Chris Boucher has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the NBA season. And on a Toronto Raptors team filled with against-all-odds success stories, his is the most improbable.

The mid-November weekend unfolded like any other during the NBA’s pandemic-shortened off-season. Chris Boucher spent most of it ensconced in his downtown Toronto condominium playing video games on his recently arrived PS5, killing time between workouts at the OVO Centre and hanging out with his long-time friend, manager and mentor, Ibrahim Appiah — chilling, basically, his go-to vibe when not playing basketball. The main difference was that over the course of three days, Boucher’s future was unfolding and his past was rushing up to meet him. The chaos of NBA free agency was in full-swing, playing out at hyper-speed as the league tried to cram weeks of off-season business into a 72-hour window in advance of training camps opening. But the Toronto Raptors centre could only wait. As a restricted free agent the sinewy Montrealer understood his status would only be definitively addressed after the team attended to unrestricted free agents Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. The window to sign players opened at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 20, and Boucher met with Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster at a downtown hotel, with his New York-based agent, Sam Permut calling in via Zoom. Boucher was assured he figured prominently in the Raptors plans, they just couldn’t promise exactly how those plans would take shape. Through a lifetime framed by disappointments and close calls Boucher had trained himself not to hold his breath. Keeping expectations in check softened the blows.

Hour by hour, the dominoes fell. On Saturday morning Ujiri and Webster took MLSE’s corporate jet to Chicago to meet with VanVleet and his agent at the downtown Waldorf Astoria to solidify a four-year contract for $85 million. That afternoon they flew to Cancun, Mexico to meet with Ibaka, with both sides confident there was a deal to be reached that would keep the veteran big man in Toronto for another season. But talks hit a snag. Multiple contenders were in the hunt for Ibaka, who was coming off a career season, and the Los Angeles Clippers ultimately offered him a two-year contract for $19 million, topping the one-year, $12-million offer the Raptors made in order to keep payroll flexibility for the summer of 2021. Ibaka was no longer an option. Gasol was no sure thing either, with the Los Angeles Lakers offering a chance to win a ring alongside LeBron James and a two-year deal. Boucher, the Raptors’ third-string centre from last season, was suddenly a must-have, the only returning big man still under team control. Raptors executives had been in touch with Permut throughout the day, and on Saturday evening he called Boucher with the outline of an offer that would make him a millionaire, several times over.

It was more money than he ever could have dreamed of as a high-school dropout working at a fast-food restaurant for minimum wage, whose first experience with organized basketball came after his 19th birthday. More than he could have imagined as he embarked on a journey that took him from the streets of Montreal to rural Quebec, and on to the dusty desert of New Mexico, the frozen wilds of Wyoming and the verdant green of Oregon. More than he thought he would ever make when he tore his ACL in his draft year; or when he was waived after his first season as a pro; or when he was a late addition to the Raptors’ Summer League team, languishing on the bench, his NBA future hanging by the slimmest of threads. “Expect a final offer in the morning,” Permut had said.

“Is this really happening?” Boucher asked Appiah. Eventually they went to bed. Neither of them slept.

Even before his breakout, Boucher possessed an unshakeable self-assurance. "I've always somehow, someway felt like I was okay,” he says.

The Toronto Raptors roster is the NBA’s version of an online reseller specializing in rare, vintage finds; a thrift store turned boutique. In a league that favours designer fashion, they are an organization of hand-me-downs and returns that under their care are transformed into essential pieces, if winning is the desired look. They became the first team to win a championship without a player taken 14th or higher in the draft since the mid-1950s, when teams could fill their rosters with territorial picks. Last season they played at a 60-win pace after losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and decorated veteran Danny Green, replacing their minutes mostly with in-house talent. This year they have seven undrafted players in their lineup, eight drafted 21st or lower, and 13 that have spent time in the G-League. They all have stories, and every time head coach Nick Nurse — who himself needed 25 years of coaching experience on the fringes of professional basketball before making it to the big time — looks down his bench, he meets eyes with another dreamer, another NBA career that almost didn’t happen.

