TORONTO — While his fellow draft prospects have been sprinting up and down NBA courts in countless professional auditions, Canada’s Chris Boucher has finally graduated to running in the University of Oregon pool, the weightlessness of the water cushioning his surgically-repaired knee.
The 24-year-old from Montreal could write one of most remarkable Cinderella stories in Thursday night’s NBA draft in Brooklyn.
Or wary teams could look past him entirely.
Boucher, who’s 10 weeks into rehabilitating a torn ACL, finds himself in a familiar position, forced to make the most of an unlucky hand he’s been dealt.
“A lot of teams have shown interest, and that’s a good thing,” Boucher said from Eugene, Ore., where this week the sociology student become the first member of his family to graduate from university.
“I feel like they’ll still think my game is the same, even with the injury. But most teams have been about ‘Is he doing his rehab, is he really serious about it?’ I’ve been working hard, so if I’m working hard, if they see I’m serious about it, I think (teams) are pretty happy about it. That’s why I still have interest in the draft.”
Boucher’s story — he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college preview edition last fall — is well-told. He and his mom left St. Lucia for Montreal when he was five months old. He bounced around several Montreal high schools before dropping out at 16. He floated from home to home while working as a part-time cook and dishwasher in a Montreal rotisserie restaurant. He sometimes slept on an overnight bus.
Boucher had virtually only played pickup basketball when he was offered a spot to fill out a team in a tournament in 2012. He scored 44 points in the tournament final. Gob-smacked coaches Igor Rwigema and Ibrahim Appiah, who were in the crowd that day, offered him a spot on AAU team Alma Academy they were starting.
The years since have been a whirlwind of getting his high school diploma, then stops at New Mexico Junior College and Northwest College in Wyoming before landing in Eugene for his junior season.
The 6-1 forward with the pterodactyl seven-foot-four wing span earned Pac-12 all-defensive team honours this past season, leading the conference in blocked shots (2.6 per game). He averaged 12.0 points and 6.8 rebounds in his two-year career with the Ducks.
In a colossal effort against Montana last December, he had 23 points and a career-high 19 rebounds, just one board shy of becoming the first 20-20 player at Oregon in nearly 40 years.
Boucher’s senior season was heartbreakingly cut short in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals against Cal, when he we went up for a rebound and an opposing player fell down hard on his leg. Unaware he’d torn his ACL, Boucher played on, finishing with 10 points, four rebounds and a pair of blocks.
“There wasn’t pain, it was just not stable,” Boucher said. ”Then it was already kind of stiff the next morning, I got the MRI and they realized it was the ACL.”
He still attended the NBA draft combine to interview with teams. Via social media, he initially followed other draft prospects travelling around the league for pre-draft workouts. That became too much.
“I started feeling like I would rather be in their position, so I stopped watching and decided just to focus on my rehab,” Boucher said. “It was because I felt like most of the guys that I see I felt like I could compete against them, and I felt like I worked hard to be in that position, and it was just hard to be on the sidelines watching.”
He remains in close contact, of course, with his Ducks teammates, particularly Canadians Dillon Brooks and Dylan Ennis, who also hope to hear their names called Thursday night. Brooks is a projected second-round pick on most mock drafts.
The doctors are pleased with his progress. Boucher is able to run in the pool, shoot, and do some squat work with dumbbells. His projected return to full game action is Oct. 1, right around the start of the NBA pre-season.
He points to Nerlens Noel, who was a projected No. 1 pick when his college career at Kentucky was cut short by a torn ACL. Four months later he went No. 6 in the draft to New Orleans.
What does Boucher have to offer?
“Defence for sure,” said Boucher, who will be in Montreal on draft night. ”I feel like a combination of blocking shots, and shooting threes, you don’t see that often, and I feel like the league is going toward the stretch 4, I can shoot so that can definitely be my advantage. And running the floor and playing defence with a lot of energy.”
And he’s certainly not scared of adversity. In fact, he’s drawn on his rocky past to help him through his injury setback.
“I’ll never be able to forget what happened in my life before, but I see it as a way to be happy about what I have right now — like graduating. That’s something I never thought would happen in my life before,” Boucher said. “It makes it a lot easier when you see it that way, trying to take the bad things that happen in your life and turn them into positives.
“Right now that’s what I’m trying to do. And it’s going to help me work hard and hopefully have a good career in the league.”