LAS VEGAS — It was just another game at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
The mish-mosh of rookies, free agents, D-Leaguers and erstwhile basketball vagabonds representing the Toronto Raptors suffered a blowout at the hands of their Dallas Mavericks counterparts, 88-57. The two teams shook hands on the way back to their makeshift locker rooms, as is customary in Sin City, while the Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers took to the court at an overstuffed Cox Pavilion.
The loss was a bad one for the Raptors but nothing out of the ordinary for summer league. Close games are a rarity here, as Toronto could attest; the Raptors had been stomped by 21 points in their previous outing.
But while most of the players seemed to brush off the result like yesterday's losses at the blackjack table, Bruno Caboclo wasn't ready to let go. The baby-faced Brazilian sat somberly on a crate under the bleachers, eyes red, shoulders slumped.
"He got upset because he felt like he was trying to do everything and he was trying to help out, trying to play defense, get offense," said Raptors guard Scott Machado, acting as Caboclo's interpreter, after the team's practice at a local high school the following day. "He was trying to do a whole lot, and he felt on defense, whenever he went to go help, people weren’t helping him out. So he was just getting upset, he was upset with himself, his teammates, but he tried to keep it to himself."
To be sure, Caboclo didn't have his finest outing by any means. He missed six of his nine three-point attempts, turned the ball over seven times and drew a technical for shoving summer league standout Eric Griffin after getting dunked on by Dallas' C.J. Fair.
"He’s a talented, young, 18-year-old kid," Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors' director of global scouting, told Bleacher Report. "He’s very, very competitive. He wants to win, wants to improve every day, so there will be some days when he takes some lumps and then he’ll move forward and get better."
It's all part of the development process for Caboclo. Every game he plays is an opportunity not only for Caboclo to acclimate himself to a higher caliber of competition but also for the NBA at large to get to know this mysterious kid from Sao Paulo.
In truth, Caboclo was no enigma to Toronto, who took him with the 20th pick in the 2014 NBA draft. He'd been on the Raptors' radar for over a year, ever since earning MVP honors at Basketball Without Borders. Masai Ujiri, the Raptors' general manager and a native Nigerian, has been involved with BWB, an international partnership between the NBA and FIBA, for years.
"He’s a very serious kid," Ujiri told Bleacher Report of his first impressions of Caboclo. "He seems concentrated a lot. I watched him practice—very, very serious and worked really, really hard."
Toronto's interest in Caboclo grew this past December during a youth tournament put on by the Inter-American Development Bank in Brazil. The field featured under-22 teams, but Caboclo showed up with a squad comprised exclusively of kids 18 and under from Pinheiros, a club known best for producing Leandro Barbosa.
No matter. Caboclo put his teammates on his back and carried them to within a game-winning shot of the final. For his efforts, Caboclo added another MVP trophy to his burgeoning collection.
But even those extraordinary efforts left Caboclo short of recognition to most, including some of his future teammates with the Brazilian national team. "I didn’t know of him," Machado, an American-Brazilian, said on his own accord. "This is my first time meeting him. Seeing him play, he’s very talented. I mean, he’s something to watch."
Watching Caboclo get up shots in practice and during games, it's easy to see why Ujiri pulled the trigger on him in the first round. He glides across the court, with a fluid shooting stroke that belies his size (6'9") and wingspan (7'7"). His length allows him to pester opponents and disrupt passing lanes on the defensive end as well. At one point against the Mavs, Caboclo needed only to extend his gangly limbs to steal the ball and fling it up the court.
"You think of what he can do," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said at practice. "I don’t get too excited when he does something great and I don’t get too down when he makes mistakes. You use those as teaching moments and go from there because, again, this is summer league and you can be too excited for somebody. You can’t get too disappointed from it, but his upside is so, so good, and once he gets there, everybody’s gonna be excited about him being two years from being two years away."
Casey, of course, was referencing ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, who said during the draft that Caboclo was "two years away from being two years away."