Catching his attention more than almost anyone else this season has been Boucher, who — even by Raptors’ standards for found treasure — has been one of the franchise’s most remarkable success stories: the equivalent of finding a full-length cashmere coat deep in a closet under some forgotten bed sheets. Boucher’s not without gifts, it’s just that even his strengths have perceived weaknesses. The rangy centre has the wingspan of a condor but the thigh circumference of a seagull. Despite the diligent efforts of team nutritionists and the sport science staff, and after years of protein shakes and late night feasts, he still barely carries 200 pounds across his 6-foot-9 frame. He’s an effective shooter, but has a form no one would teach. He runs well, and can effortlessly keep up with the pace of the modern NBA, but his brakes don’t always kick in at the right time. His basketball IQ has come miles, evident in his improved shot selection (he turns some down now) and smarter defensive rotations, but sometimes his lack of experience still shows in the passes he makes, or his technique when guarding smaller ball-handlers.

“I got the application and figured it was a mistake, just some kid listing his wrong height to get attention.”

And yet? Boucher has been one of the most pleasing surprises in basketball this season, arriving in his fourth year as one of the NBA’s leading bench contributors — earning early consideration for Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player. Through 26 games, he was the only player in the league to average at least 1.5 blocked shots and 1.5 made threes per game while posting a true shooting percentage of .650 or better — scoring efficiency typically reserved for the Steph Currys and Kevin Durants of the world. He is the underdog’s underdog: “You can’t be happier as a teammate, as a brother, as a friend to see him succeed and to see him play at the level that he’s been playing at,” said VanVleet after Boucher strung together a six-game stretch earlier in the season where he averaged 20 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots on 67-per cent shooting, including 54 per cent from three. “He’s been carrying his weight. He’s been playing great. I’m just super happy for him, I’m proud of him, and we just need him to continue to keep making strides each day.”

Boucher needed to progress by leaps and bounds to make it this far on a timeline that defies logic. While he profiles as a young player finally seeing regular minutes, his birth certificate says differently. At 28, he’s two years older than VanVleet and a year older than Pascal Siakam, who is considered a late bloomer because he didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 16. Those who know Boucher and the details of his path struggle to put it in proper perspective. On one hand, he is athletically gifted, even by the standards of the NBA. During biometric screening at the University of Oregon, Boucher’s resting heart rate was measured at 38 beats per minute, a number more commonly found among world-class marathoners or the peloton at the Tour de France. The ability was there, and the competitive fire too. But on the other hand, the chances of someone who hasn’t played serious basketball as a 19-year-old making the NBA in five years’ time is like betting on someone to launch a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund without having passed a high-school math course, or even owning a laptop.

It wasn’t only that a young Boucher wasn’t known within Montreal’s tightly knit elite basketball scene, it was that possibility of his presence had been dismissed: in early 2012 he inquired about playing ‘real’ basketball by filling out an online application for an upcoming tryout with QC United, then one of Quebec’s elite club teams. “I got the application and figured it was a mistake, just some kid listing his wrong height [6-foot-9] to get attention,” says the club’s founder, Igor Rwigema, who prided himself on his exhaustive knowledge of the city’s basketball prospects. “I even looked him up on Facebook, but the only picture [on] there was of him sitting down, so that was that. This guy did not exist.”

In a world of YouTube hype videos and Instagram prospect posts, being tall and talented and still going unnoticed is difficult. “To have someone go to 19 years old and not even have anyone believe you exist in basketball, much less be on any kind of radar for recruiting — it just doesn’t happen,” says Luke Winn, the Raptors director of prospect strategy, who — in another life — wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated featuring Boucher prior to his final season at the University of Oregon with the sub-heading Where did Chris Boucher come from? “Chris, to me, was an incredible story that way.”

Boucher has been a crucial contributor for Toronto this season, stretching the floor with his shooting and putting in work at the rim on both sides of the ball

Having arrived in the city from Saint Lucia as an infant, Boucher was like thousands of other young immigrants clustered in Montreal’s north end — in need of a break, but with none coming. His working-class parents split up when he was nine and by the time he was 16 — having fallen out with his mother over her boyfriend and clashed with his father over his lack of direction — Boucher was some version of homeless; crashing when he could on friends’ couches and occasionally riding the overnight bus, staying warm for the price of a fare, headphones jammed on to cut out the noise. He had stopped going to school and taken a part-time job as a line cook at a St-Hubert. His only hobbies were video games and playing pick-up basketball with his friends at parks and recreation centres around the city, and even at that, he was no playground legend. As a 6-foot-1 arrangement of skin and bones with a strange, wind-up shot, limited ball-handling skills and even less knowledge of the nuances of the game, Boucher was just a guy. He dreamed not of the NBA, but of being able to afford his own apartment.

