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Seeding games will be crucial for bulked up Boucher

Chris Boucher added 15 pounds during the COVID-19 break, now it's time for him to make a final impression before the 2020 offseason
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The Toronto Raptors are heading toward a very interesting offseason this Autumn with nearly all of their bigs entering free agency at season's end.

The biggest question for the Raptors related to the frontcourt is what to do with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, Toronto's top two centers who will both enter unrestricted free agency.

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, the 2019-20 season was "frustrating" for the 35-year-old Gasol, who was never able to find a rhythm as he battled injuries for nearly the entire season. With Gasol out, the 30-year-old Ibaka stepped up, averaging more points than ever before in his career.

Though the NBA's salary cap remains unclear for next season due to the pandemic, it's fair to wonder if the Raptors will be able to retain both Gasol and Ibaka, while still keeping enough cap space open to sign one of the star free agents that will hit the market in 2021.

That uncertainty has made Toronto's eight seeding games particularly important for the Raptors' backup big, Chris Boucher who is heading toward restricted free agency this offseason.

Toronto's 6-foot-9, third-string center really came into his own this past season, finding a role for himself as a high-energy big off the bench for Nick Nurse's squad. He saw his minutes skyrocket from just 163 minutes last season to 724 this year, as he played in 55 of the Raptors' 64 games.

The knock on the 27-year-old Boucher has always been his weight. He's listed at 200 pounds and it's made him particularly vulnerable in the paint where he ranks in the 28th percentile in post-up defense, per NBA stats.

That frail stature created some serious concerns for Boucher, limiting his ceiling as a useful NBA big.

"I felt like I was falling on the ground a lot," Boucher said. "When I was dribbling the ball I was getting off-balance, or just focusing on contact so much, I was scared of the hits and stuff."

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So Boucher got to work during the COVID-19 break, bulking up 15 pounds and trying to expand his game. For the Raptors, the difference has been notable.

"He was good today, man, he was as good as he could be today," Nurse said after Friday's practice. "He's just all over the glass, running hard, making shots today really blocking shots. So he looks, it's hard to tell a little bit, but he looks better. I think there's some speed there, there's some energy, he kind of always has that stuff, but he physically looks better as well."

For Boucher, the extra weight has given him the strength to battle the Raptors' other bigs in scrimmages.

"I feel a lot stronger going for a rebound, boxing out," he said. "Me and Serge fight a lot on the box-outs and stuff and he's going at me to get better, so I can see the difference from the beginning of the season to now, how I can stay with him and fight."

Adding that extra weight was a savvy decision for Boucher, who will certainly use Toronto's eight seeding games as a tryout either for the Raptors' backup big spot next season or for a spot on any of the other 29 rosters if Toronto decides to let him walk.

While there are still questions related to his weight and post-up defense, he is among the most versatile bigs in the NBA and he offers the kind of shot-blocking prowess few other bigs can provide.

"It's almost like we want to let him roam a little freer which makes him better on the floor," Nurse said. "He can be a weak-side shot-blocker and he's also... a great shot contester or even a shot blocker for 3-points shot."

His switchability is something Boucher said he's been working on since his college days at Oregon. Though he spends almost all of his time at one of the big spots for the Raptors, he's been asked to defend guards or small forwards on over 35% of his possessions, per Krishna Narsu's Versatility stats

"I'm trying to work on that as much as I can," Boucher said of his versatility, "trying to switch screens, be able to guard a four, or if we switch one through five I'm able to guard a point guard or whatever, so at the end of the day if I'm able to play the four or the five that would be great."

With so much uncertainty this offseason, the Raptors' next few games will be key to deciding Boucher's future.