Raptors’ Bruno Caboclo maturing on and off the court

VICTORIA – Jerry Stackhouse had seen it all before.

For almost everyone else, the news seemed to come out of nowhere: Bruno Caboclo, the Toronto Raptors‘ sweet-smiling test case for the merits of long-term gratification was being dismissed from the Brazilian national team just three games into his international career.

As word filtered out from Colombia, where Brazil was playing Mexico in the FIBA Americas Cup in August, it seemed hard to fathom: Caboclo was being sent home for ‘an act of indiscipline’ – essentially pouting after being removed from the game and then doubling down by refusing to return to the game when asked.

Caboclo doesn’t deny the broad strokes.

“We were playing good, the team was new, it was the first time we were together but we had some misunderstandings on the team, some things they made up but it’s okay I made some mistakes and I learned,“ Caboclo explained to me with a confidence in his English skills that has grown every year since was drafted as an 18-year-old with the 20th pick in the 2014 draft.

“What happened is I went to the bench in the first quarter and [the coach] put me on the bench until there was one minute left in the second quarter and I was mad and I didn’t want to go play. I got mad. And in the locker room the [coach] told me I didn’t have to go back into the game, so that’s what happened.

“I’m competitive and I wasn’t playing bad and I was a big part of that team and I don’t know why he did that. I thought I would go back at seven or five minutes and then I was cold and everything.”

He sent home immediately, his first opportunity with his national team ending in embarrassment.

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Lost in the controversy was that he’d been dominant in a win over Argentina only days before, with a line of 23 points and 14 rebounds, while shooting 4-of-8 from deep.

And then the basketball equivalent of being sent to your room.

But Stackhouse, who coached the just-turned-22-year-old with the silky three-point stroke and the never-ending arms wasn’t surprised one bit.

As the head coach for Raptors 905, Toronto’s G League affiliate, one of his jobs has been to shape Caboclo’s considerable potential into a package of skills that can impact an NBA game. The talent is obvious. Long-armed wings that can defend two or three positions while spreading the floor as a shooter are gold in the league at this moment and likely in the future. Caboclo fits the description.

But he was so inexperienced as a player, so new to North America and so lacking in the emotional armour that players develop as they go through the Darwinian process of making it to the cusp of the NBA, the question has been when would his overall maturity catch up with his talent?

Caboclo is a different person than he was only a few years ago. (Chad Hipolito/CP)

Last season, playing primarily with the 905, Caboclo slowly seemed to grow into a player that was beginning to match the theory of what kind of player he could be, but it took time, and his emotional growth was a factor.

“That was his biggest improvement last year, taking all the reps he was doing in practices and being able to take them into game play out on the court and being able to make some mistakes and figure out what’s going on,” said Stackhouse, who led the 905 to their first championship last season as they ran roughshod through the league with a 39-11 record.

“I’m not sure he was there at the beginning of the season [and] he’s had some problems controlling his emotions.”

There was nothing as dramatic as what happened with the Brazilian team, but Caboclo’s timing wasn’t always the best.

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His tendency to get frustrated or hang his head emerged most memorably in Game 1 of the Raptors’ three-game G League (then D-League) final against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He got off to a quick start, stumbled for a moment and then seemed to disappear, mentally, as Stackhouse recalls it.

“In Game 1 he came out and made a couple of shots and was feeling really good and then he missed a couple and kind of hung his head and Pascal [Siakam] said something to him and it was like he was kind of out of it,” said Stackhouse. “And I’m like: it’s the Finals, bro. I don’t have time to wait for you [to get your head back in it]. So I took him out and figured we’d try to figure it out for the next game.

“We had a real heart-to-heart and he bounced back from it and was huge for us in those last two games … he had a huge offensive rebound and a couple of big defensive plays at the end of Game 2 that sealed it and then he was the best player on the floor in Game 3.”

Game 3 may be Caboclo’s signature moment to date as he went off for 31 points while grabbing 11 rebounds, blocking four shots and knocking down 5-of-7 threes for the best performance of his career.

“I didn’t have an opportunity in the NBA [last year],” said Caboclo, who played spot minutes in just nine games for the Raptors. “But I was doing my job in the D-League and the championship we won was part of the process and helped me to boost up and show the coaches that I can help the team.”

And from there I really worked hard this summer and I really hope it pays off. I didn’t take a break.”

“I feel like Toronto is more like home than Brazil now… I walk the streets of Toronto, it feels normal, I talk to everybody.”

Caboclo’s a different person than he was only a few years ago. He’s beginning to grow into his body physically. He’s completely adapted to life in Toronto: “I feel like Toronto is more like home than Brazil now,” he says. “I went home after the national team for a little bit and I couldn’t stay there for a long time, I wanted to come back to work and be part of the team.

“I walk the streets of Toronto, it feels normal, I talk to everybody.”

The word so far in training camp is that Caboclo has more than held his own, and that he’s closer than ever to finding a role on a team that is in flux, with a crowd of young players vying for minutes behind an established first unit.

“This year has been my best year in training camp,” he said. “I’m doing well, I’m more experienced, I can see the game easier, and I hope this year I get a lots of court time.”

There is no guarantee of that, but if there’s anything Caboclo’s learned it’s that dealing with that frustration is part the job description.

“I have to be ready to play in any moment and things are going to happen,” said Caboclo. “And I just have to do my job.”