Who had Chris Boucher down for possible saviour of the Raptors' season before the first game tipped off?

You’d have to imagine not many. Boucher had some great moments a year ago, but the reality is he was playing behind Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. His two-year, $13.5 million contract (the second year is non-guaranteed) seemed a nice reward for stepping in admirably when either of those aforementioned names missed time, but his ceiling appeared limited due to his strength relative to his position as well as his positional awareness on defence.

Through the first 14 games of the 2020-21 season, though, Boucher has shown the first criticism isn’t as big an obstacle as many feared, and the second has been addressed in a major way. Averaging 15.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and shooting an obscene 48.1 per cent from three-point range in about 24 minutes a game, the Raptors have needed him far more than they might’ve anticipated.

Aron Baynes is still working his way towards being serviceable and Alex Len has been cut. Antonio Davis, Jonas Valanciunas, or Marcus Camby aren’t walking through that door. Toronto has been desperate for some production at the centre position and Boucher has provided that in spades. He tied a franchise record with six consecutive games with 15 points or more off the bench (an honour he now shares with Norman Powell) which helped the Raptors to three straight wins. Even his dud against the Miami Heat, where he finished with eight points, one rebound, and zero blocks, illustrated his novel importance to the team as the Raptors fell by nine.

"It’s gonna get better. We’ve got a long way to go."

“I think it’s getting there, just figuring out the shots I can take,” Boucher said on his growing comfort with playing at the highest level. “When to roll, when to pop, the defensive schemes, being able to switch sometimes. It’s all about reps. The more reps I get, the better it gets. I’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s getting better every game. I’m definitely happy with the process. It’s been a long one. It’s my third year now, so it’s been a long time learning the schemes and figuring out ways to help the team. It’s gonna get better. We’ve got a long way to go.”

While Boucher sees it as a long time, it is remarkable how far he’s come in this time. From working as a part-time cook and dishwasher at a St-Hubert restaurant in Montreal at the age of 16 to winning 2018-19 G League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year averaging 27.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 4.1 blocks and now being in the early conversation to win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, you can’t help but sit back and admire the steady rise through the dedication to his craft.

His head coach Nick Nurse recognizes the strides Boucher has made to become a better team defender and is encouraged that there still seems to be plenty of room to grow.

“He’s really close in making a lot of the right plays at the defensive end that he’s not quite getting to,” Nurse said. “He does make a lot, a blocked shot here and a big rebound there and those kinds of things but he’s really close to being a really solid defensive player.”

One way Nurse has looked to improve Boucher’s utility to the team and avoid a potential strength disadvantage against bigger centres is by having him switch out to the perimeter and using the strength of OG Anunoby or Stanley Johnson on opposing centres. It has allowed the 28-year-old to use his length to his advantage and his mobility allows him to still recover to make those highlight blocks we see.

“Got to get him used to all this switching because he’s going to be out there guarding primary ball-handlers a lot because they’re going to go set with their five-man a lot and if we’re switching it, he’ll end up guarding those guys. And I think he’s got the speed and quickness and length to do it. Just gotta get some more reps at it.”

One thing Boucher has certainly proven over the course of his basketball journey is that he makes the most of his reps. While some may have been deterred by his age and ACL injury in his final year of college ball as far as his developmental curve was concerned—he went undrafted and was later cut by the Warriors after he initially signed a two-way contract—the Raptors haven’t been ones to shy away from something like that. They have a history of drafting players after a full four years of college—and selected OG Anunoby despite concerns about his right knee injury that required surgery—and have consistently worked to develop players on their roster, no matter the age.

Serge Ibaka is a great example of a player who blossomed both on and off the court after getting traded to the Raptors. Leadership and passing were considered weaknesses of his game, but as time wore on in Toronto, he became much more vocal, set the right example consistently, and improved his passing and three-point shooting significantly.

With several key departures from their team, the Raptors have focused on bigger roles for their future core in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby. With each passing game, though, Boucher is staking his claim to be just as vital to Toronto’s future as he is to their present.