25-under-25: Gary Trent Jr. at No. 23

25-under-25, Toronto Raptors

After cashing in this summer, can Gary Trent Jr. cement himself as a fixture of the Toronto Raptors’ post-Kyle Lowry era?

Gary Trent Jr. is waltzing into a golden opportunity in 2021-22.

With Kyle Lowry now in Miami, the Toronto Raptors will be reinventing themselves. Fred VanVleet figures to take over as their full-time point guard, while the newly re-signed Trent should slot in as his starting backcourt mate.

The Raptors traded Norman Powell to the Portland Trail Blazers for Trent and Rodney Hood ahead of the March 25 trade deadline, and they proceeded to sign Trent to a three-year, $51.8 million contract in free agency. That $17 million AAV suggests he’ll be a major component of the post-Lowry Raptors.

After averaging only 8.9 points in 21.8 minutes per game in 2019-20, Trent broke out this past season. He averaged 15.0 points in 41 games with the Trail Blazers prior to the trade deadline and 16.2 points in 17 games with the injury-ravaged Raptors afterward.

Injuries paved the way for Trent’s breakout 2020-21 campaign. He ascended into the Blazers’ starting lineup after CJ McCollum suffered a foot fracture, and he poured in 18.0 points and 3.5 triples while shooting 39.7 percent from deep in 23 starts with Portland. He started all but two games with the Raptors, too, as Lowry and others were in and out of the lineup as they limped their way to the finish line.

Trent shouldn’t have to rely on teammates’ misfortune to cement his place as a starter this time around, though. Lowry’s departure for the Heat creates a glaring opening in the Raptors’ starting lineup between VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. Trent should now have an opportunity to prove his eruption last season wasn’t an anomaly.

Gary Trent Jr. is ready to keep building on his breakout season for the Toronto Raptors

The Duke product figures to make most of his impact as a scorer and a 3-point bomber. After shooting 41.8 percent from deep on 4.4 attempts per game in 2019-20, he launched a career-high 7.4 triples per game last season and hit them at a 38.5 percent clip. Considering that Lowry averaged 7.5 treys over the past six seasons with Toronto, Trent figures to have a permanent green light from downtown.

Beyond that is where the questions begin to arise. Trent doesn’t offer much value as a rebounder or playmaker, as evidenced by his career averages of 2.9 boards and 1.6 assists per 36 minutes, and he isn’t a plus defender, either. Perhaps he’ll grow into a more well-rounded role now that he’ll enter the season as a clear-cut starter for the first time in his NBA career, but that’s no guarantee.

Luckily, the Raptors have experience with a similar archetype in Powell.

After averaging a paltry 7.1 points on 44.2 percent shooting during his first four NBA seasons, Powell had an out-of-nowhere explosion in 2019-20. He went off for 16.0 points on 49.5 percent shooting in 52 games (26 starts), and he knocked down 2.1 triples per game at a 39.9 percent clip. He sustained that production this past season, averaging 19.6 points on 49.8 percent shooting and 2.8 treys prior to his trade to Portland.

According to Doug Smith of the Toronto Star, the Raptors “see Trent as an underdeveloped version” of Powell. They plan to spend the offseason “working on his ball-handling and one-on-one play so he can fit better into the team’s ball movement, read-and-react offence,” per Smith.

That’s bound to come with some growing pains. Trent led the league last season by turning the ball over on only 4.9 percent of his offensive possessions, but an expansion of his ball-handling responsibilities will likely lead to more giveaways. Having to replace a franchise icon like Lowry, the greatest Raptor of all time, will place an unfair burden on Trent as well.

This is the right time for Trent and the Raptors to experiment, though. They don’t project to be legitimate championship contenders in 2021-22, so they might as well push the boundaries of their younger players to see what they can provide in expanded roles. If Trent can develop into more of an off-the-dribble threat and three-level scorer, he could emerge as a longtime fixture of Toronto’s rotation.

Trent has a $18.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season, which he figures to decline if he continues along his current trajectory of development. That means the Raptors may have only two seasons before they need to decide whether to hand him even more money.

As the Raptors return to Canada and look to put their disappointing 2020-21 behind them, Trent could become a quietly critical piece of their post-Lowry era. If he evolves into the second coming of Powell or McCollum over the next year or two, the Raptors’ investment in him this offseason will be more than justified. He’ll be looking at a hefty payday in the summer of 2023, too.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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