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The most interesting free agent on the NBA open market

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Chris Boucher doesn’t look 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’s also only 200 pounds. He’s not a member of Thin Towers, but he’s not far behind: His weight ranked 46th out of 47 players his height last season, according to Stathead, and he weighs 28 pounds less than the average 6-player NBA player. feet 9 inches. .

And the backup big man didn’t enjoy the most productive 2021-22 season: In 80 games, he averaged just 9.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 0.3 assists per game. Even on a Raptors team that relies heavily on players of his height and skill, Boucher, in his 29-year-old season, was relegated to 21 minutes per game.

Those demerits have made Boucher a relatively anonymous free agent. ESPN did not include him in its list of the top 15 available free agents. NBC listed 30 names, none of them Boucher’s. He made it onto the Hoops Hype list, but only at no. 27

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But odd proportions or not, lackluster stats or not, Boucher deserves to attract a lot more interest. Last seen posting a double-double of 25 points and 10 rebounds as the 76ers eliminated their Raptors from the playoffs, this anomalous player offers legitimate two-way potential and is a perfect fit in the direction of modern basketball. He won’t make the title run alone, but he is the most underrated free agent of the summer.

While his superficial stats lack oomph, Boucher seems to have the ability, year after year, to make his team better when he’s on the floor. He led the Raptors in net rating in each of the last two seasons. In that regard, he’s similar to Alex Caruso and recent Sixers acquisition De’Anthony Melton, two shooting guards who post average scoring stats but impressive impact numbers.

The best kind of statistics to measure this phenomenon is RAPM, or regularized plus-minus adjusted, which takes the net rating a team has with a given player on the pitch and adjusts it for the identity of their teammates and opponents. As a proof of concept, here are the top twelve players in RAPM over the past three regular seasons, based on NBA shooting charts:

  1. Kawhi Leonard
  2. Jayson Tatum
  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  4. Rudy Goberto
  5. Stephen Curry
  6. Joel Embid
  7. Chris Paul
  8. Lebron James
  9. Alex Caruso
  10. paul george
  11. Nicholas Jokic
  12. Kevin Durant

Ignore the order (most of these players are grouped pretty close together) and that’s a pretty accurate representation of the best players in the league. The only outlier is Caruso, an elite roleplayer.

Boucher doesn’t look like a RAPM superstar, but he rates pretty well. The big backup ranks 40th among all players over the past three seasons, one spot behind Jamal Murray and two behind Marcus Smart. RAPM says he makes his team 2.8 points better per 100 possessions, which is a significant margin.

Of course, no one would suggest that Boucher is one of the 50 best players in the NBA, but he does have some superlative strengths. First, despite his slender build, Boucher is a wide shot-blocker, both at the rim and on the perimeter. In recent seasons, only Matisse Thybulle has blocked more 3s than Boucher, who uses his speed and 7-foot-4 wingspan to pick off unsuspecting shooters.

He’s also an opportunistic offensive rebounder, a skill that can be overlooked in a league that doesn’t prioritize knocking down the boards but can turn playoff games on its head nonetheless. (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 floor compared to when he wasn’t, according to Clearing the Glass: The third straight season they’ve been much better in this area. with Boucher.

Combine both strengths, and Boucher is one of only a half-dozen players with at least 3,000 minutes played in the past three seasons to exceed a 10 percent offensive rebound rate and a 5 percent block rate. And he is the only member of this group with any 3-point range to speak.

High blocking and offensive rebounding totals, last three seasons

Player % BLACK ORB% 3P
Player % BLACK ORB% 3P
chris boucher 6.2 10.7 196
Hassan Whiteside 8.0 14.2 4
Jakob Poeltl 5.8 12.9 1
mitchell robinson 7.0 15.3 0
Robert Williams III 7.5 14.3 0
Rudy Goberto 5.8 12.1 0

This table includes players with at least 3,000 minutes played in the last three seasons and at least 10% offensive rebounds and 5% blocks in that span.