His basketball journey began in the spring of 2012. Boucher’s playground status had elevated thanks to the growth spurt that got him close to his NBA height. He was still worrisomely thin, but he could get his quirky game off at times, and with his shot-blocking instincts, could prevent almost anyone else from doing the same. He was playing basketball whenever he could, though there wasn’t much of a plan around it. “I was at the park from 5 p.m. to midnight. We used to play, like, the whole time,” he says. “I had no place else to go.”

“I was at the park from 5 p.m. to midnight. We used to play the whole time. I had no place else to go.”

When some friends asked him to play in the annual Hang Time tournament in Little Burgundy, Boucher figured, “Why not?” Cue the dream sequence: Playing real basketball for the first time in his life, Boucher dominated. He put up 44 points in a loss against Brookwood Elite, the Adidas-sponsored AAU club that has long been a pipeline for NCAA talent from Quebec’s hoops scene. The gym was buzzing. “That was just a good day,” Boucher says. “There are some days you come in and the basket looks super big and you feel like you can make every shot. That was one of those days and that’s how I got to 44, which is a lot of points, especially for someone who doesn’t play organized basketball. You don’t expect that. I could have had a bad day and never made it. So I don’t really take it for granted when I tell my story. I got lucky that somebody saw me.”

Rwigema was alerted by his brother about this anonymous wraith who was tearing things up and made his way to the gym for an 8 a.m. consolation final on a Sunday morning to see for himself. “After five minutes I was texting my brother: ‘This is crazy, how come no one knows about this kid?’” says Rwigema. “After the game, I walk up to him: ‘What’s your name?’ He says ‘Chris Boucher’ and I start laughing, and say, ‘So you actually do exist.’”

Rwigema immediately invited Boucher to join the basketball academy program he was starting in Alma, Que., where Appiah was the head coach. The goal was to find kids from Montreal who might have lacked a stable environment or a clear path, take them to the far reaches of the Saguenay region, five hours north of the city, and distill the long, dark winter into basketball and schoolwork. Boucher didn’t take too much convincing. “It was isolated, it’s completely different from Montreal,” says Appiah. “But I think the good thing for him around that time is the consistency [it provided] in his life, knowing that ‘I go to practice, go to class. I got a place to stay, a place to go eat, and I don’t have to run after things because everything is set up.’ There was some type of a schedule, you know, some normality. I think he was just happy to be in a structured situation. He was playing basketball, which he loved, [with] a group of people that he saw as family.”

Boucher thrived, proving an eager student and a quick learner, his potential showing early as Alma began punching above its weight on the prep school circuit. A trip to Rhode Island for the National Prep School Invitational in early 2013 changed everything. Boucher — still entirely off the radar — put up 29 points and 14 rebounds against a Blair Academy team that featured Marial Shayok, who eventually played for the Philadelphia 76ers. Alma blew out RISE Academy from Philadelphia, featuring future-Laker Kyle Kuzma, too. Boucher wasn’t just changing opponent’s shots at the rim, he was changing game plans. Appiah recalls one team spending their pre-game warm-ups practicing floaters rather than more conventional lay-ups before tipping off against the Quebecois glass cleaner.

“All the things you see now, you saw then. His talent just kind of screamed out at you.”

Suddenly Appiah and Rwigema were facing a line of Div. I coaches wanting the lowdown on their undiscovered star. Among them was Mike Mennenga, then an assistant at Canisius College in Western New York, who was more plugged in to the Canadian basketball scene than almost anyone, but had never heard of Boucher. “All the things that you see now — obviously at a higher level — you saw then,” says Mennenga. “[His talent] just kind of screamed out at you when you watched him.”

There were a couple of concerns. One was that given Boucher’s circuitous path through high school, it was clear that he was going to have to play two years of junior college before becoming academically eligible for Div. I. The other? “I think he weighed about 160 pounds,” says Mennenga. “That’s no exaggeration.”

In 2014–15 Mennenga moved on to the University of Oregon, joining Dana Altman’s staff on a rising powerhouse relying heavily on Canadian talent, including Dillon Brooks, now of the Memphis Grizzlies, and Dylan Ennis, now playing professionally in Spain. The Ducks were proving to be a crucible for future pros and were poised to break into the NCAA elite. But a good recruiter never forgets a 6-foot-9 shot blocker. Mennenga kept tabs on the bony kid with the offbeat backstory, so-so transcript and go-go motor.

