Chris Boucher, a Raw 25-Year-Old, is on a Mission to Prove He's NBA Worthy
Boucher got his start in basketball late and is older than most longer-term projects, but the lanky Canadian teases with game-changing upside.
Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
For a player who found the game of basketball so late, Chris Boucher has already done his share of waiting. There are good kinds and bad kinds of waiting. Boucher is a little too positive and a little too confident to worry when faced with the latter. Maybe he's used to it, given the path he's taken to the doorstep of the NBA. Maybe he just knows it will all be worthwhile.
If Las Vegas Summer League with the Toronto Raptors the last week has been any indication, not only will Boucher's wait eventually be worth it, he'll have been worth the wait.
"I always have confidence in myself, I've just had to wait," Boucher says. "Obviously, I was waiting for a chance to show what I was capable of doing and it came. I just had to stay ready. Always stay ready, you never know when your chance is coming. I was waiting for my chance, coach gave me my chance, and I showed what I'm capable of doing with it."
It does not take long to see the intrigue with Boucher, the incredibly rare "raw" 25-year-old prospect. His career to this point has been oft-abbreviated and not lined with the typical developmental resources, and so it's easy enough to look past his advanced age and wonder what he could become with the right system and instruction. He is 6'10" with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, terrific top-end speed, and great bounce for a power forward or center. Despite the relative inexperience, his shot-blocking instincts are elite, even if the opportunities sometimes come because he's out of position. With a still-emerging 3-point shot, an OK face-up game, and quality scoring instincts around the rim, Boucher has enough of an offensive baseline to dream on his defensive potential, especially if he can add any amount of strength to his spindly 200-pound frame and project as a hyper-modern center.
It took some time in Vegas for Boucher to get to show any of this, something he's become a little too accustomed to by now.
Why Boucher's position in Vegas is so unique requires a quick rewind. Initially, Boucher seemed to be waiting for a path. As detailed in a tremendous Sports Illustrated cover story from 2016 coincidentally written by Luke Winn, who is now the Raptors director of prospect strategy, Boucher bounced between—and in and out of—Quebec high schools, playing basketball only in parks and at recreational centers. It wasn't until he was 19, going on 20, that Boucher was noticed at a local tournament.
The story runs longer than that, but Boucher found his way to New Mexico Junior College and then Northwest College, waiting for the chance to take the big step necessary to get on the professional track. It came in the form of a scholarship offer from Oregon following an NJCAA Player of the Year nod, and Boucher's first season there put him firmly on the NBA radar. His second season was going nearly as well when, in a Pac-12 Tournament game, Boucher tore his ACL.
Back to waiting. This time, Boucher was waiting to see whether an NBA team would see all of the potential he showed at Oregon and take a chance. The first round was likely out of the question, but with all of the raw tools he'd flashed, maybe someone would find value in his rights as a second-round rehabilitation project. They did not, and instead the Golden State Warriors signed him to one of the league's first ever two-way contracts, guaranteeing Boucher a decent downside and the chance to recover under an NBA medical staff.
This wait was the toughest and the sweetest. For months, Boucher rehabbed his knee, finally getting into action with the Santa Cruz Warriors on Jan. 17. It did not take him long to pick up where he left off, even though he didn't feel back to 100 percent until very late in the season. In 20 games, he'd average 11.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks in just 22.2 minutes, and over his final 11, those spiked to 15.4, 9.4, and 2.2—numbers he knows off the top of his head.
"I know my numbers, yeah. I was looking for it," he says with a smile. "I feel like I definitely showed what I was capable of doing. Blocking shots, running the floor, grabbing rebounds. I definitely ended up showing exactly what I can do."
On March 14, he'd play 1:19 against the Los Angeles Lakers in his NBA debut, becoming the record-setting 14th Canadian to suit up in the NBA that season. Given where he'd come from, the intermittent waiting and the long road were deemed worthy of a documentary, Grind Now, Shine Later, produced by the G League. Boucher really is a movie come to life.
