The Most Interesting Free Agents on the NBA Open Market

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 the Skinny Towers, but he’s not far: According to Stathead, he weighed 46th of the 47 players he was taller last season, more than the NBA average of 6-foot-9. The player is 28 pounds lighter.

And the backup big man isn’t enjoying his most productive season in 2021-22: He’s averaging just 9.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 0.3 assists in 80 games. Boucher was relegated to 21 minutes per game during his 29-year-old season, even in a player the Raptors relied heavily on his size and skill.

Those shortcomings made Boucher a relatively anonymous free agent. ESPN didn’t include him in the top 15 available free agents. NBC listed 30 names, none of which were Boucher’s. He sneaks into Hoops Hype’s roster, but just doesn’t. 27.

But whether the ratios are odd or not and the data lackluster, Boucher deserves more attention. Last seen with a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double when the 76ers eliminated the Raptors from the playoffs, the outlier offers legitimate two-way potential that fits the direction of modern basketball well. He won’t be fighting for a championship on his own, but he’s the most underrated free agent of the summer.

While his surface numbers are unattractive, Boucher seems to have a knack for making his team better year after year when he’s on the court. He has led the Raptors in net rating the past two seasons. In that regard, he’s similar to Alex Caruso and recent Sixers acquisition D’Antoni Melton, two guards with middling scoring stats but impressive impact stats.

The best type of statistic to measure this phenomenon is RAPM, or Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus, which takes a team’s net rating for a given player on the field and adjusts it for the identities of teammates and opponents. As a proof of concept, here are the top 12 RAPM players over the past three regular seasons, according to NBA shooting 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

Ignoring order (most of these players are clustered very closely together), this is a fairly accurate representation of the league’s best players. One outlier is the elite role player Caruso.

Boucher doesn’t look like a superstar at RAPM, but his grades are pretty good. The bench big man ranks 40th among all players over the past three seasons, one place behind Jamal Murray and two behind Marcus Smart. RAPM says he’s improving his team by 2.8 points per 100 possessions, a meaningful advantage.

Granted, no one would really consider Boucher to be a top 50 player in the NBA — but he has some superpowers. First, despite his slender frame, Boucher is a nimble shot-blocker both at the rim and on the perimeter. Over the past few seasons, only Mattis Thybulle has blocked more 3-pointers than Boucher, who uses his speed and 7-foot-4 wingspan to slap unsuspecting shooters.

He’s also an opportunistic offensive rebounder, a skill that might be overlooked in a league where rebounding isn’t a priority but can still be wobbly in the playoffs. (Just ask the Warriors and Kevin Looney.) At times, Boucher grabs the offensive rebound himself; other times, he’s positioned to help his teammates complete the accolades. Last season, the Raptors had 4.3 percent more offensive rebounds with Butcher on the floor than when they weren’t on the floor, according to Clean the Glass — the third straight season they have played here under Butcher. performance is much better.

Combining those two strengths, Boucher is one of six players to have played at least 3,000 minutes over the past three seasons, with an offensive rebound rate over 10 percent and a block percentage over 5 percent. And he’s the only member of the group who can speak 3-pointers.

Total high blocks and offensive rebounds over the past three seasons

player blank% ORB% 3P
player blank% ORB% 3P
Chris Boucher 6.2 10.7 196
Hassan Whiteside 8.0 14.2 4
Jacob 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

The chart includes players who have played at least 3,000 minutes over the past three seasons, as well as at least a 10% offensive rebound rate and a 5% block rate during that period.

(Playing time limits are relaxed, and bigs like Isaiah Hartenstein also make the list, though they’re more of a non-shooter. Hartenstein, also a future free agent, also trails Boucher on the RAPM rankings.)

Boucher isn’t as agile passer or physical defender as Williams, but his 3-pointer adds an element Williams doesn’t have. The big question for Boucher is how real his shot is. He improved his 3-point percentage to 38.3 percent in 2020-21, then dropped back to 29.7 percent last season. After playing in mostly empty stadiums in 2020-21, the league as a whole was worse from distance last season, but Boucher’s drop was one of the largest of any player.

Biggest 3-point percentage drop last season (minimum 150 attempts)

player 2020-21 2021-22 Change
player 2020-21 2021-22 Change
Tejerome 42.3% 29.0% -13.2%
Sher 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 Ingalls 45.1% 34.7% -10.4%
Julius Randall 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%

Still, there are several pieces of evidence that the Boucher can go ahead as a competent floor mat. His free throw percentage has remained consistent (career 78.5 percent), highlighting his deft touch. Most of his struggles last season were limited to poor starts, shooting 21 percent from 3-point range in his first 28 games. After that, he bounced back into his 30s for the remainder of the regular season and made 40 percent of his attempts in the playoffs.

At the end of the day, Boucher has an extreme set of skills: he’s good at what he’s good at, and he’s good at what he’s not good at. (Look at his paltry passing stats for an example of the latter: he had 25 assists in 80 games last season.) He’s not a 30-minute-a-night solution. But as long as his team knows his strengths and can fit him in the right role—as the Warriors have done with support players like Rooney and Gary Payton II on their way to championships—he Can perform well when asked.

His thin frame could hurt him against more sturdy bigs, but not many teams can take advantage of that as the post continues to decline in the league. As recently as the 2014-15 season, all 30 teams used post-ups on at least 5 percent of their possessions; last season, only seven did, and none reached double figures. Boucher’s foul rate — once a major issue for his diminutive stature — has declined every season of his career.

Boucher can also guard on the perimeter when called upon. Over the past two seasons, opposing teams have scored just 0.91 points per possession per possession for Boucher, placing them in the 20th percentile in spectral efficiency per second. Taking it a step further, Rooney and Al Horford, two big men who made the transition, also scored 0.91 points per possession over the same span.

Boucher could be a particularly attractive option in free agency, as some teams embrace the modern twin tower philosophy and move away from the ultra-small trend of the late 2010s. At 200 pounds, Boucher may not be a full-time center — but when paired with an entrenched big man, he could fill the league’s need for a big man who can protect the rim while maintaining perimeter mobility. He could be a great fit for the Bulls or Timberwolves, both of which are reportedly eyeing players like Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela in the trade market. If Bobby Portis leaves elsewhere for more money, he’ll also be a sneakily suitable backup option for a team like the Bucks.

As free agency looms, not everyone is ignoring Boucher.exist sports, John Hollinger’s Advanced Statistical Modeling says Boucher was the first. The 8th player in the class, ahead of a bunch of better-known names. Hollinger’s player model shows Boucher is worth $19.8 million a year. He could get half his salary — a very good deal for a contender with limited cap space.

Even with his inconsistent shooting, Boucher is still a valuable player, as he proved last season on the Raptors’ bench. But if his shooting is legit and closer to 2020-21, Boucher could be the kind of two-way role player every contender in the modern NBA needs most. No team has enough players to protect the paint and open space. Teams should take note when Boucher becomes available on July 1st.

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