Caboclo forging his own path to NBA by remaining in G League

Raptors forward Bruno Caboclo stretches out during training camp (Chad Hipolito/CP)

TORONTO – Bruno Caboclo doesn’t have to be playing another season in the G League. The days of having to shuttle back-and-forth to Mississauga to suit up for Raptors 905 or stuff his 6-foot-9 frame into a coach class seat on a commuter jet to get to Fort Wayne for a big game against the Mad Ants could technically behind him.

Amazingly, Caboclo is now entering his fourth year of NBA service time, having just turned 22.

As a result, he can only play in the G League if he chooses.

But with the Raptors minor-league affiliate tipping off their home schedule at the Hershey Centre against the visiting Long Island Nets on Wednesday night, the lanky Brazilian wasn’t only there to pick up the G League championship ring he earned last season.

He’s there to play.

Though he is excited about the ring.

“The ring is very good looking, it looks like an NBA ring,” he said on Tuesday night after being inactive for the fourth time this season with the Raptors. He’s played in only two games for a total of seven minutes. “I didn’t the think the G League would be that fancy.”

He earned it. Caboclo’s 31-point, 11-rebound, four-block performance in the deciding game of the 905’s championship series is probably the best performance of his career to this point.

But it’s not just the jewellery; Caboclo has decided to suit up for the 905 again, extending his own franchise record for games played.

“I just think I need to play [instead] of just staying on the bench,” said Caboclo, who draws his full NBA salary of $2.45 million whether he’s in the G League or with the Raptors. “I’m going to 905 so I can have playing time. I think it’s better for me so I can have a chance to show myself and maybe Coach Casey will think I can help the team.”

After a strong finish to his third professional season, the Brazilian who was taken No. 20 overall by the Raptors in 2014 – much higher than any experts had projected – there were hopes that he would be ready by now to earn some minutes in a Raptors rotation that is full of young players, several of whom he played alongside with the 905 and have since passed him on the depth chart.

But he wasn’t ready. It was plain during the Raptors’ exhibition season, where Caboclo started one game and played generously in three others but looked uncertain and hesitant, finishing with seven turnovers compared with four made field goals. When rookie OG Anunoby returned from his knee injury sooner than predicted and when second-year man Pascal Siakam jumped from deep in the rotation to right in the heart of it with some career-best performances on the Raptors’ road trip, it was clear that the likelihood of Caboclo being part of the Raptors rotation were minimal at best.

It’s not supposed to work like that for a first-round pick.

But deciding to return to the G League was still his choice to make, and after meeting with Raptors president Masai Ujiri Tuesday after the latter returned from a scouting trip in Europe Caboclo decided that he needed to play somewhere more than he needed to be in the NBA.

“I just think I did to play [instead] of just staying on the bench,” he said. “I’m going to 905 so I can have playing time. I think it’s better for me so I can have a chance to show myself and maybe Coach Casey will think I can help the team.”

Ujiri was pleased to hear it.

“It’s a huge step for him to do this without feeling embarrassed, that he can set aside pride or ego,” said Ujiri. “It’s going to help him and it’s a sign to me that he’s progressing.”

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The expectation isn’t that Caboclo go to the G League and attempt to dominate offensively. The idea is for him to build on a solid finish to last season where he showed signs of growing into the role the Raptors have projected for him: a long-limbed versatile defender who can serve as a credible threat from beyond the three-point line.

They’ll also be looking for Caboclo to show greater resiliency and shake a habit of getting down on himself at times.

But even if the returns have been modest after three years of investment, the Raptors remain committed to Caboclo, reasoning that athletes with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and solid shooting mechanics – Caboclo was beaming the other day when he said he shot a personal best 82 out of 100 on corner threes in a recent catch-and-shoot drill and and 73-for-100 on threes from around the arc while moving – are difficult to find.

“If we didn’t have a guy like Bruno,” says Ujiri, “We’d be looking for one.”

But Ujiri allows that the organization has learned a lot over the past three seasons from taking Caboclo as an unproven prospect with great measurables but short on any significant competitive basketball pedigree. His presence has coincided with – and in some ways been the inspiration for – the franchise investing heavily into player development.

And what they’ve come to appreciate is that there is no one-size-fits all solution.

“You can’t put them all in group,” he says. “They’re not a pack, they’re individuals.”

One decision he’s wrestled with is if it would have been better for Caboclo to spend a year or two in Europe and allow him to develop overseas before bringing him to the NBA and starting the clock ticking on his rookie contract. “It may have been a mistake [to have him in Toronto],” says Ujiri. “But I’m not 100 per cent sure him playing in Europe would have been better.”

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The logic in having him with the Raptors was to have greater control over his diet and conditioning while he was still developing so much physically, to help him work on his English and to acclimatize him to the NBA and the Raptors way of doing business.

There have been successes, but Caboclo has had some setbacks too. He has a tendency to let his emotions get the better of him at times – there have been tears of frustration and bouts of anger too as when he was sent home from the Brazilian national team this past summer after an argument about playing time. But even those offer some encouraging signs as there is little doubt that Caboclo cares and wants to do well.

Were he content to occupy a spot on an NBA bench and fly the charter would likely be a lot less optimistic about Caboclo’s as yet unrealized promise. That he’s volunteered to extend his record for games played with the 905 is a sign their faith hasn’t been misplaced.

“I think he’s going to be okay,” says Ujiri. “He’s going to get it. “With age most of them get it, especially if they are good kids, and Bruno is a great kid.”

But the kid is in Year 4 now, with a lot on the line, professionally. The Raptors didn’t extend his contract before the season started which means he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer, providing the Raptors make him a qualifying offer. Given that Toronto will be hard-pressed to avoid the luxury tax they may allow him to become an unrestricted free agent.

In either of those scenarios it’s up to Caboclo to prove his worth – not only to the Raptors, but to 29 other teams – and that his potential is more than theoretical.

Given all of that Caboclo’s choice was obvious: his best route to the NBA was staying where he was a year ago and the year before that.