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Gary Trent Jr.'s two-way growth raises Raptors' ceiling

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Gary Trent Jr. represents many interesting aspects of this current Toronto Raptors team: its youth, its potential, and its growing pains.

Brought into the fold via the Norman Powell trade, Trent Jr. was seen as a younger and more affordable replacement to the veteran shooting guard, but his two-way leap has been a welcome development that raises the ceiling for this current team.

Trent Jr.’s strengths were simple enough. The third-year player was understood to be a run-of-the-mill shooting threat with limited skills as a finisher, and an average defender. But what has been most impressive this season has been the addition of a few abilities that have changed the complexion of his game as a whole.

Gary Trent Jr. has made big strides on both sides of the ball. (Photo via USA Today Sports)
Gary Trent Jr. has made big strides on both sides of the ball. (Photo via USA Today Sports)

The first offensive addition has been in his finishing skills. Though he stands at six-foot-five, Trent Jr. isn’t among the more athletic guards in the game. He manages to slide past his defender at the perimeter, but his drive is easily crowded in the paint and his touch isn’t otherworldly enough to make up for the lack of burst.

Instead of continuously rolling to the rim, Trent Jr. has instead decided to rely on his strength — shooting. Scoring approximately 57 percent of the time at the rim (within 0-3 feet, slightly above average), he sits at 47 percent between three feet from the rim and the three-point line. This means he is currently among the most efficient mid-range shooters in basketball. And as with his backcourt partner in Fred VanVleet, the more prolific mid-range scoring seems to have opened up the court for the duo.

Trent Jr. isn’t creating these shots solely in pick-and-roll scenarios, either. A much more developed handle has translated into initiating sets, maneuvering set defences, and numerous counters to contested looks. At times, it looks as though he takes poor shots that just so happen to go in, but upon closer inspection, Trent Jr.'s looks are clean and spacious enough, frequently taken with a speed and confidence we often only identify in all-star-caliber options.

Beyond spacing the floor, his improvement as a bonafide three-level scorer gives the Raptors a much-needed release valve in the halfcourt when presented with the type of interior length that may hinder their big wings around the rim. A problem since the 2019 loss of Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors may finally have the eclectic finisher they've needed to act as a threat beyond only hitting threes and layups – both skills Powell possessed.

"Coach has been harping on defence," Trent Jr. said following the Raptors' Friday night victory against the New York Knicks. "We've been working at it, we've been getting after it. Every day when we come in, we're putting the pieces together, slowly but surely figuring it out."

Much has been made about Trent Jr.’s leap as a defender, especially in regards to his ability to read passing lanes and pick off steals repeatedly within matchups. He’s become a reliable cover one through three and rarely looks lost on the court when applying Nick Nurse’s varied coverages throughout games (even going back and forth between zone and man-to-man during the game against the Knicks).

Much like his confident and assertive shot selection within a starting lineup of rather talented, young scorers, he’s translated the same traits to the defensive side of the court. The result has been an undeniably net-positive player carrying (and making the very most of) a streamlined 20 percent usage rate.

All in all, at only 22 years old (crazy, I know), Trent Jr. is looking like the exact kind of wing to maximize the rest of the Raptors’ roster, and there’s truly no telling what his ceiling is. If one was to engineer the most ideal guard to play alongside big wings like Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby, it’s this guy.

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