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Coming off a nightmare start, Raptors’ Boucher starting to turn a corner

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The start Chris Boucher had to the 2020-21 season was a revelation, an ode to the most pleasant of statistical aberrations and one of the most joyous months for a player in Toronto Raptors history if you are the type to take pleasure in unlikely fortune landing on someone who had been skipped over more than once.

Through those magical 13 games just 12 months ago, the lanky, awkward Montrealer whose NBA career almost never happened on almost too many occasions to count was inarguably one of the most productive basketball players on the planet.

He had a higher field goal percentage that Nikola Jokic, twice as many blocked shots as Joel Embiid and was knocking down 47 per cent of his threes, just like Kevin Durant was at the time.

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Coming off the bench for the Tampa Raptors, the six-foot-nine, 200-pound Boucher was averaging an astounding 16.1 points, seven rebounds and 2.5 blocks shots – in 23.8 minutes a game. His TS% was 72.9 and his net rating was +38. For context, the prolific Jokic went on to win the MVP award with a TS% of 64.7 and a net rating of +21 during a season he recorded some of the highest efficiency totals in NBA history.

It couldn’t last, but even with some predictable regression, Boucher averaged 13.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He was first in scoring, second in blocks and fourth in WinShares among players averaging less than 25 minutes a game.

It was a career year, and his teammates couldn’t have been more thrilled.

“You can’t be happier as a teammate, as a brother, as a friend to see him succeed and to see him play at the level that he’s been playing at,” said Fred VanVleet. “He’s been carrying his weight. He’s been playing great. I’m just super happy for him, I’m proud of him.”

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There was optimism that Boucher, 28, would pick up where he left off last season and fit in perfectly as one of an army of rangy, switchable defenders the Raptors were planning to run out on the floor, with Boucher’s offensive pop a significant bonus.

But after a strong summer and good start in training camp, Boucher dislocated the ring finger on his left hand. He required surgery and when he returned on opening night, he looked like someone who hadn’t played in three weeks, and got worse from there.

Unlike a season ago, Boucher’s start was a nightmare. Through 10 games, he was shooting 33.3 per cent from the floor and 18.2 per cent from deep on a menu of ill-advised threes and unlikely dribble drives that turned into impossible fadeaway floaters. While Boucher has always been a bit of an adventure when it comes to executing schemes defensively, his fearlessness and energy allowed him to make plays that helped make up for. As his offence and playing time withered, doubts crept in on that side of the ball too.

He was a mess. The worse things got, the harder he tried to make his minutes count and the downward spiral accelerated.

“I was doing so good in training camp, and then you get hurt in preseason (and) the team gets chemistry (when) you’re out of it,” said Boucher, “you’ve got to find a way to introduce yourself to the team. … I’m sure a lot of people were disappointed in the way that I’ve been playing and what I’ve been giving this year. I have a good circle and they help me stay within myself and focus on the right things, knowing every day is a new day and coming in with the same energy and being ready to change some games.”

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Raptors head coach Nick Nurse kept the message simple:

“He just needs to do what he does. Right? He needs to run, block shots, and get on the offensive glass and then score. You know he’s been a scorer in the system for a while now and he needs to get on track.”

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It finally happened on Thursday in Philadelphia. With the Raptors short-handed and on the second night of a back-to-back, Boucher came off the bench for 17 points, six rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 24 minutes. There were alley-oop dunks, put-back dunks and fastbreak dunks. His three-point attempts came in rhythm and trusted his instincts defensively.

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It was like a weight had been lifted off his slender shoulders. He called his start to the season one of the most stressful experiences of his career, which is saying something given he tore his ACL in his draft year at Oregon, went undrafted and was waived by the Golden State Warriors after they signed him to a two-way contract for the 2017-18 season and was lucky to earn a Summer League tryout with the Raptors in 2018.

