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The Most Interesting Free Agent on the NBA’s Open Market

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Chris Boucher doesn’t seem like a typical NBA player. Sure, he’s 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, and sure, he can shoot and defend—but he also checks in at only 200 kilos. He’s not quite a member of the Thin Towers, but he’s not far removed: His weight ranks forty sixth among the many 47 players his height last season, in response to Stathead, and is 28 kilos lighter than that of the typical 6-foot-9 NBA player.

And the reserve big man didn’t enjoy the best 2021-22 season: In 80 games, he averaged only 9.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 0.3 assists per contest. Even on a Raptors team that leans heavily on players of his height and skill set, Boucher, in his age-29 season, was relegated to 21 minutes a game.

Those demerits have made Boucher a comparatively anonymous free agent. ESPN didn’t include him in its list of the highest 15 available free agents. NBC listed 30 names, none of them Boucher’s. He snuck onto Hoops Hype’s list, but only at no. 27.

But, strange proportions or not, lackluster stats or not, Boucher deserves to attract rather more interest. Last seen posting a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double because the 76ers eliminated his Raptors from the playoffs, this anomalous player offers legitimate two-way potential and is an ideal fit for the direction of contemporary basketball. He won’t swing the title race by himself, but he’s essentially the most underrated free agent of the summer.

While his surface stats lack oomph, Boucher seems to have a knack, yr after yr, for making his team higher when he’s on the ground. He’s led the Raptors in net rating in each of the past two seasons. In that regard, he’s much like Alex Caruso and up to date Sixers acquisition De’Anthony Melton, two guards who post middling box rating stats but impressive impact figures.

The most effective genre of statistic to measure this phenomenon is RAPM, or regularized adjusted plus-minus, which takes the online rating a team has with a given player on the court and adjusts for the identity of his teammates and opponents. As proof of concept, listed below are the highest dozen players in RAPM through the past three regular seasons, per NBA Shot Charts:

  1. Kawhi Leonard
  2. Jayson Tatum
  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  4. Rudy Gobert
  5. Stephen Curry
  6. Joel Embiid
  7. Chris Paul
  8. LeBron James
  9. Alex Caruso
  10. Paul George
  11. Nikola Jokic
  12. Kevin Durant

Ignore the order (most of those players are bunched fairly closely together) and that’s a reasonably accurate representation of the league’s best players. The one outlier is Caruso, an elite role player.

Boucher doesn’t seem like a superstar by RAPM, but he grades quite well. The backup big ranks fortieth amongst all players through the past three seasons, one spot behind Jamal Murray and two behind Marcus Smart. RAPM says he makes his team 2.8 points higher per 100 possessions, which is a meaningful margin.

Granted, no one would actually suggest Boucher is a top-50 player within the NBA—but he has a number of superlative strengths. First, despite his slender frame, Boucher is a rangy shot blocker, each on the rim and on the perimeter. Through the past few seasons, only Matisse Thybulle has blocked more 3-pointers than Boucher, who uses his speed and 7-foot-4 wingspan to shut out on unsuspecting shooters.

He’s also an opportunistic offensive rebounder, a skill that will be ignored in a league that doesn’t prioritize crashing the boards but nonetheless can swing playoff games. (Just ask the Warriors and Kevon Looney.) Sometimes, Boucher grabs the offensive boards himself; other times, his positioning helps his teammates do the honors. Last season, the Raptors grabbed 4.3 percent more offensive rebounds when Boucher was on the ground versus when he wasn’t, per Cleansing the Glass—the third consecutive season they’ve been a lot better on this area with Boucher.

Mix each of those strengths, and Boucher is one among only a half-dozen players with a minimum of 3,000 minutes played prior to now three seasons to exceed a ten percent offensive rebound rate and a 5 percent block rate. And he’s the one member of this group with any 3-point range to talk of.

High Block and Offensive Rebound Totals, Last Three Seasons

PlayerBLK%ORB%3P
PlayerBLK%ORB%3P
Chris Boucher6.210.7196
Hassan Whiteside8.014.24
Jakob Poeltl5.812.91
Mitchell Robinson7.015.30
Robert Williams III7.514.30
Rudy Gobert5.812.10

This chart includes players with a minimum of 3,000 minutes played during the last three seasons, and a minimum of a ten% offensive rebound rate and 5% block rate in that span.