Boucher dominated at Northwest, averaging 22.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.7 blocks and winning player-of-the-year honours

Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport is one of the longest walks in American air travel, and Boucher expected to be making it alone. Fine by him. He was getting off a redeye from San Francisco, connecting to Montreal. It was June 23, 2017 and he had just been waived by the Golden State Warriors, the reigning NBA champions bailing on the second year of his deal, bringing to a close an exasperating 15 months that featured great depths and not too many highs. He was a 25-year-old with one minute of NBA action to his name — yes he got a shot up, but he missed it — and otherwise limited marketable skills, coming off a career-threatening injury and a season in the G-League that was just… fine.

In a moment of synchronicity, his agent, Permut, looked down the corridor, sparsely populated early on a weekend summer morning, saw Boucher ambling along with head phones on and realized he had arrived home from a scouting trip at the same moment his newly unemployed client’s flight landed. Permut had represented Boucher for over a year. He was his first client. “We took a chance on each other,” the agent says. Boucher being waived after one season had not been part of the plan. They went to breakfast and talked about what happened with the Warriors, what had gone wrong, and what needed to change. “It was completely by chance,” says Permut. “But we sat and talked for like two hours about what needed to happen going forward. I think it was a defining moment for him and our relationship.”

Boucher had crammed in a lifetime of basketball experiences into the five years before his latest crossroad. After getting on the recruiting radar at the National Prep School Invitational, his once non-existent basketball career had blasted into overdrive. He’d first landed at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, about a mile from the Texas-New Mexico border. The head coach, James Miller, had signed off on an arrangement to bring in Boucher and a point guard from Alma, Nicky Desilien, based on a video of Boucher dunking almost without jumping at one end, blocking a shot at the other, and then pulling up for a three in transition — all in the first two minutes of a game.

Boucher was raw but at New Mexico he did what he seemingly always does when stepping onto the court: run hard, compete for rebounds, block shots and take threes, making his share. There were turnovers and mistakes, but also a nose for the ball that can’t be taught. “He’s obviously improved a lot, but being 100-per cent honest, am I surprised at what he’s doing [in the NBA]? Absolutely not,” says Miller, now as assistant coach at New Mexico State. “It was very clear from the first time we saw him and the first time we started coaching him: the sky is the limit for this dude.”

It wasn’t just his length or speed that stood out. Boucher could access energy that others couldn’t match. Miller was a stickler for conditioning and required his team to do a mile run on Fridays, quasi-competitive races that were typically won by his decidedly atypical centre, the team’s guards gasping behind. Miller also had a challenge where the team had to do 20 line drills in 20 minutes. The only players he’s ever had complete it? Boucher and Kenrich Williams, now playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“It was very clear from the first time we saw him: the sky is the limit for this dude.”

After spending one winter in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, Boucher’s odyssey took him somewhere most only visit on a fishing trip, Powell, Wyo., to play for the Northwest College Trappers, where he was 150 km east of Yellowstone Park and 45 minutes from the nearest Walmart. After a year of adjustment in New Mexico, he was ready to kill in Wyoming. He averaged 22.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.7 blocks while shooting 44.7 per cent from three and led Northwest to the national championship tournament, earning player-of-the-year honours en route. The long trip to Walmart and the separation from friends and family were a small price to pay. “I was playing well during that time and I kind of knew my goals,” he says. “So just tough it out, try to win and try to win junior college national player of the year. I knew I was going to college after that.”

But what would he do when he got there? The gap between junior college and the top rung of Div. 1 is significant. At Northwest, he was by far the best player and one of the most athletic prospects in the entire country. At Oregon, he would be sharing the locker room with several NBA prospects with their own unique talents. The goal was a national championship. The room for error was slim, and Boucher was still just three seasons removed from playing pick-up with buddies after a shift on the grill at St-Hubert.

He arrived on campus in the summer of 2015 to get a start on his course work and was immediately introduced to a higher level of competition and expectations. The first people he had to prove himself to were his fellow Canadians, with whom he shared an apartment but otherwise had little in common. Ennis and Brooks were from Brampton and Mississauga, respectively, the heart of Canada’s basketball boom. Given their affiliation with the high-flying CIA Bounce program — Ennis’s step-father Tony McIntyre, was one of the club’s founders, along with Mike George, who would eventually become Brooks’s agent — it was inconceivable to them that a Canadian capable of helping the Ducks win the national title was someone they hadn’t yet played with, against or even heard about. “I was like, ‘Okay, Mennenga, how good can he be?’” says Ennis, who was enrolled as a fifth-year senior after transferring from Villanova.

