Chris Boucher's emergence has sparked Oregon's strong start

The Dagger
Chris Boucher's emergence has sparked Oregon's strong start
Chris Boucher's emergence has sparked Oregon's strong start

The first time he watched Chris Boucher a little over two years ago, Oregon assistant Mike Mennenga wasn't sure the 6-foot-10 junior college forward would develop into a Pac-12-caliber prospect.

Boucher was thin as a sapling, all slender arms and spindly legs. He displayed an intriguing skill set for someone who had only played a year of organized basketball at that point, but his narrow frame suggested he might not ever grow big and strong enough to avoid being pushed around near the basket.

"When you see how slight he is, it can throw you off a little bit," Mennenga said. "It makes you wonder how he would translate to the Pac-12. It's easy to count out the kid and say, 'Oh, he's too skinny,' but we kept monitoring him. We needed to take a deeper look."

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What the Oregon staff eventually decided was that the 190-pound Boucher was too unusual a talent to pass up. They conceded that many opposing big men would outweigh Boucher by more than 50 pounds, yet they believed his shot blocking ability would boost their defense and his ability to run the floor and finish in transition made him an ideal fit for their fast-paced offense.

Taking a risk on Boucher has so far turned out to be a prudent choice for Oregon. In his debut season, he has quieted concerns about his slight physique and quickly emerged as the team's top big man, helping the 24th-ranked Ducks to an impressive 6-1 start despite the season-long absence of injured point guard Dylan Ennis and center Jordan Bell.

Boucher's four blocks per game are the second most of any player in the nation and his nine in a November rout of Arkansas State broke Oregon's former school record of eight. Largely as a result of Boucher's 7-foot-4 wingspan and uncanny timing and instincts at the rim, opposing teams are shooting nearly six percent below the national average on two-point shots against the Ducks so far this year.

In addition to his shot blocking, Boucher has also averaged 12.0 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. He is a menace in transition because he boasts the speed of a guard and the stamina of a distance runner. He's also an asset in half-court offense because he draws fouls and his shooting ability forces opposing big men to guard him out to the 3-point arc and opens up driving lanes for the rest of the Ducks.

"The way we play has been a perfect fit for him," Mennenga said. "Chris does a great job running the floor, he's super active and he's hard to get a body on. He's never going to be that broad-shouldered big man who weighs 250, but he has been able to use his strengths to exploit bigger, slower guys."

Chris Boucher defends Baylor's 275-pound Rico Gathers. (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)
Chris Boucher defends Baylor's 275-pound Rico Gathers. (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

It's remarkable that Boucher is now a key contributor at Oregon because he didn't begin playing organized basketball until age 19.

A native of the Caribbean island Saint Lucia, Boucher moved with his family to a hardscrabble, crime-ridden section of Montreal when he was a toddler. He frequently played pick-up basketball at the park or at a local gym, but he and his family were seldom stationary long enough for him to join a school or club team that practiced regularly.

"We worked through tough situations that forced me to move around a lot growing up," Boucher said via email. "Looking back it wasn’t just me though. I had many friends, relatives, and their families going through the same issues you see in neighborhoods affected by poverty, crime, and unemployment. One of my favorite things during that time was going to play ball in the park. I knew I wanted to do that instead of hanging out with the wrong people."

Basketball might have merely remained a hobby for Boucher had he not received an invitation to spend a post-graduate year at a Quebec prep school founded to provide French-speaking players superior training, competition and exposure. Boucher was already 19 by then and lacked the grades to proceed directly to a Division I program, but he flashed enough potential that his prep school coaches had little trouble finding junior college suitors.

When Boucher initially arrived at New Mexico Junior College in fall 2013, assistant coach Brian Lohrey recalls questioning whether his newest recruit would be strong enough to earn playing time. Those concerns soon melted away as Lohrey watched Boucher consistently outperform his teammates during preseason conditioning.

Lohrey recalls challenging the players to complete 20 suicides in 20 minutes, a drill that often leaves most of the team hunched over in exhaustion or heaving into a trashcan.

"Not only did Chris make it, I think he could have done 25 in 25," Lohrey said. "He just has a great ability to run."

Boucher averaged 11.9 points and 6.7 rebound per game in his lone season at New Mexico Junior College, but he left after close friend Nicky Desilien was told he would not be welcome back. They both instead enrolled at Northwest College in Wyoming, where Boucher eventually blossomed into one of the nation's most dominant junior college prospects.

Boucher earned national junior college player of the year honors last season after averaging 22.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.7 blocks and leading Northwest College to the NJCAA Division I quarterfinals. He showcased an ability to score at the rim and from the perimeter, converting 58 percent of his field goals and 44.4 percent of threes.

Between the fact that he played in remote Wyoming and concerns about his slender frame and looming eligibility issues, Boucher didn't attract as much attention from top high-major college programs as you might expect given his video game-like stats. TCU, Texas Tech, Minnesota and Oklahoma State were Oregon's primary competition to land Boucher.

"The coaches who came in were all worried he was so tall and slender, but he showed in our practices and games that he has more toughness than you think," Northwest College coach Brian Erickson said. "A lot of times as coaches, we over-analyze. The kid's too skinny or the kid's this or the kid's that? Well can the kid play? I think he showed that at a high level for us. He played against high-level talent and he was very successful."

What ultimately sold the Oregon staff on Boucher was his 24-point, 14-rebound performance against eventual champion Northwest Florida State in a 94-92 NJCAA quarterfinal loss. Mennenga drove from Omaha to Hutchinson, Kansas, to watch Boucher on the eve of Oregon's Round of 32 NCAA tournament game. He also received ample positive feedback when he asked the Northwest Florida State coaches to evaluate Boucher as a high-major prospect.

"When you think of a guy who hasn't been playing basketball very long, it's usually someone who can't really shoot and doesn't have really good timing for rebounding and blocking shots," Mennenga said. "Chris isn't like that at all. His timing and touch are scary to see. He has a nice natural feel."

The Oregon staff ultimately believed in Boucher enough to take him despite no guarantee that they will have him for more than one year.

Boucher is technically a senior this season because the NCAA ruled his eligibility clock began with his post-graduate year in prep school as a result of the time off he'd taken from school beforehand. Oregon intends to petition after the season to get Boucher his fourth year back.

While the Ducks are hopeful Boucher is part of their future, they're content for now with his impact on the current team. Opposing big men struggle to keep up with him in transition or guard him out to the 3-point line, yet not even the likes of Baylor's 275-pound Rico Gathers was able to bully him around the basket.

Boucher's role may change a bit once Bell returns later this month from a broken foot, but don't be surprised to see the two big men form a scary tandem as the season unfolds. While both are exceptional shot blockers, they won't get in each other's way offensively too often because Boucher is most effective on the perimeter and Bell does most of his work around the rim.

The next challenge for Boucher is to add some muscle and maintain the weight gain over the course of a season, a goal that was difficult for him in junior college. Each summer, he'd add 10-20 pounds in the weight room. By midseason, he was back to the previous season's playing weight.

From protein shakes, to extra meals, to extra weight training, Boucher has tried all sorts of techniques to get stronger since arriving at Oregon in August.

"Wow, what haven’t we done?" Boucher said. "That’s one of the reasons why I chose Oregon — the program’s focus on making each player better individually. My coaches, athletic trainer, strength coach, nutritionist and team chef all work with me daily."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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