Canadians in the NBA roundup: How Raptors’ Chris Boucher embraced being a role player

Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher (25) celebrates after draining a 3 pointer during first half NBA first round playoff action against the Philadelphia 76ers in Toronto on Wednesday April 20, 2022. (Nathan Denette/CP)

It was less than a year ago on Dec. 26th, 2021 that the Toronto Raptors traveled to the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Only it wasn’t really the Raptors at all, but a skeleton version of them, with only four out of their 15 rostered players making the trip.

In the midst of the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Raptors had 11 players out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Only Chris Boucher, Dalano Banton, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Yuta Watanabe were available, along with four emergency call-ups on hardship 10–day contracts.

The game probably shouldn’t have been played, but it was, and the Cavaliers ran away with an unsurprising 144-99 win.

It was hard to watch and easy to forget — for almost everyone, that is. But for Chris Boucher, the 29-year-old forward from Montreal, it was likely the most important basketball game of his life, changing the trajectory of his NBA career indefinitely.

“It was one of the worst games ever. My family, they wanted to shut down the TV,” Boucher said shortly after the game. “…I was like, oh, I’m finally going to be the No. 1 guy, the go-to guy, and I didn’t realize how hard it is to be that guy, day out and day in.”

“It definitely changed my life. It changed my perspective. I realized I never want to be in that position again.”

Despite scoring what at the time was a season-high 21 points, Boucher shot just 6-19 from the field and 2-10 from three, turning the ball over five times and ending up -30 on the night. With no one to set him up or to create advantages for him, Boucher took it upon himself to be The Guy, only to learn how hard it was, seeing contested jumper after contested jumper spill out of the rim.

Still, it was hard to blame Boucher for taking the opportunity and trying to run with it. Boucher was coming off a career year in 2020-21, averaging 13.6 points per game while shooting 51.4 per cent from the floor and 38.3 per cent from three-point range.

He was struggling to have the same impact in a reduced offensive role on a better team through the first few months of the 2021-22 season, but with unrestricted free agency coming a few months later and a big payday potentially awaiting him, this was his moment as far as he was concerned.

And as Boucher told me inside the tunnel of Scotiabank Arena a few days ago, he thought he deserved the opportunity given what he had been through in his career. And more to the point, he thought he wanted it.

“I feel like coming from the G League (where Boucher was named the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in 2018-19 after averaging 22.5 points on 20.0 field goal attempts and 6.0 blocks per game with the Raptors 905), I kinda felt like I was going to get that role back eventually in the NBA,” Boucher said. “…So I thought I was ready for [that in] the league. I think the fact that I was waiting for that for so long, when I first got my opportunity [in Cleveland], I got a little thirsty I would say.”

“I thought I knew what I was doing and everything but like I said, you don’t really know what the go-to guy player goes through until you’re in that position. So that was a realization and then it made me realize that maybe I can’t be that guy, but I can focus on other things and I can be a star in a lot of different stuff.”

That’s exactly what Boucher is today: a star in his role. Fresh off signing a three-year, $35 million contract to stay in Toronto this off-season, Boucher is averaging 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in 22.5 minutes per game on 51/35/73 per cent shooting.

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He has been far and away the Raptors best bench player since returning from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the end of pre-season and the first three games of the regular season, scoring 20, 19, and 20 in his last three games and consistently bringing the type of high-flying, difference-making energy and speed that he has become known for.

After the first few years of his NBA career were marked by inconsistency, Boucher has finally figured out how to unlock the best version of himself on a night-to-night basis. And he credits that to knowing his role and accepting it.

“I knew I was going to come back this season trying to help the team. I wasn’t trying to save the team. I wasn’t coming in here to try to change the whole motive of the team,” Boucher said about his immediate impact this season. “I knew what we were doing. I knew what the plan was. I knew that I could bring a lot of energy. And when I felt healthy, I knew that those were always the things I was going to be able to do.”

Boucher also credits his newfound habit of pre-game mediation for his improved ability to stay locked into the Raptors’ complex schemes over the course of ball games, which have slowed down for him as he has gotten more experience. It’s something he picked up during a rough spell early last season that he still continues to do before every game.

“Just to ease up my mind. Be free in my head,” Boucher says about why he meditates. “Obviously you play your best basketball when you’re free. And I think when you’ve got a lot of things going on, sometimes it’s stressful. So meditation just helped me with that: just bringing me to a place where I’m comfortable. And where I know I can do a lot of different stuff: focus on the game plan, defensive scheme, because we got a lot of things going on here. So, if you’re not ready mentality, it will be hard to follow the schemes, play offense, and give it your all. So meditation does a lot for me.”

As the fourth longest-tenured Raptor and the third oldest member of the team, Boucher has also taken on more responsibility as a leader over the past two seasons as the Raptors have skewed younger and asked more out of their fifth-year big man.

Boucher says he learned a lot from veterans like Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, bearing witness to all types of leaders. And as someone who has experienced his fair share of ups and downs in his career, Boucher is using some of the leadership skills that he picked up along the way to help guys who are going through tough times themselves.

“I think I’ve seen it all and I deserve everything that I have,” Boucher says. “That’s something that I can bring to the team but also something that I can teach. Obviously, people, when they come into the league, they go through ups and downs and they don’t really know how to deal with it. But I feel like I’m in a good position to help with that and I know that when things are going [poorly] and you’re not making shots and all that, you can still turn things around pretty quickly.”

Fred VanVleet calls Boucher one of the “glue guys” on the team along with veterans Thad Young and Otto Porter Jr., saying that “Boucher has turned into one of those guys… that just settle things down.”

VanVleet isn’t surprised to see the success Boucher is having even if it took him longer than some people to find his niche in the league.

“It’s just a mindset thing,” VanVleet said. “It takes guys different times to carve out a role in this league and Chris figured it out.”

“I think he’s gonna play a long time in this league and he can do what he’s doing. The crazy part is he’s so much better than what he’s even doing now, which is the scary part. He’s got a lot to give and I think the more he learns the game and finds his niche, he’ll be a great player for us coming off the bench.”

Another team that hopes to see Boucher be great for them is the Canadian senior men’s national team, who recently qualified for the 2023 FIBA World Cup.

While Boucher has never played for the senior team and was not named to the 14-man “Summer Core” released in 2021 — which necessitated that players commit their next three straight summers to the program in order to build continuity for the 2024 Olympics — his feelings have changed.

At the time, Boucher was in the final year of his NBA contract and focused on resolving that before risking his health to play international basketball. Now that he is signed long term, however, Boucher is open to the possibility of playing for Canada at the World Cup next summer and/or at the Olympics in 2024 if they will have him.

“If the opportunity comes, I’ll be ready to play. I feel like for three years I’m on contract now, so I don’t really have anything to lose,” Boucher said. “If it’s to represent Canada, why not?”

For the time being, Boucher is happy to be one of only three Canadian players in the NBA to play for the Raptors, Canada’s team, saying the feeling of playing at home never gets old. This past summer, he started the SlimmDuck Foundation to give back to underserved youth in Montreal, where he grew up.

Sometimes he thinks about all the players who have come and gone in his time as a Raptor, including Canadians like Cory Joseph and Oshae Brissett, and he feels lucky to be able to play on Canadian soil for so long.

“[After] all that I’ve seen,” Boucher says. “It’s definitely a blessing.”

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