The Raptors cash in another token with the quick start of Gary Trent Jr.

DALLAS—It’s a funny thing about contract years in the NBA. Some players, looking ahead to a potential free agent summer, seize the moment and maximize their financial potential. And others become…well, self-preserving.

“I’ve been in the league for about five years now. There will be guys, if they’re in a contract year, they won’t even play five-on-five or three-on-three in certain practices or certain gyms,” Gary Trent Jr., the Raptors starting to pull guard, said this week.

In other words, by trying to get their salary, some pros become averse to the job they are being paid for.

But Trent, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer if he turns down a player option that would net him $18.8 million (US) in 2023-24, said he doesn’t see the possibility. of impending free agency as a reason to ration his basketball exposure.

“No. In my life, I think everything is really set in stone. Whatever is going to happen will happen anyway,” Trent said. “So you really have to go out there and play. No matter what, play hard. And everything should take care of itself.

If the early days of the Raptors season are any reliable harbinger of the months to come, Trent should be taken care of very generously this summer. Heading into Friday’s game against the Mavericks, he was posting impressive numbers on offense, averaging a career-high 20 points per game while shooting 38% from behind the three-point line. As one of Toronto’s go-to bucket-getters, he provided his advertised strength.

“My teammates give me power. The coaching staff empowers me,” Trent said. “So it’s just going out there and playing my game, showing what I’m working on and the work that I’m doing.”

In some ways, of course, Trent doesn’t fit the main thrust of Toronto’s roster training philosophy, which has primarily involved stocking long-armed, mobile players six-foot-eight and taller with the versatility necessary to play in several positions. . At a relatively light six-foot-five and 209 pounds, Trent is, like point guard Fred VanVleet, a physical outlier in the rotation. What shows: The combination of stellar shooting and size is not easy to find.

In another way, though, Trent fits Toronto’s history of player supply. As a second-round pick who proved wrong to many skeptics who didn’t see him as an NBA starter, he has the competitive chip on his shoulder that Toronto team president Masai Ujiri appreciates. more than most.

“I’ve heard my whole career going into the NBA, ‘I can’t defend at the next level. I can’t survive,’” Trent said. “Everyone says what they have to say. Everyone is an analyst. Everyone swears he knows what he’s talking about. So all of that also comes into play.

Speaking of defense, Toronto coach Nick Nurse recounted last season a conversation he had with Trent shortly after the player arrived in the 2021 trade that sent Norman Powell to Portland. If Trent, at the time, considered himself a bucket-retrieving specialist, Nurse had news for him: In Toronto, you’d expect him to get buckets. and play the Raptors brand of defense that pressures the ball and generates turnover. Trent has upped his game on that front. Last season, he ranked fifth in the league in deflections per game, a metric the Raptors consider a decent proxy for defensive engagement.

“He’s getting there,” Nurse said of Trent’s defense. “I think he rose to the challenge. In terms of effort, for the most part. For me, that’s the thing I always watch with him.

Therein lies the challenge for Trent and every Raptor hoping to see a reliable ground time. In the Nurse universe, the defensive engagement is an endless pursuit in which you are only as good as your performance in the last handful of possessions. There is no resting on yesterday’s statistics.

“Not just (Trent), but any of them. There are nights where sometimes that drive in their defensive step isn’t quite there,” Nurse said. “So that’s what we always monitor with him, to make sure he plays hard and gets on the ball.”

Indeed, perhaps because Trent is on the smaller side of the prototypical Raptor – and because VanVleet, when healthy (and missing his third straight game with a stiff back on Friday), is an elite disruptor – opposing offenses have been known to target Trent as a potential point of attack. This was one of the arguments for using him off the bench while slotting a more versatile defender like Precious Achiuwa into the top five. But with Trent providing such a reliable shot in a team that sometimes struggles to find an easy attack, the status quo must be maintained.

“I think he feels like a really good one-on-one defender. I’m not sure how he’s perceived in the league that way. But I think he has a lot of confidence and not afraid to go and babysit certain people,” Nurse said. “But I still think it’s a work in progress here for him. I think there is a will and a desire to improve. But he still has a ceiling to reach.

Stretching for the ceiling is part of the drill when you started closer to the relative basement as a second-round pick who played seven minutes per game as an NBA rookie in 2018-19.

“In my early years in the league, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to show what I could do offensively or defensively,” Trent said. “I came to Toronto, I was put in a position where I can show everything I can do. I’m told to go ahead and let off steam, play your game, right or wrong, keep going, play hard. So that’s great. It feels good. Of course, I just have to keep working.

Considering the award numbers represent a substantial increase from his current salary of $17.5 million, it’s commendable work. Contract year, or any year, Trent said that while he was motivated from within — as the son of a former Raptor who always wanted to carve out an NBA career — internal fire was fueled by those who told him he would never survive the NBA grind.

“That should drive you. If someone says something that goes against what you think or goes against the work you’ve done for years and years of your life, you should feel something about it.” , did he declare. “That should motivate you. It certainly is.

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