Raptors' Thomas, Boucher emerging as frontrunners in depth rotation battle

Toronto Raptors head coach reflects on what he saw from his bigs and what has impressed him so far.

TORONTO – Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is taking a bit of a different approach to things this season compared to years past.

By the sounds of things, as opposed to a more fluid, platoon-approach to his rotation, he’s looking to lock in defined roles into specific rotation spots this season.

The top six is pretty obvious. Even without Kyle Lowry on the pre-season trip in Charlotte we already know that those spots belong to Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes and Norman Powell.

What comes after is where things get interesting.

In particular, the No. 7 and 8 spots of the rotation look like they’re turning into the most hotly-contested battles in camp this season, specifically because Nurse has indicated he wants more certainty there.

“I just think that it gives somebody a chance to probably improve more,” Nurse said earlier this week of why he’s looking to lock in more rotational spots. “Obviously you get locked into those roles, get those minutes and you kind of figure out different matchups, different game plans, things you got to do if you are getting those consistent minutes. That’s really it.

“I kind of did it by committee last year because that felt like the right thing to do and, I don’t know, I just think that maybe there’s a chance for somebody to grab that spot, not let go of it and run with it a little bit and improve a lot between now and the end of the year.”

Two guys Nurse has publicly identified as players who could stand to benefit from more consistent, defined burn are Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher.

In Toronto’s pre-season opener Saturday, Thomas was spectacular, scoring 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including going 4-of-7 from three while also showcasing some playmaking skills we didn’t really see much from him last year, dropping five dimes.

Granted, this was only pre-season and it’s unlikely Thomas is going to consistently perform like this every game, but possible outbursts like this are why Nurse appears to already be leaning his way as a locked-in rotation piece.

“I keep mentioning Matt as a guy that I kind of had him in and out, not play for a few games then he’d play [last season],” said Nurse Saturday after Raptors practice. “Maybe someone like Matt, for instance, just becomes part of that group for sure every night. Gives him the best chance to improve, learn to play against different people, different schemes, etc. I just think he’s improved a lot and he’ll be able to improve more if I’m able to lock him in there.”

Thomas has plenty of competition for that spot in the form of guys like Terence Davis, DeAndre Bembry and maybe even Patrick McCaw. But given how much Nurse has talked about Thomas and the kind of run he was given Saturday night, it’s looking like Thomas is the front-runner in that particular rotational battle for the time being.

The same could be said of Boucher, as well.

Barring injury, Baynes is Toronto’s starting centre. But the backup spot is up for grabs and right now it’s looking like Boucher’s to lose.

“I think Chris would probably fall into the same role as Matt where I think if he’s given a run to be the second-unit centre pretty much consistently I think it’ll improve his game a lot as the season goes on,” said Nurse. “So he’s another one of those guys that now that we know him and he’s been with us, he’s made strides, he’s certainly produced in games and needs a role, a more defined role, rather than just dabbling in and out probably.”

Boucher looked impressive Saturday, coming up with nine points, three blocks and even hitting a three in the floor time he saw.

His athleticism and skillset could theoretically raise Toronto’s ceiling higher than a player like Alex Len – Boucher’s main competition – and, as Nurse alluded to, he’s already been indentured within Toronto’s system for a little while now and understands the concepts of the team on both ends of the floor.

Another thing going in Boucher’s favour is the fact he provides a good change-of-pace from what Baynes offers as he isn’t as physical but is much quicker and more explosive — something that could give the Raptors’ second unit a more defined identity.

Len, by the sounds of things, seems like he’ll be a more matchup-driven player, whereas the versatility of Boucher’s game may allow Nurse to use him in a broader range of areas.

“You’ve seen me pair Marc [Gasol] with [Joel] Embiid or something all night long,” said Nurse. [We may] pair to just get the more physical guy with Baynes and Alex. They’re kinda true centres and then when they’re playing small we tend to play with Chris at the five.”

No matter how Nurse decides to employ Boucher it looks like more opportunity will be coming his way this season.

Both he and Thomas could be poised for big campaigns.

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