"I mean, every time I think about it, it's crazy that now I can see NBA players all around me, and a few years ago I was playing with guys that were working 9-to-5, and I was one of them, too. I'm definitely appreciative. I'm enjoying the whole ride of it," he says. "It felt good, you know? Especially when I got hurt, I didn't see myself coming back, and all that. When I saw that I was getting stronger and my knee was getting better, it felt good for me to just realize that all the work that I put in ended up making me be an NBA player."
The bliss was short-lived. Boucher didn't see the floor again, didn't travel regularly with the team during the playoffs, and, despite the Warriors winning the championship, current plans do not call for Boucher to receive a ring, per a Golden State rep (he is the first two-way player to ever be on a title team; Quinn Cook had been converted to an NBA deal). Shortly after the season ended, the Warriors waived Boucher, justifiably suggesting they wanted to use their two-way slots on players who could conceivably contribute to the NBA team in 2018-19.
Boucher had a quick opportunity to get back on the minds of inquiring teams, suiting up for Canada Basketball for the first time in his career in a pair of exhibition games against China. Caveats aside, he wowed with his ability to block shots all over the floor and impressed teammates like Melvin Ejim with his scoring ability throughout the camp. Ultimately, head coach Jay Triano felt Boucher was a little too far behind the rest of the loaded frontcourt in terms of understanding the system at both ends, but Boucher at least landed the Summer league gig with the Raptors by the end of Canada camp.
And so most recently, Boucher has found himself waiting for an opportunity there. Like with Canada, the Raptors felt Boucher was just a little behind the learning curve, and so he didn't appear in either of the team's first two games, then received a 13-minute cameo in their third, knocking down a pair of threes.
Then, the following game, Raptors coach Nick Nurse unleashed Boucher, playing him 22 minutes in an elimination contest against Denver. All of that waiting had apparently been bubbling up, as Boucher took full advantage. He once again knocked down a pair of threes, dished an assist, and showed good instincts for cutting off the ball for a couple of easy buckets around the rim. More notably, he blocked six shots, adjusted a handful of others, and came up with two steals to kick-start a strong transition attack and a frantic second-half comeback. He'd finish plus-20, earning rave reviews from the staff.
"It's unbelievable. He's come a long way in a very short [time]," Nurse says. "We've only been here a week, I had never seen him in my life until seven days ago. And the funny thing is, like, he's young right? And he doesn't understand some of the things we're doing, so as a coach sometimes you think, 'Well he doesn't really understand what we're doing.' Then he gets in the game and decides, 'I'm just going to play my butt off and run hard and do some things,' and that's more important, but it's hard to see those things as a coach sometimes... When I took him out with a minute to go it was a good smile, it was one of those really good smiles from a player for an opportunity seized."
Herein lies the great philosophical question with Boucher. He was unable to show enough over a week of workouts to get playing time out of the gate. When he did, he enthralled. There's no telling if it will come consistently, but in a Summer League environment where a lot of would-be role players are trying to show they can hang, Boucher teases with game-changing upside.
That he hasn't yet had a healthy NBA offseason to work on skill development, better learning the game, and most importantly to hit the gym and add functional strength is an important consideration. Yes, Boucher is older than most longer-term projects out there—Bruno Caboclo is 22, for example—but he also got a very late start, traveled a circuitous path, and hasn't had many breaks, waiting time after time to gather real career momentum.
"It's been a while, it took me a while to get back from my injury, so now that I have a full summer where I'm healthy, I can definitely work on my body," he says.
He is almost certainly worth another two-way contract from someone, because the developmental question is worthwhile to try to answer. The Raptors certainly haven't ruled it out, not after the reminder he served during his recent Summer League play.
"That's kinda the question mark," Raptors assistant general manager Dan Tolzman says. "I don't know how much he's been given the opportunity to do so. I think everyone knows he's not a finished product. What you can tap out of a 25-year-old at this stage? That's maybe the hesitation for some teams. But I think the connection with Canada, and the fact that we were pretty intrigued with him as a college player, too, it's at least worth exploring."
When the Raptors continue their Summer League schedule, Boucher figures to factor in prominently once again. If he can string together consecutive outings showing why a 25-year-old is still of genuine interest to the league, this latest wait—for another NBA opportunity, and for a real chance to develop with a healthy NBA summer—should be his shortest yet.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.