“Eventually, I had to get in a little groove,” he said after the Raptors win Thursday. “It’s just a mindset. I think the team did a good job of keeping me focussed and knowing it can’t always go down like that. I put in a lot of work in my game. It’s coming back. I came back from injury. There’s a lot of change, a lot of positions, a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things on this team. I’ve just got to find my role, where to take my shots, and find my confidence that I had last year. I think today was a big step for me in finding that confidence again and realizing the way that I have to play.

“(But) it felt good. I feel like I’ve been searching to get that feeling again, feeling like you’re doing the right thing and in the right spot. I’ve been missing that feeling. It felt good to get it back today. I’m not satisfied. These 10 games, I played like I couldn’t play or wasn’t the player I’m supposed to (be). Step by step, but I’m definitely happy about today and I’m gonna keep getting better at it.”

The challenges will continue. The Raptors are determined to find minutes for Precious Achiuwa, the young centre with oodles of athletic potential but who has largely struggled so far, and veteran Khem Birch has been positive influence in his minutes and is expected to be back in the lineup Saturday against the Detroit Pistons after missing two games with knee swelling. Pascal Siakam has returned and Yuta Watanabe is expected back imminently. Minutes and the four or five in any configuration are going to be tough to come by.

Boucher was at risk of falling out of the rotation all together – a disaster in a contract year. But as he’s done so many times before – going all the way back to his discovery as a completely unknown 19-year-old playing in a summer tournament in Montreal – Boucher found a way to put up a big game at the perfect moment.

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The challenge now is to keep doing it. The Raptors might have plenty of bodies but not many with Boucher’s ability to block shots defensively and space the floor on offence.

There’s a role there for him if he can grab it. Don’t bet on him letting it slip through his fingers now. He’s come too far.

“And if there’s one thing I’ve learned (in) this tough stretch, it’s you can’t cheat the game,” he said. “You can just feel like you can come in a game and just do whatever you want. At the end of the day, I came back from injury and this is what I needed to realize.

“It takes time. It’s a new team, it’s got new players, it’s a new position and this is what I really needed to understand. It took more time than I would want and probably more than everybody wanted to, (but) it’s a good step for me and obviously I’m planning on getting better every game so people can see what I can do and what I’ve been doing.”



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Aaron Rodgers has 4th best odds to win 3rd straight MVP | FIRST THINGS FIRST

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Aaron Rodgers is optimistic about this upcoming NFL season. In a recent Sports Illustrated profile, the Green Bay Packers quarterback expressed how happy he was to be in the locker room, that he’s a ‘kinder, gentler QB’ and that fun things are coming. Fox Bet odds show Rodgers tied at 4th for the MVP award, behind Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Josh Allen, and alongside Justin Herbert. Greg Jennings and Nick Wright decide how likely it is that Rodgers will three-peat his MVP win.



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2023 NFL Draft: Ranking the ACC’s top 10 prospects as Clemson defense loaded with talent

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The ACC fell short of placing a team in the College Football Playoff despite a strong season from Pittsburgh. The upcoming regular season represents a clean slate, and Clemson should feature one of the most talented defenses in college football. Although early days, CBS Sports took a gander at the best NFL Draft prospects in the tradition rich conference entering the 2022 campaign:

Davis does a great job of shooting gaps and creating chaos in the opponent’s backfield. He does a good job of stacking and shedding blockers to make an impact in the run game. 

The depth of Clemson’s defensive line allows the team to rotate players and keep everyone fresh. It has a lot of talent along the front seven. In addition to Myles Murphy, Trenton Simpson, Bryan Bresee and Davis, defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro, edge rusher Xavier Thomas and edge rusher K.J. Henry have NFL potential. Thomas, in particular, is poised to showcase his talent this season.

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The buzz surrounding Nelson began early in the process. He has great size for the position and long arms to dictate competition in the trenches. If the technique matches in 2022, there is an opportunity to rise significantly in an offensive tackle class that appears wide open. A wealth of talent at the position has flooded the NFL in recent years with Rashawn Slater, Tristan Wirfs, Penei Sewell and others chief among them.

