Apr
21
2021

Upcoming Eastern NBA Stars Deserving Of More Media Attention

With only so many superstars in the NBA today, that leaves roughly 470-475 other NBA players unaccounted for. In this three-part series (Part 2), I will mention players around the league I believe should become household names very soon:

New York Knicks SG RJ Barrett (20)

Barrett, the Knicks’ first-round draft choice a year ago, has progressed tremendously this season. The Canadian guard in just his second season is adjusting to the brights lights of Madison Square Garden. However, Barrett is no stranger to the brights lights and attention. He boasted the #1 overall recruit status coming out of high school. The Naismith Prep POTY and Gatorade National POTY could choose any college he wanted.

Barrett chose Duke, as other top recruits of his class Zion Williamson (#5) and Cam Reddish (#2) followed suit. Coach K and the Blue Devils had major expectations with this incoming class. Duke, unfortunately, fell short and Barrett, along with Williamson and Reddish left for the 2019 NBA Draft.

The hype was larger than ever as the New York Knicks selected Barrett with the 3rd pick of the 2019 NBA Draft. Barrett was ready to begin his NBA career but struggled initially to gain his footing. Media critics were not shy expressing their disappointments with the 19-year-old Rookie. His inefficiency on the offensive side of the ball and his lackluster defense were his main critiques.

However, as we know many young players struggle specifically in these two areas early on. Even past NBA Legends have experienced rookie seasons similar to that of Barrett’s.

Barrett put in the work

Barrett was not impressed with his play individually in his rookie season and vowed to be better. RJ has done just that improving every major statistical category in his sophomore season in the NBA other than SPG. His PPG total is up 3.1 points this season to 17.3 PPG. His shooting splits this season are 44.8/38.3/73.6 compared to last year’s lackluster splits of 40.2/32/61.4. Better decision making, an improved craft, and an ever-growing self-confidence play the biggest roles in this improvement.

Growth on the offensive side of the ball is not the only visible improvement in the young guard’s game. Defensively RJ no longer looks as lost as his rookie season and he is using his size and length to disrupt opposing guards. Barrett is a big guard standing at 6’6″ with a 6’10” wingspan. His physical tangibles make it difficult for opposing players to get a clean look off when Barrett is in contest mode.

The New York Knicks’ new head coach hiring of Tom Thibodeau has been instrumental in Barrett’s progression. Thibodeau has revamped the Knicks defensively as a whole and even Barrett individually. Barrett in his rookie season ranked 132 out of a possible 138 guards in DRPM at a -2.68 mark. This season immense improvement has been visible as RJ ranks 13th this season at 0.94.

Bright future in Madison Square Garden

Barrett has played a huge part in the Knicks’ unprecedented success this season. The Knicks currently sit in 6th place in the Eastern Conference and look to make their first playoff appearance since the 2012-13 season. Julius Randle’s emergence has been the most impressive part of the Knicks’ success this season. However, do not let that undermine the leaps the young Barrett has taken as well. Barrett is a future All-Star, and the Knicks are potentially one superstar away from being a major force in the East.

Toronto Raptors SG/SF Gary Trent Jr (22)

Gary Trent Jr. has only played in 11 games for the Raptors this season. Trent was sent to TOR from Portland in exchange for sharpshooting SG Norman Powell. The Trent family is familiar with moving from Portland to Toronto believe it or not. Gary’s father, Gary Sr. also played for the Blazers and was traded to the Raptors young in his career, a year before Trent Jr’s birth. Trent Jr. and Sr. were traded from POR to TOR 41 games into both of their third seasons respectively in the league. Crazy, I know, but very true. Trent Jr. has quickly become a newly found fan favorite in his new home up North.

Trent Jr seemed destined for NBA success

The spotlight is something Trent Jr. embraces and uses as fuel. Back in high school, Trent Jr. transferred to the National HS Powerhouse, Prolific Prep for his senior season. Following selections to both the Jordan Brand Classic and The McDonald’s All-American games, Trent chose Duke. Leaving high school, Trent was a recruiting treasure. The #7 overall recruit and #1 SG of the 2017 class spent only one season under Coach K at Duke, declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft turned a dream into reality for Trent Jr.

However, the young guard slipped to Round 2, Pick 37 to the Sacramento Kings. Trent never played for the Kings as he was traded draft night to Portland. Initially, opportunities were scarce for Trent, but that never discouraged the young guard. Through his hard work and belief in himself, Trent was called on heavily around mid-January 2020. Opportunities became plentiful and Trent took them in stride.