Boucher dropped a hint in one of their first pick-up games. “[Chris] didn’t have a clue about college basketball. He didn’t understand what a down screen was; he didn’t understand what a double-drag was. He had no basketball IQ, as far as terminology,” says Ennis. “But he could make plays. I remember the first time we played pick-up, he came up to half court where I was guarding the ball and doubled my man, and the guard just hit his man with the pass and the guy was wide open going to the rim, but Chris got all the way from half court to the rim to block the shot. And that’s what allowed us to be good, because even though he didn’t know the game so well, he was able to make up for it with dedication and hustle. He was a talent.”

Still, his fellow Canadians welcomed him with tough love. “I used to play 1-on-1 with them [Ennis and Brooks] every day and it was hard,” Boucher remembers. “They used to destroy me every time. I had no chance. All I knew was to shoot the three. I couldn’t really dribble, I wasn’t a post-up guy. I wanted to shoot threes and they would just bully me the whole time. That’s when I figured I had to make the next step, because I wasn’t there yet. I was JUCO player of the year and I get here and these guys didn’t care who I was. They went at me. Coach Mennenga coached me really, really hard, like to the point where I was his son: ‘You’re not good at this, you’re not good at that, you have to get better at this.’ A lot my coaches, they find a way to get under my skin; it makes me play better, and they did that a lot.”

Boucher improved and his teammates slowly became more and more amazed. “You couldn’t block his shot,” says Brooks. “And he was really hard to score on. And he never got tired. He wasn’t like a normal human.”

Boucher's fellow Canadians, Ennis and Brooks, showed him tough love when he arrived at Oregon, but he earned their respect with hard work and hustle.

There was only one more test. His first start for Oregon came against Baylor. The Bears centre was Rico Gathers, a 6-foot-7, 275-pound beast who ended up being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. “That’s the only time I’ve seen Chris — not scared, but nervous,” says Mennenga. “And we didn’t know what to make of it either. But Chris just did what Chris does. He’ll outrun you, he’s longer than you. Next thing you know he’s dunking on you and then he’s dropping a three on you. So that’s how he introduced himself to us. We knew it going in, but we got reaffirmed that night: Yeah, got something special here.”

Boucher set an Oregon single-season record for blocked shots in 2015-16 and the Ducks won their conference and made it to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament. With most of their key pieces returning for 2016–17, a championship seemed within reach.

When Winn was doing research for SI’s college basketball preview issue, Boucher’s name kept coming up in the data. The kid who didn’t have a clue about college basketball had averaged 18.7 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots per 40 minutes, with an offensive rating of 128.3 in his first season of major college competition. According to available statistics, the only other players who had ever put up 17/10/4 with an offensive rating of 120 or more to that point were Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony Towns, No.1 overall picks in the 2012 and 2015 NBA Drafts. That Boucher had made 38 threes distinguished him from both of them. He went from unknown to cover story in the space of 12 months.

“He went from unknown to cover story in the space of 12 months.”

But moving that fast, there were bound to be some speed wobbles. Boucher was knocked off-course in the semi-finals of the 2017 Pac-12 tournament when 260-pound Kingsley Okoroh of the California Golden Bears fell on him in a scramble for a loose ball. Boucher finished the game, but an MRI the next day revealed he’d torn his left ACL. His college basketball career was over and given that the draft was just three months away, his NBA prospects took a blow too. Mennenga called Appiah to deliver the news and broke down in tears. When Appiah called Boucher, he found him inconsolable. “I felt like I lost everything,” says Boucher. “I didn’t know if I was going to play basketball again … so it was really scary for me. And just the fact that it happened before the draft, it meant that I was [probably] going to be undrafted. And to this day, it still hurts that I didn’t play in the Final Four [Oregon lost to by a point to the eventual champion, UNC ]. I really think we could have won the national title.

“It just kind of took a lot [out of me] during that time,” he continues. “And I don’t think I was the best person. I don’t think I was the person you want to be around.”

Appiah recalls a lot of late-night phone calls from Boucher during his rehabilitation in Eugene. He had supplied his friend with examples of players who had come back from a similar injury; trying to keep him encouraged, trying to keep him from shutting down. “He was crushed,” says Appiah. “I was hoping he would have the strength to overcome in this seven-month, eight-month dark place that he was about to be in.”

The sun finally peaked through the clouds in July, when the Golden State Warriors signed Boucher to a two-way contract. He would train with the Santa Cruz Warriors of the G-League with an eye towards being promoted to the big team. He worked his way back from his knee injury in eight months, and made his G-League debut in November, and on the final day of the 2017–18 season he finally checked in for an NBA game. But what should have been a moment of triumph quickly soured.

While Boucher may have lacked experience at every stop on his rapid rise, he never lacked confidence. His self-belief is hardwired. “It might have been probably the first thing I noticed when I met him,” says Appiah. It was hard to miss. When they were first getting to know each other at Alma, Boucher promptly promised to dunk on him, which was a bit bold considering Appiah was his coach, stood 6-foot-4, was only a few years removed from playing Div. I basketball himself and outweighed Boucher by about 50 pounds. None of that mattered, and Boucher wasn’t joking. “He was really confident about it,” says Appiah.

Similarly, in his first summer at Oregon he found himself butting heads with Brooks; the unproven newcomer trash-talking the soon-to-be All-American and leading scorer. “After pick-up games he’d be talking. He always thought he was better than me, so I had to put him in his place,” says Brooks, who Boucher now describes as one of his best friends.

While Boucher is often described as laid back or quiet, it’s a mistake to think he’s shy or burdened by self-doubt. “I’ve always somehow, someway felt like I was okay. Even though I was not in the [same] position with the other kids and all that, I never saw myself as unworthy,” he says.

It’s a survival skill that helped him when there was so much uncertainty swirling when he was younger, and a source of strength he draws on when things seem bleak. “I think that that kind of [confidence], it’s important in his life,” says Appiah. “Because when you look at what he’s been through, it would have been easy for him to let things beat him, but I think he feels like he’s seen the worst, so what’s the worst thing that could happen? He’s the type that it doesn’t matter if you tell him he can’t do it, he’s trying to prove to you that he can do it. It’s a gift and a curse at times.”

“It's easy to make the NBA, but it's hard to stay.”

In his first year as a pro, it proved the latter. It didn’t take long for Boucher to shift from being devastated at going undrafted to being exasperated that he didn’t figure more prominently in the plans of the two-time defending NBA champions, and he let it show. The Warriors loved Boucher’s ability to run the floor and block shots, they just didn’t entirely agree with his assessment of where he should fit in their program. Boucher takes the blame for how things worked out. “When I went to Santa Cruz, in my head, I got in a comfort zone. I’m like, ‘Oh, I tore my ACL and I still got a two-way contract.’ I felt like I should be the one playing [big minutes] in the G-League, I felt like I should be one of the important pieces to the team,” he says. “I felt like I wasn’t getting the respect I needed … I felt like I knew more than what I really knew and I didn’t stay professional. I thought, you know, ‘I’m Chris Boucher. I used to be in Sports Illustrated,’ and all that. ‘Why am I not playing?’ And it kind of affected the way I was moving around and the way I was talking to people. That’s how I learned the hard way. I got waived and it gave me, you know, a slap in the face. … It’s easy to make [the NBA], but it’s hard to stay.”

These were the topics that came up when Boucher sat for breakfast at JFK with Permut. When he got another chance, how would he handle it if things didn’t go his way? The path he’d taken to the cusp of the NBA had been travelled at lightning speed, but it could come to an end in the blink of an eye. Humbled, Boucher pledged to improve, to better align himself with the realities of the business of basketball. He just needed another opportunity.

Boucher learned from his first pro experience in Golden State, and came to Toronto willing to buy-in and prove himself

The NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is where those seeking a chance come to be seen. Rosters are an odd combination of recent draft picks gently getting their feet wet in the pro game, returning prospects being given the keys to the car against a lower level of competition, and young pros already on the outside looking in, desperate to make an impression. By 2018, Winn, the SI writer, had embarked on a new career with the Raptors, one of the rare journalists to cross the membrane from observer to participant. One of his roles was to help identify the kind of fringe prospects needed to populate a Summer League roster, with bonus points if they had upside that might make them worthy of a training camp invite. Boucher’s availability caught Winn’s attention, but his eyebrow was raised. “When someone gets waived off a two-way, they [often] don’t come back,” says Winn. “That’s their shot and they kind of fade away after that.”

