Tough decisions could push Raptors’ Nogueira into spotlight next season

Get to know Lucas Nogueira of the Toronto Raptors- why he was afraid to grab the rim, what job his dad wanted him to get, and how much of his day he spends singing.

TORONTO — A few weeks ago, at the morning shootaround before a Toronto Raptors home game, a player went into the press conference room where coach Dwane Casey and other members of the organization speak to the media. He proceeded to hug each and every member of the assembled press because he was feeling sad. For 99 per cent of the NBA’s players, this would be wildly uncharacteristic behaviour, something to legitimately worry about. Yet given it was Raptors big man Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira doing the embracing, nobody was too surprised. It was just another example of Bebe being himself.

Anyway, as Nogueira made the rounds, he finally got to one reporter who warned the 7-footer that he was sick, and he should probably forgo the hug. “Bro, I’m from Brazil,” Nogueira said, “Do you think I’m worried about getting sick in Toronto?”

It is hard not to like Nogueira. He comes off as much emoji as human, the living embodiment of comic sans font (which is hated by font enthusiasts, but that’s besides the point). He walks around with his Sideshow Bob hair, jokes about how starters are special and to be protected at all costs, and uses “high-level” as an adjective like ‘90s surfer dudes used “gnarly.”

Basically, he looks to be having fun all of the time, all too rare in professional sports. That has been a mark against him in the past. But Casey isn’t fooled.

“Behind that smile,” the coach said, “there is a competitor, a competitiveness about him that you don’t see. It’s there. When you first meet him, you probably don’t know because he’s such a smiley kid.”

There is a chance Raptors fans are going to get to know Nogueira a whole lot better next season. With Jonas Valanciunas’s salary set to skyrocket from US$4.7-million to more than US$14-million next year, and Bismack Biyombo due for a huge raise the Raptors may not be able to afford to pay him, Toronto is going to have to make some tough decisions up front. While it is possible both Valanciunas and Biyombo are back next year, it is a lot more likely that the Raptors will have to sacrifice one or the other in order to maintain some financial flexibility.

Even with the cap set for a huge leap, it is imperative for teams to have several rotation players on smaller contracts — either rookie-scale deals or bargain-hunting ones for veterans. This year’s Raptors have five regular contributors making less than US$5-million: Valanciunas, Biyombo, Terrence Ross, Luis Scola and James Johnson. We know that Valanciunas and Ross will have eight-figure salaries next year, and Biyombo might, too. Combine that with the huge raise DeMar DeRozan will get — chances are, the Raptors will give it to him — and the team is going to have to find some cheap rotation pieces, even with Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson on team-friendly deals.

Enter Nogueira. He is owed US$1.9-million next year, and if you can slot him into the 15-20 minute range that a backup centre gets, it would be grand for the Raptors.

Is he ready for that load? After watching him play just 181 NBA minutes over the last two seasons, it’s still too soon to say. His spurts of play have been promising, surely.

Nogueira is not going to score from the post like Valanciunas or dominate defensively with his agility, timing and athleticism like Biyombo, but he might split the difference. In brief runs with the Raptors, we have already seen him alter plenty of shots with his absurd length, and finish lobs from Kyle Lowry with regularity. Those who have seen him in the D-League — he has played 277 minutes in 11 appearance with Raptors 905 — already know there is more to his game.

“I shoot threes there. I love it. I look for more assists,” Nogueira said at the BioSteel Centre on Tuesday. “I can’t get assists here. It’s part of my game, but I don’t have the ball in my hands too much. In the D-League, I have the ball in my hands. A lot of big men, when they catch the rebound, they don’t know what to do. There, I can push the fast break and give the first pass for some threes for a trailer or in the corner in transition, things that I can’t do here. I’ve got to catch the ball here and find the point guard.”

“His passing skills are uncanny. He has excellent hands,” Casey added. “He’s gotten used to the physicality. I think that’s the biggest change or adjustment he’s had to make to the NBA. Everything he does will translate at some point with the right opportunity.”

We know it’s not coming this year. With the addition of Jason Thompson and the theoretical return of DeMarre Carroll, who could soak up some small ball minutes at power forward, barring significant injuries it is unlikely there will be any time up front in the post-season. Next year is merely a guess at this point. The more he is told he is capable of playing in the NBA, the more interminable the waiting becomes.

Nogueira was clearly frustrated with being shuttled to Mississauga earlier in the year, revealing his state of mind to groups of reporters several times. He downplays that now, saying it gave him a chance to expand his game.

“I had 38, 35 minutes to work on whatever I wanted,” Nogueira said on Tuesday. “So why should I be sad?”

It is natural, though, for Nogueira to pine for more, especially when he’s proven useful in his limited time. He understands that he needs to refine his shot and his defensive positioning to be able to step into a larger role; you can’t blame him for yearning for that opportunity.

At least the emotional volatility of the start of the year has given way to quotes that will endear him to the Raptors’ coaches and executives.

I need to work a little bit more,” Nogueira said. “I hope to become a high-level player in this league [but] still have a long way. Right now, I’m between mid-level and low-level.”