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

Chris Boucher couldn’t crack the Raptors’ starting unit, but his rare combination of physical traits and skills could be unlocked on the right team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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 also checks in at only 200 pounds. He’s not quite a member of the Thin Towers, but he’s not far removed: His weight ranks 46th among the 47 players his height last season, according to Stathead, and is 28 pounds lighter than that of the average 6-foot-9 NBA player.

And the reserve big man didn’t enjoy the most productive 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 relatively anonymous free agent. ESPN didn’t include him in its list of the top 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 draw much more interest. Last seen posting a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double as the 76ers eliminated his Raptors from the playoffs, this anomalous player offers legitimate two-way potential and is a perfect fit for the direction of modern basketball. He won’t swing the title race by himself, but he is the most underrated free agent of the summer.

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

The best genre of statistic to measure this phenomenon is RAPM, or regularized adjusted plus-minus, which takes the net 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, here are the top 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 these players are bunched fairly closely together) and that’s a fairly accurate representation of the league’s best players. The one outlier is Caruso, an elite role player.

Boucher doesn’t look like a superstar by RAPM, but he grades quite well. The backup big ranks 40th among 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 better per 100 possessions, which is a meaningful margin.

Granted, nobody would actually suggest Boucher is a top-50 player in the NBA—but he has a few superlative strengths. First, despite his slender frame, Boucher is a rangy shot blocker, both at 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 close out on unsuspecting shooters.

He’s also an opportunistic offensive rebounder, a skill that can be overlooked 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 floor versus when he wasn’t, per Cleaning the Glass—the third consecutive season they’ve been much better in this area with Boucher.

Combine both of those strengths, and Boucher is one of just 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’s the only member of this group with any 3-point range to speak of.

High Block and Offensive Rebound Totals, Last Three Seasons

Player BLK% ORB% 3P
Player BLK% 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 Gobert 5.8 12.1 0
This chart includes players with at least 3,000 minutes played over the last three seasons, and at least a 10% offensive rebound rate and 5% block rate in that span.

(Relax the minutes limit and a few 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 an element that Williams doesn’t possess. The big question 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 whole was worse from distance last season, after playing in mostly empty gyms in 2020-21, but Boucher’s drop was one of the largest for any player.

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

Player 2020-21 2021-22 Change
Player 2020-21 2021-22 Change
Ty 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 Ingles 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%

Several pieces of evidence suggest Boucher can stick as a competent floor spacer going forward, though. His free-throw percentages have always remained solid (78.5 percent in his career), 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 rest of the regular season and made 40 percent of his tries in the playoffs.

Ultimately, Boucher has an extreme skill set: He’s really good at the things he does well and really bad at the things he doesn’t. (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 as long as his team knows his strengths and can fit him into a proper role—as the Warriors did en route 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 can take much advantage as post-ups continue to decline across the league. As recently as 2014-15, all 30 teams used post-ups for at least 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 major issue stemming from his lack of size—has declined every season of his career.

Boucher can also stick with guards on the perimeter when called upon. In the past two seasons, opposing teams have scored just 0.91 points per possession when attacking Boucher on a switch, per Second Spectrum, which ranks in the 20th percentile in efficiency. For further context, Looney and Al Horford, two accomplished switching bigs, are also both at 0.91 points per possession in the same span.

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

Not everyone is overlooking Boucher as free agency approaches. At The Athletic, John Hollinger’s advanced stats model says Boucher is the no. 8 player in the entire class, ahead of a bunch of more heralded names. Hollinger’s player model says Boucher is worth $19.8 million per year. He might be paid half that amount—which would make him an excellent bargain for a contender strapped for cap space.

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