Former Duke basketball guard reinventing himself with upgraded role

Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

Duke basketball product Gary Trent Jr. is a menace on both ends these days.

Who would’ve thought that the same Gary Trent Jr. who played in Cameron Indoor Stadium would be leading the NBA in total steals? In his upgraded role, the fourth-year pro and former one-and-done Duke basketball player has been flourishing as one of the main contributors for the youthful Toronto Raptors (5-3).

And it’s been primarily on the defensive side of the ball.

Trent finished last season on a high note with some notable performances after a trade sent him to the Raptors from the Portland Trail Blazers in March. Many were intrigued with his offensive potential, which he showcased about two weeks after arriving in Toronto with his 44-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But there were some question marks regarding Trent’s defense, questions that now seem entirely erased.

We are two weeks into the young NBA season, and one of the major takeaways is Trent’s overall tenacity when playing defense. He is No. 2 in the entire NBA right now with 30 deflections, trailing only teammate Fred VanVleet, who has 35. These deflections have also translated into steals, as Trent leads the NBA with 22 of those.

Many times last season, Trent was a defensive liability. He was essentially one-dimensional and at times unplayable when his offense wasn’t clicking. Now, the 22-year-old is one of the most trusted on the Raptors’ roster in the eyes of head coach Nick Nurse, and that trust was on full display in the team’s 113-104 win at the New York Knicks (5-2) on Monday night.

More signs of growth from the Duke basketball alum

Against the Knicks, the 6-foot-5 former second-round draft pick led the Raptors with 43 minutes. Every minute he was playing was an advantage to Toronto as he was a +15 on the court. That stat is one of the most prominent developments in Gary Trent Jr.’s game. He has never been a plus player in an overall season, but that hasn’t been the case this year.

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While containing New York guard Evan Fournier to just 38 percent shooting from the field, Trent was also lighting it up on the offensive side of the ball, finishing with 26 points and two rebounds. And he topped all that off with four steals.

This all-around performance helped his shorthanded squad go into New York and take down a Knicks team that held the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

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We’ve seen tremendous improvement each year from Gary Trent Jr., but it seems that he is finally hitting his stride and in the perfect situation with the Toronto Raptors. With his play on defense being as high as it is, if his play on offense becomes consistent with performances like the one he displayed against the Knicks, the NBA Most Improved Player Award is a real possibility.