Bubble Trent impressed

During his time in last year’s Bubble, Trent Jr. solidified his role with the Blazers moving forward. POR had to fight to make the play-in game scrapping to win six of their eight seeding games. Playing a big role, Trent posted 13.6 PPG and provided the Blazers another lethal deep threat to stretch the floor. The Blazers ended up beating the Memphis Grizzlies in a thrilling game and advanced to play the Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1. Trent Jr. not only provided a boost offensively but also was able to relieve defensive pressures from Portland’s star backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Proving he is more than just a bench/role player

Expectations coming into this season were high for Trent after his performance in the Bubble just months prior. These only amplified when the injury news of CJ McCollum broke. McCollum went down with an injury on Jan. 16th and proceeded to miss the next 25 games. Filling the veteran McCollum’s void were no easy shoes to fill, but Trent impressed.

In his 23 games as a starter, he averaged 18 PPG on 41.7/39.7/78.7 splits. The eye-popping stat being the efficiency from deep on a staggering 8.9 3PA per contest. His 156 made threes this season have him sitting at #11 in the NBA. A young 3&D guard posting these numbers started drawing major attention around the league. So much so that before the trade deadline Portland was fielding calls on Trent’s availability.

Portland felt the Toronto deal was too good to pass up despite Trent’s career year this season. The Blazers felt Powell bolstered their chances of winning immediately as patience is growing thin in Portland. The organization understands its window of opportunity is right now. While happy to obtain Powell, it could not have been easy to let the young Trent Jr. walk. Gary wants to keep reminding Portland of the mistake they made as it seems he has played with an even bigger chip on his shoulder since joining Toronto.

Toronto finds a bright young piece for their future

Gary Trent Jr. has maintained the season averages in TOR that he posted as a started in POR. He has started all 12 games with the Raptors averaging a career-high 33.6 MPG. He has also set a few personal bests in the span of these 12 games:

Trent Jr. seems to be just scratching the surface when it comes to his potential. Opportunities should be vast in Toronto as they have struggled this year and are yearning for answers to rebound. Trent Jr. will continue to make the most of the opportunities presented to him and I expect the Raptors to look to re-sign the young SG long-term.

Toronto Raptors PF Chris Boucher (28)

Boucher is the second Raptor to grace this series and also the oldest player on the list. Although he is 28 years old, Boucher’s NBA experience is limited. Basketball was a late discovery for Boucher compared to many other NBA Stars and even other players on this list. Boucher did not really start playing basketball until after dropping out of high school at the age of 16. Drawing attention via an AAU tournament invite Boucher was college-bound.

Stability was not a staple of Boucher’s college career. He bounced around a couple of small schools before transferring to the University of Oregon. Boucher attended Oregon from 2015-17 before ending his college career with an unfortunate injury, a torn ACL. This left the graduating big man sidelined and unable to work out with teams due to this injury.

Undrafted to Starting Role

Due to the ACL injury, Boucher ultimately went undrafted. The Golden State Warriors still expressed interest as they signed the PF to a two-way contract. The Warriors waived Boucher after winning the 2018 NBA Title. Unfortunately, Boucher was unable to play in the playoffs due to his two-way contract, but ultimately was still a member of the Warriors that season.

Later that summer, in July Boucher signed with the Toronto Raptors as a free agent. In his first season (18-19), opportunities were practically non-existent at the NBA level. However, that did not stop Boucher from making a name for himself in the NBA G League.

In 28 games, with the Raptors G League affiliate, Chris averaged 27.2 PPG, 11.4 RPG, and 4.1 BPG. These video game-like numbers earned Boucher league MVP Honors as well as DPOY Honors. Boucher became the first player in G League history to win the awards concurrently.

His performance did not go unnoticed as Toronto made the call to sign him to a standard NBA contract. Opportunities started to rise and Boucher took it upon himself to make the most of everyone thrown his way.

Raptors found their starting big moving forward

This season, Boucher has turned heads across the league with his play. The stretch big is averaging on the season 13.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, and 1.9 BPG on just 24.2 minutes. Boucher’s per 36 numbers are very impressive coming in at 20.4 PPG, 10 RPG, and 2.8 BPG. The 3rd year pro has the tremendous touch and at times his game looks to come effortlessly. His size was concerning early in his career as he stands 6’9″, but only weighing in at 200 pounds.

Boucher has used this to his advantage, however, as he is quicker than many bigs that match up with him. He also uses his length defensively to disrupt shots at an elite level.

Playing time and continued trust with the organization should only increase from here for Boucher in Toronto. The Canadian native is happy to call Toronto home and continues to build a name for himself. The legend of Chris Boucher is bound to grow with a ceiling that is still growing at the moment: