Trent’s Raptors future comes into question amid defensive struggles

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TORONTO – Clearly, Gary Trent Jr. knows he has some catching up to do.

After missing three games, first with a hip injury and then with an illness that has spread through the organization, the Raptors guard returned to training Monday and was among the last players in the gym after the session of the Tuesday.

He’ll be back in the lineup when Toronto hosts the league’s most controversial club, the Brooklyn Nets, and its most controversial player, Kyrie Irving, on Wednesday night. His timing couldn’t be better.

Pascal Siakam will miss his ninth straight contest with an adductor strain. They hope to get him back sometime next week, but the team will have to manage without their top scorer and playmaker for at least a couple more games.

However, it seems that good news comes at a cost these days. Though Siakam is finally nearing his return, and Trent, Chris Boucher and Fred VanVleet have all recovered from bouts of the flu, the Raptors added another standout player to their mounting injury report.

Scottie Barnes was absent from practice this week, not with lingering ankle injuries, but with a left knee sprain. It’s unclear when he initially suffered the injury, but while head coach Nick Nurse doesn’t think he’s “terribly bad” and the team is listing him as questionable for the Nets game, it appears they’re preparing for the talented college student to sophomore year waste some time.

Minus two of their primary creators, plus key reserves Precious Achiuwa and Otto Porter Jr., who remain sidelined with ankle and foot problems, the Raptors will lean on Trent to help a struggling offense.

He can’t create scoring opportunities for others in the same way that Siakam or Barnes can, but he does have the ability to hunt down his own shot and, when at his best, take it down at speed. It’s something they could use considering they’ve made only 28 percent of their 3-point attempts since Siakam slipped in Dallas earlier this month. The problem is, it’s been a while since he played at or near his prime.

With Siakam gone, Trent is shooting 35 percent from the field and an abysmal 19 percent from long range. He missed his last nine 3-pointers before succumbing to injury and eventually illness.

While shooting and scoring are such important parts of Trent’s game, his offense is the least of Nurse’s concerns. Acknowledging that hip pain and a host of other ailments he’s been playing around with could be, at least in part, responsible for Trent’s recent depression, Nurse believes it’s only a matter of time before those jumpers start fall.

“We know he’s a good shooter and we know he can score,” Nurse said. “I just have to make him feel good physically. I think he always has the confidence to make shots.”

For Toronto’s defensive-minded head coach, the biggest concern is on the other side of the court. After Trent signed a new three-year, $54 million contract with the Raptors in the summer of 2021, Nurse challenged the young guard to take all the energy and focus he normally spends on offense and match it on the defensive end. . He responded last season, making notable strides as a defender.

Given the team’s roster build, which consists mostly of long, lanky forwards, its smaller shooting guards stand out. But VanVleet more than makes up for it with his intellect and playing bigger than his height, generously listed at 6-foot-1. He’s a tough defender who knows where to be and when. He is always playing on the angles and has some of the fastest hands in the league.

Trent is nowhere near that caliber of defender. Even during last year’s breakout, his level of effort and attention to detail occasionally flagged and he was still prone to defensive errors, especially off the ball. That said, when he was engaged, he was as good as anyone at blocking opposing guards on the perimeter and disrupting passing lanes. He made up for his lack of, well, being 6-foot-9 or having a 7-foot wingspan with his activity and aggressive play on defense.

Trent finished the season tied for fifth in steals at 1.7 per game and averaged an impressive 3.4 diversions, which ranked second on the team, just behind VanVleet, and fourth in the NBA.

This year, his deviations are down to 2.4 per contest, but for the most part, he hasn’t been as engaged or active. Once again, the nurse made sure to point out that injuries could be a factor. Still, she had strong words regarding the 23-year-old’s defensive slip on Tuesday.

“It’s disappointing,” Nurse said. “We would like him to be a lot more aggressive on defense this year. I would say it’s been, well, I don’t know what the word is, it’s been a bit negative. He’s able to really go after the ball and get his hands on the ball a lot, and that’s what we want him to do.

“We will give him his shots and we will give him his points, but we want him to be disruptive. He kinda fits us if he does that, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t fit us.”

The timing of this Nurse challenge is interesting and probably not a coincidence. Trent can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and he is expected to do so.

Trent will turn 24 in January and has shot 3-pointers at an excellent rate of 38 percent during his five-year career. At his worst, he can be a very good volume scorer coming off someone’s bench, but he’s also shown the ability to become more than that. With the salary cap continuing to rise, that profile should be enough to get him a raise from the $18.8 million he’d opt out for next season.

How much could he get on the open market? At 23 and after a great season in which he posted similar numbers, Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons is a good matchup. Simons signed a four-year, $100 million contract extension with Portland, Trent’s former team, last summer. Even if his season continues on its current path, that might be a fair estimate for Trent. If he bounces back, he bounces back from this mini-slump and takes another step forward, that might just be the bottom line for him.

The question is whether the Raptors are willing to pay or, with VanVleet, Achiuwa, Siakam, OG Anunoby and eventually Barnes awaiting expensive new deals in the next few years, decide he’s not a fit for the long term at that cost. And, if that’s the conclusion that Nurse, team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster ultimately came to, it would make sense to try to get an asset or two for Trent before the trade deadline of September 9. February, instead of losing it for nothing. in July.

They’re not there yet, for what it’s worth. As recently as last summer, the Raptors told inquisitive teams that they saw Trent as a valuable part of their young core. It’s hard to imagine that changing a month or so after the campaign.

Still, these next few weeks will be an important evaluation period for both the player and the team to determine if they have a future together beyond this season.

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