Winn did some digging, trying to make sure the hungry, humble kid he’d met in Eugene hadn’t gone off-track. He called Mennenga. “For me, it was high stakes even though it was just summer league, because it was one of the first guys I’d [be] recommending, and I remember saying to Mike, ‘You got to be honest with me. He’s not going to embarrass me if I vouch for him?’” Winn says. “I just needed to know that Chris was the same guy that I knew and believed in and nothing had changed.”

Mennenga assured him Boucher was still a person worth believing in. Among Boucher’s fans in the Raptors organization was Webster, the team’s general manager. Winn made his recommendation and the deal was done. For the first two weeks of July at least, Boucher was a Raptor. Beyond that? No guarantees.

Typically Summer League coaching duties are handled by an up-and-coming assistant, but in 2018, Nurse, newly minted as the Raptors head coach, wanted to run the bench to sharpen up his game-calling after spending the previous five years as Dwane Casey’s assistant. It was his decision who saw the floor out of his 12-man roster of prospects and suspects, and through the first two games of a five-game schedule, Boucher wasn’t one of them. “This is opportunity basketball for these guys,” Nurse said at the time. “The windows are short sometimes but when they’re out there they gotta take advantage of them.” Boucher was worried his window wouldn’t open.

“That was the lowest of lows,” says Permut of those first two games. “You get waived by Golden State and then you get two DNP-CDs [did not play-coach’s decision] in Summer League … I remember sitting in his hotel room with him and him just being discouraged, and he was wondering, ‘What can I do to get on the court?’ The night after the second game we basically decided, ‘Stay the course, stay locked in, you’re going to get an opportunity and when you do, make the most of it.’”

Boucher got his foot in the door in Game 3 and showed some promise, knocking down a pair of threes and challenging some shots at the rim. There were some jittery mistakes, too, but nothing fatal. “I didn’t think he looked that out of place out there,” Nurse said afterwards. “He did okay. We’ll give him another look.”

Boucher’s ‘lose yourself’ moment came in Game 4 against Denver. In 22 minutes off the bench, he had six blocks and scored 12 points on seven shots, including two more made threes, while adding two steals. His energy changed the momentum of the game and the Raptors came back for the win. “It was awesome,” gushed Nurse to reporters afterwards. “He did it all out there. How many blocks did he have? He had six officially, but it felt like 12. He banged an alley-oop, he hit a three. He was having fun out there. When I took him out with a minute to go, it was a good smile, you know what I mean? It was one of those really good smiles from a player for an opportunity seized.” Winn was watching, both pleased and relieved. “To me, that’s the pivot point in his Raptors career,” he says. “If he doesn’t do it then, what happens? That was big.”

“Raptors people would be watching our boxscores and they’d be like, ‘No way, Chris did it again.’”

The Raptors signed Boucher to a training camp deal soon after Summer League and were impressed when he immediately moved to Toronto and basically took up residence at the OVO Centre in preparation. There was one two-way deal available when the Raptors started training camp in Burnaby, BC, with five invitees fighting for it. But Boucher’s ability to seize the moment remained uncanny. At an exhibition game in Montreal — his first time playing in front of friends and family since leaving for New Mexico six years before — Boucher heard the sold out crowd at Bell Centre chant his name, and rewarded fans with a pair of threes and a blocked shot when he got some playing time late in a blowout win. Two days later he was signed to that two-way deal, his NBA goals back on track.

But there was one more obstacle. The Raptors had just landed Kawhi Leonard and, with eyes on an NBA title, were deep at every position. An opportunity to earn regular minutes for an unproven second-year pro was distant at best. Most of his time would be spent in the G-League with Raptors 905. How would he handle it?

Perfectly, it turned out. Healthy, motivated, and educated about what the inside of professional basketball looked like, Boucher was a revelation: Model citizen, model teammate and a nightly statistical aberration. “I remember talking to the Raptors people and they’d be watching our boxscores and they’d be like, ‘No way, Chris did it again,’” says Jama Mahlalela, who was then in his first year as the Raptors 905 head coach. “He was putting up huge numbers. When the ball went up, he was ready to play.”

His off-court approach was better, too. Boucher spent hours with 905 assistant coaches poring over film, trying to cram in the nuances that he’d been rushing through his career almost too quickly to pick up. And while his belief in himself remained strong as ever, he expressed it positively. “He always had a chip on his shoulder, like he felt he should definitely be playing,” says Duane Notice, who was one of the 905’s starting wings in his first G-League season, after helping lead South Carolina to the Final Four in 2017. “That year I was there, you could tell in our conversations — he wouldn’t be putting down anyone on the Raptors, but he’d say stuff like, ‘There’s no way I can be in this system and not be successful.’”

