Maasai Ujiri knows the game.
He’ll dance around questions, playing coy with Toronto Raptors media, and give away just enough soundbites to keep those gathered in attendance something to be happy with. There’s no reason for him to reveal the entire extent of his offseason plans, who the team is targeting in free agency, or how they want to negotiate with their upcoming free agents. I mean, anyone who would reveal that information doesn’t understand how leverage works.
And yet, if you parsed his words during his season-ending media availability, the Raptors president and vice-chairman seemed to reveal at least one nugget of free agent news.
“Pascal (Siakam) needs to make a jump. Fred (VanVleet) needs to make a jump,” he said earlier in the week. “Precious (Achiuwa), (Chris) Boucher, all these guys need to make a jump.”
Did you spot it?
Here’s a hint: Boucher isn’t under contract for next year. He and Thad Young are the only Raptors rotation players heading into free agency this summer, but if you didn’t know any better it almost sounded like Boucher was locked up on a long-term deal. Weird, huh?
It’s not hard to see why the Raptors would want to keep the Canadian forward around through next season. After years of inconsistent play from the former undrafted 6-foot-9 forward, Boucher finally figured out the secret to the NBA: Accept your role.
Looking at Boucher’s box score stats, it would seem like he regressed this past season from what appeared to be a breakout 2020-21 campaign in Tampa. His points per game fell from 13.6 to 9.4, his field goal percentage dropped below 50%, he couldn’t reliably nail his three-point shots, and even his assists and rebounds per game dropped from the year before. Yet, ask anyone in the Raptors organization and they’ll tell you the 29-year-old played the best basketball of his career this year.
“This year started off pretty rocky for him — really rocky,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse who at one point moved Boucher out of the rotation in late November.
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But everything changed after Toronto’s Boxing Day fiasco in Cleveland when an outbreak of COVID-19 forced nearly everyone in the Raptors’ rotation out of the lineup. That night changed his life, Boucher said. He realized he wasn’t going to be the go-to guy or a top scorer on an NBA team and needed instead to accept his role as a high-energy, hustle player off the bench.
“He started impacting games. For me, it’s great as a coach when you’re sitting over there and the ball has gone up and you’re looking at the game and you’re like, ‘I can’t wait to get Chris and Precious in,’” Nurse said. “I’d call his name and he’d sprint from wherever he was on the bench to the scorer’s table and tear off his warmups and you could feel, ‘Here I come, man.’ He hit the court; he would make you feel it. It was a tremendous boost for most of the last half of the season, for sure.”
It takes a certain level of maturity to accept a bench spot and not to push for starter’s minutes or take ill-advised shots with the hope of trying to impress the coaching staff if they fall. For years, Boucher didn’t know that.
“I didn’t really enjoy doing hustle plays until I really realized that that’s what I was,” Boucher said during his season-ending media availability. “That’s something that I could grow from now. Bringing it every time.”
Every team needs that player. As VanVleet said of championship teams, it takes a sacrifice from everyone to win in the NBA. Remember how talented Toronto’s bench was in 2019? That bench was full of players who thought they could be starters in the NBA but were willing to come off the bench and play a role for the greater good of the team.
“It really honestly reminds me of my younger self and those Sixers teams when I was coming off the bench with Louis Williams,” said the 33-year-old young, a 14-year veteran who spent the better part of his first few NBA seasons as a bench player. “I would be an immediate spark off the bench, just out there jumping around, making shots and rebounding and always around the basketball and just having a crack for it. He does the same exact thing. Chris is a really good player, he knows his role, he knows how to play in his role.”
The Raptors are certainly going to work with Boucher to bring him back next season, as Ujiri seemed to hint at. On the heels of a two-year, $13.5 million partially guaranteed contract, he’ll get a raise, presumably something closer to $10 to $13 million per year for a couple of seasons. For him, it’ll come down to fit and finances, as it usually does.
“I haven’t even thought about it to be honest with you,” Boucher said last week. “I think I did a good job just to put myself and my family and everybody that worked and helped me out to get to this point, to put me in a good position for ourselves and making sure that we do the right decision for all of us because, like I said, I’m not alone in this. Like I said, I love Toronto, and Toronto did a lot for me. From the young player that came here that didn’t know much to who I am now, I owe it all to Toronto.”