It's understandable if you looked at Toronto Raptors big Chris Boucher and didn't think he was an NBA player. Heck, in 2017 all 30 NBA teams passed on him before he was eventually scooped up by the Golden State Warriors as an undrafted free agent. At 6-foot-9, 200-pounds he looks more like the inflatable tube man than an NBA big.
But Fred VanVleet knows a prospect when he sees one, or so he says.
"I kinda knew it from the day I saw him," VanVleet said. "Just watching that manifest and watching him take his journey to get to this point here, even just within the last few years. It's great, man, and 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."
Consider me skeptical of VanVleet's scouting ability. Even if he did know Boucher was going to be special, did he really know he was going to be this special?
"I still don’t really know what it is, to be honest with you," VanVleet said with a laugh. "He’s just a baller, man, he’s just a gamer, he’s got that thing that you can’t see. You don’t really know what it is but he’s just got a great feel and just a great gamble about him where he makes risky plays, takes chances and they work out for him more than they don’t. So he doesn’t have a textbook jump shot, he doesn’t have the quote-unquote best frame that you want on a big guy and he just figures it out, man. He’s just a baller, he plays basketball, he’s a great basketball player and if you were creating a player I don’t think it would come out looking like Chris in any shape or form but I would take him on my team any day if we needed to win a ball game. I just love the fire and the heart that he plays with. You can’t put a price tag on that."
Boucher hasn't just been impressive for Toronto in this young season, he's been a revelation. He's putting MVP-worthy numbers on a per-minute basis, the kind of performances you from All-NBA superstars like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Kevin Durant.
Will it last at that level? Probably not. Boucher has always been known for being a streaky player. Usually, it's within a game, but with improvement this season he's been able to sustain this hot streak for a little bit longer.
"You never know until he throws three threes in and blocks a couple shots and gets a tip dunk. Like, you never know what you’re gonna get," VanVleet said. It’s kinda like the mystery with him because you’re just waiting and seeing. But as of late he’s been producing on a nightly basis."
That's where the argument for keeping Boucher on the bench comes from. He's an energy booster, the kind of guy that can come in five to ten minutes into a game and provide a spark. Typically, that's for a bench-starter unit alongside VanVleet, who has played 160 minutes with Boucher, the most any Raptors player has played with Toronto's undersized big.
"You just know you’re getting a big boost off the bench and he’s been a game-changer for us," VanVleet said. "This year and we’re gonna continue to need that. So I think in that spot, that role we’re in off the bench is giving us a spark and he’s been carrying us offensively a lot throughout quarters and making big plays. So we’re gonna continue to need him and I just love the way he’s been playing and we’re gonna need him to keep making more strides."
Maybe the biggest difference for Boucher this season has come in his pick-and-roll development. He's averaging 1.57 points per possession as the roll man in pick-and-roll plays, according to NBA Stats. That's in the 92nd percentile in the NBA and better than Utah's Rudy Gobert who averages 1.42 points per possession as the roll man on fewer possessions per game.
"I think Chris is a lob threat," Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said. "I think he trusts me. I've always been on him, 'hey, listen, set the screen, roll hard. This, that, I think he's always trusted me that I'm not going to put him in a bad position.
"I think that's the one thing I can say, he's always listened," Lowry added. "And a guy that's always willing to listen and learn from myself, Freddie, Pascal, is willing to learn and try to get better, it's huge for us."
Has it been perfect this season? No. There's still plenty of room for development from Boucher. It's not a matter of increasing his scoring output, as Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, it's more about becoming more consistent, especially on the defensive end.
"It's all about communication," Lowry said of Boucher's defensive positioning. "If you continue to talk to [Boucher], continue to communicate with him, he'll get better and better. He'll be in the right spot. You just got to continue to kind of vocalize where you want to be and how he can impact the game."
If the Boucher can develop on that side of the ball the way he's progressed on the offensive side, he might really become a long-term bright spot for Toronto.