This past offseason, the Toronto Raptors ensured Gary Trent Jr. would be a part of the franchise's future by re-signing him to a three-year deal worth north of $50 million guaranteed.
It was nothing short of a no-brainer.
When the Raptors parted ways with a franchise mainstay in Norman Powell to acquire Trent at the 2021 trade deadline, it was clear that he would be a focal point of a long-term plan. After all, Trent is six years younger than Powell and serves as a better fit for the developmental timeline of a team retooling to be a force in the league in the years to come.
Toronto knew it was getting a dangerous 3-point shooter and a crafty scorer in Trent, but the appeal was his potential to become much more.
15 games into his first full season as a Raptor, he's done just that. Through his efforts, he's landed at third on the first edition of Steve Aschburner's Defensive Player Ladder, placing his name alongside the likes of Draymond Green, Myles Turner, Anthony Davis and Matisse Thybulle.
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In late October, head coach Nick Nurse called Trent's growth as a defender one of the "biggest surprises" early on in the season, according to TSN's Josh Lewenberg . Like clockwork, Trent proved Nurse's point by making a game-winning play on the defensive end of the floor no less than a day later.
SCARY GARY TIME pic.twitter.com/nweqyVnw0I- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 30, 2021
Trent's improvement into becoming a difference-maker on the defensive end is one of the latest examples of the developmental abilities of the Raptors coaching staff.
A few games into the 2021-22 season, The Athletic's Eric Koreen examined Trent's defensive improvements and, through quotes from Nurse, revealed that Trent was first challenged to improve on that end of the floor in August after officially re-signing with the team.
It's incredible to think that after just one full offseason and training camp as a member of the Raptors, Trent has made such a leap towards becoming the player the franchise needs him to be. And while the coaching staff deserves some credit, it's also a testament to how quickly Trent has bought into what is being asked of him as a defender.
His teammates have taken notice, too.
"Gary is like one of the best players I've ever seen, like - no offence - not play defence, then all of a sudden become a good defender," Khem Birch told reporters. "I swear, like, I've never seen that before. He can be one of the best two-way players - I think he leads the league in steals."
At the early-season juncture in which small sample sizes reign supreme, Trent ranks fourth in the league with an average of 2.5 steals per game . Of course, steals aren't the most meaningful way to measure a player's defensive impact, but it's definitely worth noting that Trent is among league leaders in a defensive category.
The stat itself exemplifies the nightly effort that Trent is giving on defence.
Gary Trent Jr does it on both ends for the @Raptors !- NBA Canada (@NBACanada) November 1, 2021
Game of the Week is presented by @Bell . pic.twitter.com/uPoHC8CvKu
While things like this don't necessarily show up in the stat sheet:
Gary Trent Jr is playing some defense in Toronto. pic.twitter.com/v1AZiOhFi8- Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) November 6, 2021
The fact that Trent is making great strides defensively hasn't taken away from his bread and butter, which, as noted above, is his craftiness on the offensive end and ability to hit shots.
This season, Trent is averaging 16.1 points while shooting 42.8 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from 3. Trent's efficiency is steadily improving, which is also a part of the growth process - you don't simply become a two-way ace overnight.
BANG BANG @gtrentjr pic.twitter.com/yBtixz1YlA- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 14, 2021
That said, here's your reminder that while Trent is four years into his NBA career, he won't turn 23 until Jan. 18. In fact, Trent is the second-youngest non-rookie on the Raptors roster, and he's only got a few months on fellow 22-year-olds Precious Achiuwa and Isaac Bonga.
Good as Trent is now, there is even more room for him to grow and improve into the role that Nurse and the coaching staff envision for him. After seeing how much he's grown in the six months since the 2020-21 season ended, they can't help but get excited over what he'll have accomplished by the end of the 2021-22 campaign.
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