8. Zay Flowers, WR, Boston College

Flowers has been on the NFL’s radar for a few years now. An injury to quarterback Phil Jurkovec impacted the receiver, as there were a lot of missed opportunities during which Flowers had slithered behind coverage. He ranked No. 23 in yards per reception (16.95) among wide receivers with at least 40 receptions in 2021. With a healthy Jurkovec, the Pittsburgh native will have a good chance to remind talent evaluators of his potential. 

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The nation’s No. 1 overall high school recruit in 2020 missed most of last season with a torn ACL. The talent is evident, but it is unknown what to reasonably expect from Bresee coming off the injury this season. The Maryland native carries his weight really well and is just a natural athlete. He does a good job of stacking blockers while peering into the backfield and has good top end speed.

Connecticut quarterbacks are having a bit of a moment as both Kentucky’s Will Levis and Van Dyke are considered potential early draft choices. The latter throws with touch and does not panic when pressured. However, there is at least one moment each game where he unnecessarily throws into coverage. Experience can resolve some of those frustrations. 

While his ability to make plays with his legs may fall short relative to other quarterback prospects, he is capable of making accurate throws off-platform. He ranked No. 11 in passer efficiency last season, according to TruMedia. Players above him include Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Alabama’s Bryce Young and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett.

It could be easy to take Bergeron for granted because nothing he does is overwhelming, but he is consistent. Similar to Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw, it just looks easy for the Quebec native at times. He plays with good leverage and balance and has an even-keeled style of play. Active eyes allow him to pick up stunts into his gap. 

Cornerback Garrett Garrett Williams is another prospect who has the talent to join this list by season’s end.

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4. Josh Downs, WR, North Carolina

The NFL has shown a willingness of late to add wide receivers who are traditionally undersized: Wan’Dale Robinson, Tutu Atwell, Jahan Dotson, etc. Downs was one of the most productive wide receivers in college football a year ago, and that had a lot to do with his ability to create chances for himself. He does a good job of creating leverage with body mannerisms and precision into his breaks. Downs finished third in yards after the catch (757) last season, according to TruMedia, behind Western Kentucky’s Jerreth Sterns (1,135) and Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba (791).

3. Tony Grimes, CB, North Carolina

Grimes has good size and great speed for the position. He profiles as an NFL man coverage cornerback, but the ball production has just not been there yet. With so much talent in that Tar Heels secondary, it should create more opportunities for the Virginia Beach native to compile statistics. If he puts it all together, there is a good chance that he is one of the first cornerbacks off the board next April. 

Grimes was one of the rare football reclassifications who moved from the 2021 recruiting class to 2020. As a result, he should be one of the younger cornerback prospects available.

Simpson is one of the most versatile defenders in this potential NFL Draft class. He is not Micah Parsons but could excel in a similar role allowing him to play in the box, rush the passer and cloud passing lanes. The Charlotte native finds himself around the ball often because of his quick key and trigger. First-year defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin has a lot to work with this season.

When comparing size, Murphy stacks up to last year’s No. 1 overall selection — Travon Walker. Murphy is a good athlete but is realistically not going to match Walker’s historic NFL Combine performance. Murphy does have more exposure to what would be considered a traditional edge rusher role than Walker at the same point in his career. The former shows active hands and an ability to turn speed to power. When attempting to identify the likely first-round selections in the preseason, Murphy jumps out.

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KD to Nets: 'Trade me or fire Steve Nash, Sean Marks' | FIRST THINGS FIRST

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Kevin Durant is not budging on his desire to leave Brooklyn. In fact, Shams Charania reports that during his meeting with Joe Tsai, KD submitted that the only way he would stay with the Nets is if the owner fires head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks. Nick Wright lays out why Durant basically all but ensured he would be traded with this move, and why he’s calling KD’s ultimatum a checkmate.



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