From the moment Gary Trent Jr. joined the Toronto Raptors back in March 2021 the organization has been focused on improving his defense. It was the big question mark with the 22-year-old guard last season. He’d looked so impressive in the Orlando Bubble back in late 2020, but his defense seemed to take a big step back to start last season in Portland.
“What we’ve kind of learned this year is that Trent is just not the impactful defender that it seemed like he was kind of when he broke out last season and then certainly in the Bubble,” said Jack Winter, Sports Illustrated’s Portland Trail Blazers reporter. “His advanced numbers are just awful, really bad, like nearly as bad as Damian Lillard’s.”
Trent’s defense was really going to be the make-or-break part of the Norman Powell trade. Either he’d improve, something Powell couldn’t seem to do defensively, or Trent would end up just being a less offensively explosive version of Powell for about the same price.
Well, early returns suggest an offseason in Toronto’s system has certainly paid off for Trent. Through three games, he already has eight steals, the second-most in the NBA, and 13 deflections, the third most and just four behind Fred VanVleet who leads the league in the category.
“Ever since I’ve got here, even last year, they’ve been harping to me, defense, defense, deflections, hands out, get in passing lanes,” Trent said. “So really just getting at it every day. Listening to my coaches, trying to get better on the defensive end, and just trying to stay active.
Trent had to adjust his mindset a little bit. He can be a little tentative by nature, settling for mid-range jumpers on the offensive end or playing conservative on defense. In Toronto, that’s not going to fly. Raptors coach Nick Nurse is constantly asking his players to attack defensively as they try to create chaos, force turnovers, and get out and run in transition.
“I think that we like to try to be aggressive on the ball and I think maybe that’s a little different for him,” Nurse said. “I think because it’s taken some time to get him up but now, I think he’s finding out now he’s got really quick hands while he’s up there, he’s got some good timing, and some craftiness up there with his hands.”
On opening night, he gambled on a bad pass from Aaron Holiday, leaving his man Raul Neto wide open for what would have been an easy layup had he missed the steal. Instead, he poked the ball loose and scored a transition layup at the other end. It was a perfect Raptors play. A quarter later, he fronted a mismatch against Montrezl Harrell and swiped a bad pass from Spencer Dinwiddie. The following game, he twice pickpocketed Celtics attackers, using his quick hands to strip Al Horford at the top of the key and Jayson Tatum trying to drive baseline.
“Really just being aggressive, going out there, playing hard, the ref calls it, the ref calls it, they don’t, they don’t,” Trent said following the Celtics game. “Try to be aggressive and get as many stops as you can, deflections, anything to disrupt their offense, anything to slow them down a little bit, that’s kind of a win.”