(Relax the minute limit and a few more greats like Isaiah Hartenstein are also on this list, though as more non-shooters. Hartenstein, also a future free agent, also ranks one spot behind Boucher on the RAPM leaderboard.)

Boucher isn’t as snappy a passer or as physical a defender as Williams, but his 3-point shooting adds an element Williams doesn’t have. The big question for Boucher is how real his shot is. He increased his 3-point accuracy to 38.3 percent in 2020-21, then dropped back to 29.7 percent last season. The league overall was worse from a distance last season, after playing to nearly empty gyms in 2020-21, but Boucher’s decline was one of the biggest for any player.

Biggest 3-point percentage drops last season (min. 150 attempts)

Player 2020-21 2021-22 Change
Player 2020-21 2021-22 Change
Jerome 42.3% 29.0% -13.2%
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 41.8% 30.0% -11.8%
reggie-jackson 43.3% 32.6% -10.6%
marcus-morris 47.3% 36.7% -10.6%
joe english 45.1% 34.7% -10.4%
Julius Randle 41.1% 30.8% -10.4%
cameron payne 44.0% 33.6% -10.3%
frank jackson 40.7% 30.8% -9.8%
jeff green 41.2% 31.5% -9.7%
chris boucher 38.3% 29.7% -8.6%

However, several pieces of evidence suggest that Boucher may stick around as a competent floor spacer going forward. His free throw shooting percentages have always remained solid (78.5 percent for his career), highlighting his skillful shooting touch. And most of his problems last season were limited to a lousy start, as he shot 21 percent from 3-point range in his first 28 games; then, he bounced back into his mid-30s for the rest of the regular season and made 40 percent of his shots in the playoffs.

Ultimately, Boucher has an extreme skill set: he’s very good at the things he does well, and very bad at the things he doesn’t. (Look at his measly passing numbers for an example of the latter: He had 25 assists in 80 games last season.) He is not a 30-minute-a-night solution against all opponents. But as long as his team knows his strengths and can slot him into a suitable role, as the Warriors did en route to a title with supporting players like Looney and Gary Payton II, he can excel when called upon.

His rail-thin physique could hurt him against more physical big men, but there aren’t many teams that can take much of an advantage as the posts continue to dwindle in the league. As recently as 2014-15, all 30 teams used posts for at least 5 percent of their possessions; last season, only seven teams did, and none reached double digits. Boucher’s foul rate, once a major issue stemming from his lack of size, has dropped each season of his career.

Boucher can also stay with the guards on the perimeter when requested. Over the past two seasons, opposing teams have scored just 0.91 points per possession attacking Boucher on a changeup, according to Second Spectrum, which ranks in the 20th percentile for efficiency. For more context, Looney and Al Horford, two bigs in the trade, also have 0.91 points per possession in the same span.

In free agency, Boucher could be an especially attractive option, as some teams embrace a modern Twin Towers philosophy, straying away from the super-small trend of the late 2010s. At just 200 pounds, Boucher probably can’t keep up. as a full-time center, but when combined with an entrenched big, he can fill the league-wide need for big men who can protect the rim while retaining perimeter mobility. He could be a good option for the Bulls or Timberwolves, who are reportedly eyeing the likes of Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela in the trade market. It would also work as a sneakily adequate backup option for a team like the Bucks, if Bobby Portis leaves to find more money elsewhere.

Not everyone is overlooking Boucher as free agency approaches. A the athletic, John Hollinger’s advanced statistics model says that Boucher is no. 8 player in the entire class, ahead of a bunch of more heralded names. Hollinger’s player model says that Boucher is worth $19.8 million per year. He may be paid half that amount, which would make him an excellent offer for a contender with little cap space.

Even with a shaky shot, Boucher is still a valuable player, as he showed on the Raptors’ bench last season. But if his shot is legit and he returns closer to his 2020-21 level, then Boucher would be the kind of two-way player most contenders need in the modern NBA. No team can have enough players who can protect the paint and space the floor. Teams should take note when Boucher becomes available on July 1.

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