In return to where his NBA path began, Trent Jr. has chance to show his evolution

Toronto Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. (33) starts the break out. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

PORTLAND -- There aren’t too many places in the NBA Gary Trent Jr. can go where he doesn’t see a familiar face.

Even though he’s only in his fourth NBA season, the league feels like a village to him. It’s the product of having a father who played nine seasons in the league and on four different teams; of being on an NBA fast-track himself, from starring at Prolific Prep in Napa, California, to dominating in the EYBL in summers and then blowing up as a freshman a Duke in his one season there.

The NBA doesn’t feel so strange when you feel like you know or know of everyone in it.

“Now the league is like musical chairs. Coaches end up everywhere. A couple coaches I had here in Portland, now they’re in Detroit or Orlando,” Trent Jr. said Monday. “… Everyone just moves around.”

But Trent’s return to Portland is a little different. It’s where he started his NBA career, rising from a second-round pick who appeared in just 15 games as a rookie in 2018-19 to a quality reserve on a team that aspired to make the NBA Finals.

It was the Trail Blazers' ambitions rather than Trent’s shortcomings that encouraged Portland to send the six-foot-five shooting guard to the Raptors for Norm Powell last season.

They saw Powell as an older, more experienced and better fit alongside veterans Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Raptors liked that they were getting a younger player with some upside they could likely sign at a more reasonable price than Powell.

Monday night is the first game for the Raptors in Portland since the deal at the March 25 trade deadline last season.

“I haven’t been here since I got traded, actually,” said Trent at the Raptors pre-game shootaround at Modo Center.

Being back brings back warm memories.

“[I] really just learned a lot,” he said. “First coming in as a rookie, as a second-round pick, I learned how to work. I learned the basics of how to be a pro here, I always had a certain foundation, certain thoughts on certain things I was taught growing up.

“[But] when get here first-hand, you can actually see it. When I first came here, I wasn’t playing right away, just still hard work, a lot of running on treadmills and wearing suits, I didn’t even have my warm-up on, a lot of those days. [But] just grateful for all my time here, all the things I learned here made me who I am right now and the player that I am right now.”

The deal has worked out well for both sides. Powell has certainly held up his end of the bargain in Portland. He’s continued his development as one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters, a trajectory he started on in earnest during the 2019-20 season when he connected on 39.9 per cent of his threes on 5.3 attempts a game. He was shooting 43.9 per cent on 6.4 attempts in 2020-21 when he was traded. He’s shooting 44.8 per cent on 4.8 attempts so far this season while averaging 17.1 points a game in 12 starts.

The Blazers signed Powell to a five-year deal for $90 million this past summer, which is decent value for what should be the prime years of one of the league’s best shooters and a good locker-room presence.

But the Raptors think they have something good in Trent, especially since he doesn’t turn 23 until January. They signed him for a three-years and $54 million this past summer, a deal that could bite them because the third-year is a player option, meaning if Trent continues to develop he could be a free agent again in summer of 2023.

The deal has proven both validating and motivating.

“One-thousand per cent. Obviously, if you sign a certain deal like that, there’s obviously certain expectations, certain things that you need to do [and] the job you need to fill,” he said. “There’s a lot that comes with it but it’s everything that I asked for, everything I wanted. [Now I’ll] continue to just improve and show what I can do.”

He’s already shown he’s a more active defender than Toronto thought they were getting. He leads the NBA in total deflections through 14 games and is second in the league in loose balls recovered, each of which plays directly into the high-risk, high-reward defensive system the Raptors want to play.

And offensively there is growth too. Funny enough his three-point shooting hasn’t quite reached the 40-per-cent mark he put up during his three seasons in Portland – Trent Jr. is shooting just 35.3 per cent from deep on seven attempts a game in his 31 games as a Raptor – but there has been some development in other areas. His assist percentage is on its way to a career-high and he’s shooting 53.8 per cent on long twos – shots from 16-feet and out to the three-point line. It’s not an ideal shot to take – lay-ups and threes are always preferred – but on a Raptors team where half-court options have been limited at times, Trent’s ability to create his own mid-range looks and score them has been a nice-to-have.

With Fred VanVleet a game-time decision against Portland and with the Raptors in need of creators in any case, Trent Jr. is willing to help fill the void wherever needed.

“[It’s] just knowing your role. Always having to be ready, on your p’s and q’s, knowing what your teammates need you to do,” he said. “If [Pascal Siakam] is out, I might need to rebound more. If Freddie’s out, I might need to do more on the ball and help guys get going, that type of thing. Just depends on the situation and the scenario.”

“… You don’t want to be pigeonholed. You don’t just want to do one thing. You want to do everything for your team. A million per cent. The more you can do, the better you are and your team is.”

Trent Jr. started his path in Portland, and now that he’s returned he’s got a chance to show how his game has evolved.

“It’s cool,” he said. “Whenever you see old faces, old friends that helped you along the way and see where you’re at now and how you’ve continued to grow, it’s a beautiful thing.”

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