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Gary Trent Jr.'s defence more than makes up for offensive inconsistency

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As a young and hopeful Toronto Raptors team navigates through some early-season hiccups, Gary Trent Jr., one of the team’s newest stars, has emerged as a defensive leader on a team that prides itself on frustrating its opponents in its own end.

He's doing so despite his own shortcomings on offence.

After being acquired in a trade-deadline deal for longtime Raptor Norman Powell, Trent burst onto the scene and gave fans something to cheer about as he put together big scoring nights for a battered Toronto side last season. He put up 31 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in March, and exploded for 44 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, shooting 89.5 percent from the field.

Gary Trent Jr. has drawn praise for his defensive impact on the Raptors. (Getty)
Gary Trent Jr. has drawn praise for his defensive impact on the Raptors. (Getty)

But for every offensive explosion, the 22-year-old had his off nights, routinely putting together performances in which he averaged a shooting percentage in the low 20s. Never shy to let it fly, Trent only managed to sink 39.5 percent of his field-goal attempts in 17 appearances as a Raptor last season.

While debate among fans and media brewed over whether Trent, a restricted free agent, was worth the big money it would take to re-sign him, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office bet on their new man, extending his deal for three years for a total of $54 million.

Five games into the 2021-22 season, we have yet to see noticeable change in his play on the offensive end, as he's still operating as a heat-check scorer who misses a lot more than he converts. Trent averaging a respectable 13.6 points per game, but his shooting figures are way down, making only 35.4 percent of his attempts from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range.

While his inefficiency on offence will need to be ironed out for this team to play up to its potential, it’s his play on the defensive end that has garnered much praise and fanfare early this season.

In Wednesday’s win over the Indiana Pacers, the former Duke Blue Devil snatched five steals and grabbed four rebounds to complement his 12-point outing. While he only shot 4-for-14 from the field, notably struggling from deep, going one-for-six, Trent’s positive output on defence in Toronto on Wednesday night indicates that he’s making considerable strides in his progression as an all-around player.

"I think the other guy that probably doesn't get much talk about or hasn’t and is playing really really good defence is Gary Trent," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Wednesday. “He’s just all up on people and over people, and I’m really pleased with that. He’s been really aggressive and good [on defence] this year, and it’s been a big boost to our defensive lineup.”

Trent is tied for the league-lead in both total deflections, 24, and deflections per game, 4.8 — matching teammate Fred VanVleet in both categories — and is fourth in the NBA in steals per game with 2.8. He’s also putting up a defensive rating of 99.1 so far, way better than his career average of 110.8.

After capturing the spotlight with his standout performances in the 2020 playoffs in the Orlando Bubble for the Portland Trail Blazers, Trent was widely labelled as a three-and-D type. The stats certainly backed up his reputation as a steady shooter, as he stroked at 41.7-percent clip from three in five playoff games. He’s yet to regain that shooting touch ever since.

The defensive aspect of Trent's game, though highly touted as he broke out with Portland, seemed to disappear following his fiery foray in the bubble. Until now, that is, as he seemingly re-emerges as a lockdown perimeter defender on a team many expect to be among the defensive leaders in the league this season.

Trent will have his big scoring nights, occasionally going off for 30-something points while putting up shots from virtually anywhere on the court. He’ll also have nights where he can’t get it going, throwing up brick after brick from beyond the arc, undeterred. But if he can maintain the impressive and game-breaking defensive impact he’s had since the start of the season, his inconsistencies as a scorer will be much more acceptable for Nurse, and likely raise the ceiling for a young team that has the potential to surprise the Eastern Conference this year.

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