors’] system is to be positionless and be able to play different positions, be able to guard different positions,” said Boucher. “So I think this is what we’re focusing on -- be able to be versatile and be able to know all the defensive schemes. I think that’s one thing that will help me also, being able to switch, hedge, whatever coverage we’re in. If I’m able to do that then I’ll definitely be in a good position to help this team.”
The Raptors helped out Boucher by re-signing him to life-changing money that will, hopefully, mean his mom can take a well-deserved break.
And it’ll be up to Boucher now to return the favour in kind as he gets set to embark on what could be the biggest season of his NBA career.