Raptors Free agent flops: How Gary Trent Jr. can avoid their pitfalls

The Toronto Raptors are staring several important questions right in the face this season, most notably how Pascal Siakam will perform, the development of Scottie Barnes, and Fred VanVleet’s efficiency. The play of Gary Trent Jr., at least right now, doesn’t seem to be one of the major uncertain factors.

Unless they’re asking him to become more of an on-ball creator (which the Raptors really don’t need him to be), the best and/or worst-case scenario for Trent this season won’t look that different from one another with regards to his on-court style.

Trent re-signed with Toronto on a three-year contract worth just over $50 million. While he played 17 games with the Raptors last year, he feels like a marquee free agent signing considering that his 17-game stretch created a ton of suitors that Toronto needed to beat out.

The Raptors gave him that money in free agency with the expectation that he would continue his development in 2021-22 and beyond. Unfortunately, the Raptors aren’t short on free-agent busts when you look at the history of this team. Trent needs to do everything to avoid those pitfalls.

Will Toronto Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. become a star?

The Raptors have spent money on offensive talents before, but it hasn’t always worked out.

The reasoning is actually quite simple, and it boils down to more than poor choices or just bad luck. Because Toronto is yet to attract a big-time free agent, they often get seduced by the potential of players who are really a tier below what they’re looking for.

If you’re not signing all-stars over the summer, you have to find a way to make your bones another way, though as we’ve seen, it rarely works out.

Some examples include DeMarre Carroll, Hedo Turkoglu, and Landry Fields.

Carroll had just come off a year averaging 13 points and five rebounds per game for the Hawks, doubling as their best permitter defender, but he never had the same impact for the Raptors on either side of the ball (9.4 PPG, 39.6 FG%).

Turkoglu was a fascinating mix of size and playmaking as a before-his-time offensive talent who could both run the offense at 6-10 and knock down threes from outside. He really shone in Orlando, playing a major role in the Magic’s Finals run in 2009. A sign and trade brought him to Toronto, and he had just one very poor season here.

Fields looked like a big perimeter scorer in New York (9.3 PPG), but due to injury fell off in Toronto (3.3 PPG)

So what went wrong?

First, the money. Turk was signed and traded to a five-year, $52 million dollar contract, Fields was signed off his rookie deal to a three-year, $18 million dollar contract, and Carroll was the worst of them all with a four-year $58 million dollar deal.

By comparison, Trent’s three-year deal doesn’t seem much better, but that leads us to our second difference. The age.

The free agents of the past were signed to big deals and given more opportunities with the hope that they could fully realize their potential in Raptors colors. What wasn’t accounted for was the fact that each one was already in the prime of their careers and wasn’t likely to improve drastically. That’s not the case with Trent.

Fields was 24 signing for three years, Carroll was 29 signing for four, and Hedo Turkoglu was 30 when he signed his five-year deal.  With the exception of maybe Fields, these are all guys in the prime of their basketball lives. Sure, more opportunity can bolster a player’s stats, but to what end?

Contrast this with Trent, who is 22 and has improved his numbers and his game every year. He averaged 15 points a game without even being a consistent starter for Portland or Toronto. By the time Trent’s contract is up, he’ll be 25 and the team will have a much more narrow assessment of his abilities.

So why won’t Trent fail like those signings of the past?  The money, his age, and the timing of the contract within the long-term plan of the team.

How Gary Trent Jr. can become his best self on the court

We’ve seen variations on Trent’s archetype for years, meaning sparkplug scorers at the 2-guard position or shooters who at their best can drop 40 in meaningful games, but at their worst can go 2-15 and tank the whole ship. Think about J.R. Smith, Cuttino Mobley, Jamal Crawford, Vernon Maxwell, or Vinnie Johnson.

Now, those are all strong NBA players. Many have had seasons averaging 20+ points a game and been valuable pieces on contending teams. Still, of that list of five I just mentioned, there is a collective 47 playoff series victories.

But here’s the kicker, and it’s the subtle yet all-important attribute that can not only make or break Trent’s 2021-22 season, but maybe his entire career. Each of those guys started off as a high-volume scorer on a bad team but evolved to eventually become role players on playoff teams.

Champion and All-Star examples of guys like this are Allan Houston or Jason Terry. If Trent can learn to score efficiently and with control, not only will he have a great season with the Raptors this year, he’ll find himself on title-contending teams for the rest of his career.

More importantly, he’ll avoid being cast into the Raptors’ free agent graveyard.