There was no moping, though, just more work and a longer-term focus. He would shuttle back and forth between the five-star luxury of NBA life with the Raptors and the more working-class G-League without complaint. “He never big-timed anyone,” says Notice. “[And] Chris would watch [loads] of film. Every time I’d come to the gym, thinking I’m early, Chris was there before me with [the assistant coaches]. His work ethic was definitely there.”

The numbers were there, too. He set a 905 record with 47 points in a single game and had a rare 10-block triple-double. Boucher finished the year averaging 27 points, 11 rebounds and 4.2 blocked shots a game. In February, his two-way contract was converted to an NBA deal. In April, he was named the G-League’s most valuable player and defensive player of the year. A year after being waived he was the best player in the league.

But his rookie season for the Raptors in 2019–20 had its share of challenges, too. Coming off a championship, Toronto remained a deep team with big goals. Boucher’s minutes came in spurts behind Gasol and Ibaka, with stretches of opportunities to light up the box score interspersed with DNP-CDs or garbage-time minutes. It wasn’t easy to manage, especially in a contract year, but Boucher had learned his lesson. “I mean, it was hard [to stay patient], just because you feel like you want to help the team and all that,” says Boucher. “But also, it wasn’t as hard as everybody believes just because I was still learning from Serge. I learned from Marc [and from] watching Fred, Pascal, Kyle. I still had a lot of stuff to learn because even now I’m playing and I’m still learning.”

After nine years of twists and turns, Boucher was not only developing a deeper understanding of the game of basketball, but of the business too.

Boucher delivered for the 905 and broke through at Summer League, earning a training camp invite and never looking back

Appiah’s and Boucher’s sleepless night had been for naught. Sunday morning came and went and his Raptors future was still unresolved. The hours kept ticking. The call finally came that evening, and the two friends huddled around the kitchen counter with Permut on speaker phone. The details were laid out. The Raptors were offering a two-year deal worth $13 million, though only with the first year guaranteed. Still, it was exponentially more than he’d made in his three years as a professional to that point, and the first hint of true security he’d ever known. Permut asked Boucher how he felt. “I think it’s cool,” he answered. Appiah? “I think it’s solid.” Permut took one more lap: “Everybody’s cool? Can I go back and tell them we’re good?” Appiah and Boucher nodded: “We good.”

There were no giddy celebrations or whoops of joy. Just relief. “I was just waiting on seeing what was going on. And when Serge and Marc decided to go elsewhere, you know, they told me they wanted me back,” Boucher says. “And I was definitely happy when I saw how much money they were ready to offer me. And it kind of gave me another step to my confidence and I just kind of figured out a way to be like, ‘Okay, they want me here.’”

He FaceTimed his mom back in Montreal and told her she wouldn’t have to work at the grocery store anymore, that her future and those of his sister and brother were secure. For the first time since embarking on his unlikely path, he could plan his next steps. “Your mind is more free,” says Boucher. “I would say that for sure. You know, knowing that your mom is good … your close friends — a lot of stuff I’ve been taking care of, and I can only focus on basketball.”

Appiah and Boucher had planned to pop champagne when the deal was made official, but never did. Instead they got some food delivered — Boucher’s favourite, Wagu steak and fried rice — and reminisced about their journey while they ate. They talked about what lay ahead, too. Getting his first meaningful contract signalled his arrival, but Boucher feels he’s just getting started. “This is my first year where I get to play regular minutes and actually be a part of a rotation,” he says. “And so obviously people are kind of surprised by what I’m doing and all that, but I feel like I’ve always seen progress in my game and just it’s about opportunities. And I’m always going to get better. The more I play, the more I would get better. And I say that all the time because I mean it. Every time I play or every time I do something during the year, I’m not coming back the same.”

Boucher’s unlikely past and bright future had united in a present that had been a long time coming. To him, the meaning was clear: “I would say to people, ‘Live your dream,’” he says. “Knowing that it’s going to take some time, there’s going to be some obstacles, there’s going to be some hurdles. But it’s never not possible to make it.”

He slept well and on Monday morning, he woke up and went to the gym.

Photo Credits

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images; Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images; Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images; Courtesy Northwest College; Courtesy Getty Images; Mike Stobe/Getty Images; Michael J. Le Brecht II/NBAE via Getty Images.