(Chill out the minutes limit and a number of more bigs like Isaiah Hartenstein also make this list, albeit as more non-shooters. Hartenstein, also a free agent-to-be, places one spot behind Boucher on the RAPM leaderboard, too.)

Boucher isn’t as nimble a passer or as physical a defender as Williams, but his 3-point stroke adds a component that Williams doesn’t possess. The massive query for Boucher is just how real his shot is. He boosted his 3-point accuracy to 38.3 percent in 2020-21, then fell back to 29.7 percent last season. The league as a complete was worse from distance last season, after playing in mostly empty gyms in 2020-21, but Boucher’s drop was one among the biggest for any player.

Biggest 3-Point Percentage Declines Last Season (Min. 150 Attempts)

Player2020-212021-22Change
Player2020-212021-22Change
Ty Jerome42.3%29.0%-13.2%
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander41.8%30.0%-11.8%
Reggie Jackson43.3%32.6%-10.6%
Marcus Morris47.3%36.7%-10.6%
Joe Ingles45.1%34.7%-10.4%
Julius Randle41.1%30.8%-10.4%
Cameron Payne44.0%33.6%-10.3%
Frank Jackson40.7%30.8%-9.8%
Jeff Green41.2%31.5%-9.7%
Chris Boucher38.3%29.7%-8.6%

Several pieces of evidence suggest Boucher can stick as a reliable floor spacer going forward, though. His free-throw percentages have at all times remained solid (78.5 percent in his profession), highlighting his deft shooting touch. And most of his struggles last season were confined to a ghastly start, as he shot 21 percent on 3s through his first 28 games; afterward, he rebounded to the mid-30s through the remaining of the regular season and made 40 percent of his tries within the playoffs.

Ultimately, Boucher has an extreme skill set: He’s really good on the things he does well and really bad on the things he doesn’t. (Have a look at his paltry passing numbers for an example of the latter: He had 25 assists in 80 games last season.) He isn’t a 30-minutes-a-night solution against every opponent. But so long as his team knows his strengths and might fit him right into a proper role—because the Warriors did en path to a title with supporting players like Looney and Gary Payton II—he can excel when asked.

His rail-thin physique might hurt him against more physical big men, but there aren’t many teams that may take much advantage as post-ups proceed to say no across the league. As recently as 2014-15, all 30 teams used post-ups for a minimum of 5 percent of their possessions; last season, only seven teams did so, and no team was in double digits. Boucher’s foul rate—once a significant issue stemming from his lack of size—has declined every season of his profession.

Boucher also can stick to guards on the perimeter when called upon. Previously two seasons, opposing teams have scored just 0.91 points per possession when attacking Boucher on a switch, per Second Spectrum, which ranks within the twentieth percentile in efficiency. For further context, Looney and Al Horford, two completed switching bigs, are also each at 0.91 points per possession in the identical span.

In free agency, Boucher might be an especially appealing option as some teams embrace a contemporary Twin Towers philosophy, veering away from the super-small trend of the late 2010s. At just 200 kilos, Boucher probably can’t delay as a full-time center—but when paired with an entrenched big, he can fill a leaguewide need for giant men who can protect the rim while retaining perimeter mobility. He might be an excellent fit for the Bulls or Timberwolves, each of whom are reportedly eying the likes of Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela within the trade market. He’d also work as a sneakily suitable backup option for a team just like the Bucks, if Bobby Portis departs for extra money elsewhere.

Not everyone seems to be overlooking Boucher as free agency approaches. At The Athletic, John Hollinger’s advanced stats model says Boucher is the no. 8 player in the whole class, ahead of a bunch of more heralded names. Hollinger’s player model says Boucher is price $19.8 million per yr. He is perhaps paid half that quantity—which might make him a wonderful bargain for a contender strapped for cap space.

Even with a rickety shot, Boucher remains to be a worthwhile player, as he proved in a bench role for the Raptors last season. But when his shot is legitimate and returns closer to its 2020-21 level, then Boucher could be the form of two-way role player most every contender needs in the fashionable NBA. No team can ever have enough players who can protect the paint and space the ground. Teams should take note when Boucher becomes available on July 1.

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