Though Fraschilla has somewhat since distanced himself from the two-years-away-from-two-years-away quip, his gut reaction could prove true. Caboclo has a long way to go before he's truly ready to shine, both on and off the court.
For one, his grasp of the English language is still in its infancy. With his agent, Eduardo Resende, now back in Brazil, Caboclo has leaned on Raptors teammates Machado and Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira to translate his Portuguese.
"Once Bruno learns the language, that’s gonna bump up the speed of his growth," Casey said. "Once he can use one-word sentences where you don’t have to stop and wait for a translator, but you can tell he’s getting better with his English."
Bruno's game, while further along than his English, will also need plenty of work. That's to be expected of any teenager, but especially one who's just getting used to the kind of competition he'll face in North America.
"It’s a very huge difference than his basketball played back in Brazil," Caboclo said through Machado. "He said the game’s a lot quicker, on the defensive end and the offensive end. When you’re taking a jump shot, you have to already be ready to get back on defense because if you’re not, there’s already somebody on the other end ready to get a layup."
Caboclo has thus far surpassed the admittedly modest expectations that the Raptors had for him in Sin City. "I thought he would score one point a game, a couple points a game," Ujiri said. That stands in stark contrast to the 11.7 points per game that Caboclo put up through his first three summer league outings.
More interesting still is the proclivity Caboclo has shown for the three-pointer, particularly those from the short corners. Of the 10 shots Caboclo took against the Mavs, nine came from beyond the arc—not because Caboclo's a shooter, per se, but because he currently lacks the strength to attack pseudo-NBA opponents.
"When I saw him in Brazil, where the competition is a little bit less, he cut to the basket a few times, like he could get to the basket one or two times here," Ujiri said. "Because of his body strength, this is where he can go to now. But he’s not gonna be just a three-point shooter. I think he has other aspects of his game. His strength and his body coordination just doesn’t match up to that yet. He’s 18 years old! How did you look when you were 18? How did I look when I was 18?"
In some respects, Caboclo's demeanor belies his age. He's a quiet kid, owing perhaps to his lack of familiarity with the local tongue, his surroundings and the swarms of attention he's now getting. He's also incredibly focused and serious about his craft for someone his age, far more so than fellow Brazilian Nogueira, who's known around the Raptors for his infectious energy and positivity. Casey even wondered aloud whether some of Nogueira's happy-go-lucky spirit might rub off on Caboclo.
That sort of perspective will come in time. The Raptors would rather have a kid who cares too much than one who doesn't care enough.
"He wants to play well," Casey said. "He wants to play. Like I told him, this is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s gonna be a long marathon, so he’s going to have many downs, and probably more downs right now than ups. The way he fights through those is going to mean a lot to who he is."
Added Ujiri: "You can tell he doesn’t like losing. I’ll take that."
There's nothing wrong, then, with Caboclo showing so much emotion after a meaningless summer league game. If anything, it's a good sign for his future. It shows that he cares, that he wants to win, that he's a competitor through and through.
"The NBA is full of people that want to take your heart out," Ujiri went on. "He goes out there and he competes. He’s not one of those guys that’s scared of anything, so it’s good."
It could be some time before Caboclo is truly ready to compete at the highest level. The Raptors are well aware of that and insisted there won't be any pressure on Caboclo to be a key contributor any time soon. Such is the luxury afforded by Toronto's depth on the wings, between All-Star DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross in the starting lineup and Landry Fields and James Johnson coming off the bench.
For now, the Raptors will ask little of Caboclo aside from the hard work he's already proved willing to put into his game. They don't have any concrete expectations for Caboclo at the moment, though that won't keep him from finding ways to contribute to Toronto's future success.
"He says on the basketball court, there’s always something to do," added Machado on Caboclo's behalf. "If you’re not scoring, you can play defense. If you’re not playing good defense, you can try to help on the offensive end. He said in basketball there’s always something to do."
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