When it was reported that the Toronto Raptors would be acquiring Gary Trent Jr. as part of the return for Norman Powell, I was pretty excited.
Trent Jr. has been one of my favourite players to watch going back to just before the bubble as he started to really come into his own and establish himself in the Portland Trail Blazers rotation.
Then he started to breakout even further in the bubble and for me that was it, I had to dive deep into the then-second-year wing who was a flamethrower from three and guarding the opposition’s best wing players.
So, for clarity, I wrote this back in August so it’s my analysis on his game to that point. After that, I’ll analyze how he can fit in with the Raptors.
Trent Jr’s growth as a defender
As the injuries piled up for the Blazers, so did their trust in Trent Jr.
He gradually played more against lower-tier teams and began to slowly earn the coaching staff’s trust against good teams.
Don’t take it from me though, take it from Blazers assistant coach Jim Moran who said Trent Jr. was the most improved player on the Blazers that season.
“He’s shown he can get into the game and make shots. His defence has been unbelievable. I don’t think we talk enough about how much of a buy in he gave for his defence… We really challenged him defensively and he bought in. He was guarding Derrick Rose, Bradley Beal, he’s guarding some high level guys and he’s not backing down.”
That was the biggest factor in getting playing time: defence.
As Moran mentioned, they eventually trusted Trent Jr. to guard more primary ball handlers and he more than held his own.
Trent Jr. stays with Devin Booker the whole time, doesn’t really let him get into any of his moves, does a great job sliding his feet, staying in front of Booker, and eventually leads to a blocked shot.
This isn’t going to wow anyone but with Portland down a man on defence, Trent Jr. keeps Harden in front of him, anticipates the shot, and his contest forces Harden to pass the ball.
One of the biggest things Trent Jr. said he learned was that defence takes effort.
“The biggest thing I really found out at the defensive end was just effort. Literally, effort. If you get hit by a screen, don’t give up, keep sprinting through.” (via Blazer’s Edge podcast)
That’s been one of the most impressive aspects of Trent Jr.’s defence – his ability to get through screens or staying with his man through contact, and even blowing up a play entirely.
He harasses Eric Gordon around the screen, forcing him into the help from Hassan Whiteside while denying any potential to pass, forces him back out to the three-point line and contests the shot.
He pretty much stays in front of Victor Oladipo the entire time, even going around the screen, and gets his hands on the ball and forces a jump.
They even had him defend six-foot-10 Michael Porter Jr.
He denies the dribble hand off, takes away the potential for a pass on the cut, and to top it all off he boxes Porter Jr. out for the rebound.
Granted neither pass is fantastic from Mason Plumlee but Porter Jr. has four inches on Trent Jr. and he denies the entry pass both times, forcing the turnover with one of them leading to a pull up in transition three.
His development on offence
While defence has been the biggest improvement for Trent Jr., his shooting has always been his strength.
Through the Blazers first six seeding games, Trent Jr. averaged 18 points including 58 percent from three on eight and a half attempts per game, that’s a 77.7 percent effective field goal percentage.
Obviously those numbers aren’t sustainable but he’s done some nice things offensively for the Blazers aside from just standing around and spacing the floor.
In a limited sample last season, Trent Jr. has shown the ability to shoot the three effectively off the dribble. 31 percent (1.3 attempts per game) of his threes last season came from pull ups and he shot a robust 41.9 percent on them.
We saw a bit more of the pull up three from Trent Jr. since the seeding games began (2.5 attempts) and he looked very confident taking those shots.
Additionally in the seeding games, over 50 percent of Trent Jr.’s shots came from non-corner threes and he shot 60 percent on above the break triples, which is in the 100th percentile among wings (per CleaningTheGlass).
He was on a hot streak in the bubble but if he can continue to hit these kinds of shots consistently and can develop his ability to create his own shot, especially developing his ability to get to the rim where he only took 15 percent of his shots.
Where are we now?
Trent Jr.’s defensive catch-all metrics aren’t going to look great because the Blazers have been flat out terrible on the defensive end with a 118.3 defensive rating, second worst in the league per Cleaning the Glass.
But he was still guarding players like Oladipo, Beal, Booker, and Steph Curry this year to varying degrees of success. The Blazers were also 2.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Trent Jr. on the floor and while a 115.8 defensive rating is still very bad, he made them slightly better.
Raptors fans saw some of his defensive potential last night guarding Booker and Chris Paul at various points in the game.
The nice thing for Trent Jr. is that he probably won’t be tasked with guarding an elite wing or guard every night being on a team with OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Kyle Lowry.
But for the Raptors coaching staff, they can be comfortable knowing Trent Jr. can hold his own against those players and won’t be hunted on switches late in games.
He should absolutely benefit from having elite defensive teammates and not having to prop up a very poor defence with little help (shoutout to Robert Covington trying his best in Portland). I’m sure it will take some time for Trent Jr. to get fully comfortable on rotations with how aggressively the Raptors help and recover. The core of this team has been playing together for a long time, so it’s easy for them to trust each other to help and rotate but it will take time for Trent Jr. to work his way through that.
You saw it a few times in his debut where he would have a miscommunication about an off-ball switch but with that being said, Trent Jr. is a very solid one-on-one defender who plays with a ton of effort, and those traits will play well in Nurse’s defence.
On offence, Trent Jr. is a pretty seamless fit into any team.
Although he has taken more pull-up threes this year (46.7 percent of his shot attempts), he is still an over 40 percent shooter on catch-and-shoot threes. He doesn’t need the ball a ton to get his looks and although his first game was a bit of a dud from a shooting perspective, that will certainly not be the norm.
Speaking of norms, if we’re comparing Trent Jr. to the outgoing Norman Powell, he is a notch below Powell as a shooter this season and is not much of a threat at the rim, something the Raptors were already lacking in.
But in prior seasons, Powell was not as good of a pull-up jump shooter as Trent Jr. but that was an area of Powell’s game that took a step forward this season.
We should see the Raptors run some of the same off-ball actions for Trent Jr. — such as the pin down screen from Siakam to get Trent Jr. his first basket as a Raptor — as they did for Powell. He should also get the chance to expand his pull-up game a bit more and hopefully for him, get some easy looks in the flow of the offence.
Overall, I’m very excited to watch Trent Jr. develop further after taking a big step forward offensively during his breakout in the bubble. He doesn’t make them better today but he will be a valuable member of the Raptors core group as he fits both age-wise and stylistically into their plans.