When Gary Trent Jr. grabbed the rebound off Raul Neto’s missed layup attempt with just over five seconds remaining, OG Anunoby—a player who Toronto recently re-signed and has established himself as a crucial piece of the new core—was right next to him having contested the shot. Moving further downcourt was Pascal Siakam, the man tasked with the unenviable task of being The Guy since the Raptors’ championship run.
As “the new guy,” it would have been perfectly normal to pass the ball off to one of those players and “fit in”—you know, make good with the established members of the franchise as he makes his case to be one of them by the time his restricted free agency comes up at season’s end.
Instead, Trent Jr. raced up the court with opportunity in front of him. He’d built his own scouting report on Neto having seen him try to draw an offensive foul on Immanuel Quickley in New York just a couple weeks ago and had the confidence his hard dribble followed by a behind-the-back pull-up would prove too good a move. Preparation gave him the confidence, and his shot gave the Raptors a buzzer-beating win that had eluded them—and specifically Siakam—in excruciating fashion several times before.
“I’ve always had it, I’ve just never really had the ability to use it or do it in whatever circumstances I’ve been in,” Trent Jr. said of showing off aspects of his game that weren’t quite on display playing alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. “But now I’m getting the opportunity to be put into certain situations to show what I can do—or not even show, to have to do something in order to win. Just an opportunity thing. Being here, the coaching staff believing in me, telling me to keep going. My teammates keeping me involved and making me feel a part of this.”
When Norman Powell was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, it hit him and his now former teammates hard. His personal essay in The Player’s Tribune reflected on his belief that he could be a part of the next great Raptors team and Anunoby’s confusion over the deal. Meanwhile, Fred VanVleet has insisted that despite understanding the nature of the business he is still uncomfortable with the idea of trades and seeing those he grows close to forced out.
“I still get so much love from the fans throughout the Internet, good game, bad game, every DM, everything. They’re still showing love regardless. I can only imagine what it’s like in person.”
There are hardly better ways to ingratiate yourself with a new team than with a buzzer-beating game-winner and through six games, Trent Jr. is averaging 16.7 points and 3.3 rebounds while shooting 41.9 percent from deep and more than holding his own on the defensive end as well. The effort he makes to connect with his teammates is noticeable as well. He bonded with Anunoby on a plane ride that featured several topics of discussion but mainly NBA 2K trash talk, he’s learned to pronounce Yuta Watanabe’s name correctly, and could be seen encouraging Chris Boucher to keep shooting despite a cold start in the Wizards game.
“I just want to be a great teammate, help everyone out,” Trent Jr. said. “I would hope if I’m in a position where I’m on the court messing up, somebody would try to help me too. Just being out there to be a void, trying to help any way I can, whether that’s me yelling on the sideline when our second unit is bringing us back into the game—shout out to them, because they did a hell of a job tonight—or on the court yelling at someone to keep going.”
When sacrificing the institutional knowledge and the relationships that Powell had built up, this is exactly the type of player you hope to acquire in return. Powell will forever be a part of Raptors’ lore as a member of the championship team and memorable playoff runs before it, but as the franchise looks to connect the dots between then, now, and tomorrow with a new core, Trent Jr. is showing with each and every opportunity that he fits the bill of how the Raptors want to build. During interviews he comes across as someone with a calm demeanor, quiet confidence, and swag always on point. Think of those who have been moved via trade in the franchise’s recent memory: Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, and Powell. Ross was traded for Serge Ibaka, a two-way player, ditto Kawhi Leonard, ditto Trent Jr. Alongside VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and Lowry while he’s around, there is the construct of players who have the ability to excel on both ends.
And this isn’t just about the future, either. For all their struggles this season, Toronto is now a game behind the Chicago Bulls for the final play-in tournament spot and there is every inclination that that is top of mind over the final 20-plus games.
“There are no quitters on this team,” Trent Jr. said. “Everybody is communicating in the huddle. Everybody is listening to Coach Nurse. Everybody believes what our coaching staff preaches. Everybody believes in one another. If I miss a shot, P misses a shot, OG misses a shot, just always encouraging each other to keep going. Everybody has fight. Everybody goes hard. Everybody’s trying to win. That’s what’s over here.”
After a terrific performance in the Orlando bubble for the Blazers last season, Trent Jr. rejected a four-year extension worth approximately $54 million to bet on himself and see an even bigger pay day. He will likely command a figure in excess of that in the off-season, but how much higher will be interesting to see. The added bonus he provides the Raptors is that his current salary is so low it would allow Toronto the chance to add another core piece via free agency first—if Lowry moves on—before re-signing their shooting guard of the future.
Dollars aside, Trent Jr.’s seamless fit is appreciated on both sides, and perhaps some of that lies in everyone seeing the obvious: Trent Jr. looks great in a Raptors uniform. Fans haven’t been able to see that at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, but they, too, have shown their appreciation in the ways they can. And for what it’s worth, Trent Jr. himself can’t wait to get a real feel for what it’s like to play basketball for Toronto.
“The organization and my teammates have done a great job of that: making sure I feel part of something, as if they want me here,” Trent Jr. said. “I still get so much love from the fans throughout the Internet, good game, bad game, every DM, everything. They’re still showing love regardless. I can only imagine what it’s like in person. I cannot wait to get out there.”