What to make of Gary Trent Jr.'s debut season with the Raptors

·NBA reporter
·7-min read

Gary Trent Jr. was an instant sensation after being swapped for Norman Powell at the trade deadline.

In his first dozen games with the Toronto Raptors, Trent Jr. set his career-high twice at 31 and 44 points, nailed a dramatic game-winning three, set up Chris Boucher to clinch another win, posted the second-highest plus-minus in NBA history at plus-53, and he jumped in without a second thought to defend OG Anunoby in a fight. In a season characterized by harrowing disappointments, the instant success of Trent Jr. was refreshing.

But then he cooled off, and so did the hype. Trent Jr. is the definition of a gunner, and we saw both the good and the bad. Over his last seven games, Trent battled a leg contusion and hit 32-of-102 from the field while recording just six assists. All the games were ugly and forgettable while the Raptors not-so-subtly tanked, and many players struggled, but Trent Jr. did himself no favours with lopsided shooting lines of 5-for-20 from the field as he did in a loss to Memphis.

Making a firm assessment on Trent Jr. based on two months of jagged play is difficult, but this is now the challenge facing the front office. Trent Jr. is slated to become a restricted free agent, and he's looking to cash in after beating long odds as a second-round pick. The Raptors hold the right to match any offers, and clearly they value him, considering that they traded for him, but there must also be a walkaway number if one team is too ambitious in their bid.

Shooting ain't cheap

Trent Jr.'s main skill is shooting, and he's proven to be accurate even over a high volume of attempts. Trent Jr. hit 39 percent from deep on 7.4 attempts per game, and this held true both in Portland and in Toronto. Only 30 players shot over seven threes per game this season, and Trent was 18th in percentage. Every name on the list was either an All-Star, an entrenched starter, or at the very least a Sixth Man candidate, which should give you a sense of what Trent Jr. might command in free agency. Excluding players on rookie-scale deals, the lowest paid player on the list was Jordan Clarkson, who signed a four-year, $52-million deal last offseason that looked like a bargain from the moment he signed it.

Not all shooting is the same, however. There is generally more value in a player who can hit pull-up jumpers at a high rate as compared to a catch-and-shoot player, since that opens up options in how the offense operates. Having more shooting is always good, but having more players who can effectively create their own shot is even better. That's partly what separates Damian Lillard from Buddy Hield, for example, Both players shot 39 percent on 10 threes per game, but Lillard is an MVP candidate while Hield is mostly an afterthought. In that regard, Trent Jr. is much closer to Hield than he is to his former teammate.

But there is promise on that front. Trent Jr. is increasingly looking to add the pull-up three to his game, which is a smart adaptation for all good shooters. Trent Jr. attempted 3.2 pull-ups this season, up from 1.4 last year, and his overall efficiency is solid at 36.6 percent over his last two seasons. It's comparable to the likes of Fred VanVleet (35.3 percent) and Kyle Lowry (37.7 percent), albeit those two receive far more defensive attention. Trent Jr. has already trained his footwork to set up the stepback jumper, and if he can hone in more on the pull-up jumper, it will open more options for both Trent Jr.'s individual game and for the flexibility in how the Raptors deploy him.

What else does he do?

The key question with Trent Jr. is what he supplies besides shooting. In his two months with the Raptors, he didn't showcase a secondary skill that made him stand out. That's the main reason why there should be some apprehension in contract negotiations.

Trent Jr. developed a reputation for being a willing defender in his first two seasons with Portland, especially when he broke out in the bubble. Trent Jr. drew prominent assignments against the likes of Ja Morant and Paul George, and he was disruptive and pesky, while showing a great willingness to fight. And while the advanced metrics never rated Trent Jr. as anything besides average, there are strong tools from which to build from. Trent Jr. might not be a shutdown defender, but the Raptors also have two of those in OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, while Fred VanVleet is also elite from the point guard position. What's important is that there isn't any letup from the other two spots, and Trent Jr. achieves that. He's willing to be physical and the intent is there.

Offense is more of a concern mostly because Trent Jr.'s track record in three seasons is one-dimensional. High volume three-point shooting is hugely important, but Trent Jr. is lacking in other skills for a starting-calibre guard. He hasn't shown an ability to create for others (Trent Jr. posted the third-lowest assist percentage among guards) which would mark a sharp change for a Raptors team that featured playmakers like VanVleet or DeMar DeRozan at the starting two spot for most of the last decade. Trent Jr. also lacks in ability to create his own shot, as Trent Jr. averaged 0.82 points per play in pick-and-roll or isolation scenarios, and among players who attempted more than 13 shots per game, Trent Jr. was second-last in free-throw attempts at just 1.8 per game. That's why his career true-shooting percentage is just average despite his success from the three-point line.

But the context around those numbers are also hugely important. Trent Jr. only broke into Portland's rotation midway through last season, and his primary role was to shoot and to play defense around the Blazers' ball-dominant stars. The expectation wasn't there for him to be a create, and that role didn't really change when he got to Toronto. If anything, that only made it more difficult for Trent Jr. as he lacked practice time with his new teammates, was shuttled in and out of the starting lineup, and the roster around him shuffled constantly as the Raptors undercut themselves to maximize lottery odds.

So will the Raptors keep him?

The Raptors are likely to re-sign Trent Jr., according to John Hollinger of The Athletic, which should come as no surprise. Trent Jr. is still only 22 — younger than all three of the Raptors' rookies this season — and he fills a position of need. There is very little bankable depth behind Trent Jr. at shooting guard.

One potential mitigating factor is what the Raptors do with the fourth pick. Odds are good that the selection will be used on a guard, likely Jalen Suggs or if Jalen Green drops, both who would compete for minutes in the backcourt. It's also not inconceivable that Kyle Lowry is re-signed, which creates even more of a logjam at the guard position. The one factor working in Trent Jr.'s favour is that his skillset as a shooter is fairly portable across various lineups, as he's shown to be effective as an undersized small forward with other guards in his time with Portland.

The other way to approach negotiations is whether the Raptors view Trent Jr. as a core piece. There are only three players signed long-term — Siakam at the max, VanVleet for $20 million year, and Anunoby at $18 million. Is Trent Jr. at that level to command a similar deal? He hasn't shown enough just yet but the possibility is there if he continues to develop. And if not, having a proven shooter on a reasonable deal will always have trade value. So there should be lots of common ground between Trent Jr. and the Raptors to agree to a number in the neighbourhood of $15 million per year, which would be fair for both sides. Trent Jr. would be paid in level with other shooters of his profile, and the Raptors would have a solution at shooting guard who has the potential to grow into something more.

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