Chris Boucher and Yuta Watanabe have provided two bright spots in an otherwise depressing start to the 2020-21 season for the Toronto Raptors.
We are through 11 games of the 2020-21 NBA season, and the Toronto Raptors‘ 3-8 start is worse than even the most pessimistic of Raptors doubters could have anticipated. They’ve blown leads, lost one-sided blowouts, and failed to close out tight games. Their defense has been porous at times and their offense stagnant.
But hey, let’s strive for a little positivity, shall we? Indeed, the Raps’ 1-3 Western road swing looks discouraging in the standings, but they produced more than a few glimmers of what the club has been and could still be.
In spite of incurring three times as many losses as wins, they actually accrued a net +11 thanks to back-to-back one-point heartbreaking losses in Golden State and Portland. In those four games, Siakam was back to looking like a blossoming star, the team’s defense held Steph Curry to a 2-of-16 shooting night and Nick Nurse eased some of the pressure on the starters by extending the rotation.
The extended rotation remains a work in progress, but two reserves, in particular, have stood out as positives amidst a trying start. As a matter of fact, you could argue that of the Raptors’ entire roster, only Chris Boucher and Yuta Watanabe can be considered to have produced above expectations to date.
The rise of the undrafted, once-homeless, Montreal-born Boucher isn’t new, but it has added a new chapter this season with his ascent to productive rotation regular. Where team management was hoping to see him graduate to providing positive minutes behind Aron Baynes and in tandem with Alex Len, the freshly turned 28-year-old has established himself as the team’s best big (not that there was much competition, but still).
My colleague Mike Luciano recently made an argument for Boucher starting over Baynes (who has since been demoted to the bench in favor of Len, with a quick Norm Powell starting cameo) – and that was before Slimmduck averaged 19 points and four blocks across the last three games out west.
While increased usage rates predicted a rise in basic numbers, his playing time-independent stats like per 100 possessions and 36 minutes have also ascended to career-highs, as has his shooting percentage.
The stat lines don’t stand out quite so much for Yuta Watanabe, who beat out Henry Ellenson and Alize Johnson to earn a two-way contract days before the Raps’ season opener. A big part of that has to do with sparse and uneven playing time, shifting from 19 minutes to nine minutes to a DNP over three straight games. When he has played, however, the 26-year-old has passed the eye test, showcasing frenetic energy on defense and constant off-the-ball movement on offense, coupled with a semi-reliable three-point shot.
We already know that Watanabe is developing into something of a resident heartthrob for Raptor fans. What we don’t know is how he would fare assuming a larger role. He has earned praise from Nurse, even if the coach doesn’t entirely trust him with regular minutes, and can add value as an energy-boosting sub. The catch-22, then, is that the former Grizzlie’s clearest path to real minutes will likely come if the club continues to plummet and falls entirely out of the playoff race.
Neither Boucher nor Watanabe fit the typical notion of a rising talent carving out an NBA role. Boucher is actually the third-oldest player on the Raptors roster, while Watanabe is just months younger than Siakam and Fred VanVleet. But it’s their unconventional path to this point that makes the G League alumni, like many Raptors before them, easy to root for.