The tracking of a basketball Big Foot

June 30, 2014, 9:34 AM

Patrick Engelbrecht was excited.

After months of tracking Bruno Caboclo but rarely seeing him play anything close to extended minutes in meaningful basketball games he was finally going to get the chance. The young Brazilian prospect wasn’t exactly Big Foot, but sightings of him playing real basketball were proving to be rare.

“I was definitely eager to see him play,” said Engelbrecht, the director of global scouting for the Toronto Raptors.

When he did watch Caboclo play four games in close succession, it would turn out to be the most important week in Caboclo’s career. His performance there led directly to the Raptors having the confidence to use the 20th pick in Thursday’s draft on an athlete almost no one had ever heard of prior to NBA commissioner Adam Silver stumbling on his name on stage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

How it all came to pass began this past December in Rio de Janeiro.

It was championship tournament week for the Liga de Desenvolvimento de Basquete–or LDB–the u22 development circuit jointly run by the Brazilian Basketball Confederation and Nova Basquete Brasil, the premier professional league in a country of 200-million people.

For players like Caboclo, a gangly 6-foot-8 (and still growing) 18-year-old full of promise but mostly buried on the bench of Sao Paolo-based Pinheiros/Sky team in the NBB, the junior loop was designed to provide regular competitive opportunities to help make the full-time jump to Brazil’s top league and national team program.

For a scout like Engelbrecht, charged with tracking players in all kinds of circumstances all over the planet, it was paradise.

“There were a ton of teams, they played for like six days they got it down to a Final Four on the weekend,” said Engelbrecht, who was doing research for his first draft working for Toronto’s general manager Masai Ujiri. “[Caboclo] was playing sparing minutes for his club team, which is normal. When you’re scouting younger players internationally, you are almost always watching them playing against men and getting maybe five or 10 minutes a game in blowouts or something or if someone gets hurt.”

“But this LBD league was his opportunity to get consistent minutes against guys who were under 22.”

The tournament was held at the home grounds of the historic Flamengo basketball club–the richest club in Brazil.

Engelbrecht says the cloak-and-dagger aspect of the Raptors hunt for Caboclo has been a tad overblown since he was made a surprise first-round pick on Thursday night, but by the same token he wasn’t front and centre for most clubs.

He wasn’t on the Brazilian team for the u19 World Championships last year–as a 1995 birthday who was on the young side of the cohort–and sources say injury or club commitments kept him off the international roster for the Nike Hoop Summit this past spring.

He first came onto Toronto’s radar when he was the most valuable player at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp for the top 60 prospects in South America that was held in Argentina in July 2013.

But he wasn’t a secret.

On the floor, Caboclo was working with players that were either assistant coaches or executives from five different NBA teams.

“There were lots of NBA people there,” says Engelbrecht.

 

But given that he had yet to turn 18, the expectation then was that Caboclo would most likely be a candidate for the 2015 draft. Regardless, the Raptors made a fateful decision to track the teenager with massive hands and arms that seemed to stretch below his knees.

The challenge was how to track him?

It is a 10-hour journey to San Paolo–a long way to travel to see a prospect sit on the bench, yet Ujiri’s clear mandate to his scouting staff is that while individual and group workouts have their place, the only true test when evaluating players is seeing how they perform in competitive five-on-five settings. The expectation is for prospects to be seen competing multiple times by multiple members of the organization.

The championship finale of the LDB was Engelbrecht’s first good chance to see Caboclo, so he was pumped. As an added bonus, there didn’t seem to be many other NBA clubs represented at the arena that day.

“We were definitely in the minority,” said Engelbrecht.

He got his wish: Caboclo played a lot, and played well.

Pinheiros is considered one of the stronger development clubs in the NBB and they were fielding a very young team made up mainly of 17- and 18-year olds with an eye to the future, making them the youngest in the competition. There was some good talent on the roster, but Caboclo was the focal point.

“Their team was young,” said Engelbrecht. “Their point guard was 16 years old, they were basically high school senior and juniors, so this was his team. They had other pivotal players, but [Caboclo] was absolutely counted on to be the lead player on the team.”

The competition was good — comparable to NCAA tournament teams according to Engelbrecht — and from the outset Caboclo was a factor as Pinheiros made a surprising run to the tournament semifinal.

“He was the best player there as an 18 year old,” he said. “His impact was immediate. They were younger and not as physically strong as the other teams so they pressed and played really up-tempo and they had Bruno at the top of the press, guarding point guards, small forwards, he was trapping, sliding his feet.”

“The first thing you see with him is he was very disruptive with his length and his motor to defend. He just had a natural knack for getting after people. That was the first thing, you thought ‘this guy is going to be a good defender once he figures it out.’”

“Offensively he had really big game in the quarter-final, hit a bunch of big threes and got them to the semi-final, which was a surprise for them.”

“I came back and told Masai this guy is definitely intriguing and someone we should follow closely,” said Engelbrecht.

It’s not a recommendation to make lightly.

Ujiri’s first job is to mind the store at the Air Canada Centre, and the Raptors at that point were still in need of attention, with the possibility of trading Kyle Lowry looming.

“Your guys are telling you to jump on a plane and go to Brazil because there’s a game and he might be playing because another guy is hurt,” says Ujiri. “That’s where it a gamble.”

But it’s a gamble any good organization takes.

The NBA salary cap has only got more punitive, making it more difficult for organizations to overspend to acquire talent. And while a few markets will always have a cache for free agents, Toronto isn’t one of them yet.

Also, as the Raptors didn’t tank for a draft pick last season and are now too good to tank in the near future, the challenge becomes finding elite talent without drafting in the top five or having LeBron James knock on your door.

“We have to be creative,” says Ujiri.

Still, the flip side is the need to guard against the natural instinct of every scout or talent evaluator to overrate players that aren’t widely known.

“In our heads we all find we’re finding a guy,” said Ujiri. “Scouts, GMs, everybody.”

At the very least Caboclo easily passed the ‘Duh’ test. His physical dimensions alone make him a promising NBA prospect.

He was the youngest player in the draft class and his wingspan is reportedly 7-foot-7. According to a database at DraftExpress.com, which includes records going back more than 15 years, Caboclo would be the first player 6-foot-9 and under in the NBA with a wingspan that wide. He would instantly have the second-widest reach in the NBA, topped only by Rudy Gobert, a 7-foot-2 centre with the Utah Jazz.

Moreover, his hands are massive, with fingers that reach halfway up your forearm on a handshake.

The Raptors allowed the media five minutes to watch Caboclo at the end of a workout before he was introduced on Saturday and the basketball seemed to disappear in his mitts–a great advantage when attacking the basket.

As an added bonus, his shooting fundamentals are sound, with range in workouts extending to the NBA 3-point line, although workouts and games are different things. Still, using a first-round pick on a player who was averaging 13 minutes a game for Pinheiros has risks.

“There’s no data in terms of his playing experience,” said Ujiri. “That’s why it’s a gamble with an 18-year-old kid. A lot of these kids have played in college, they’ve played in Europe, they have experience in some kind of way. With this kid, there’s barely any of that.”

That said, Ujiri believes that were an athlete of Caboclo’s dimensions playing in the U.S. high school and AAU system, he’d be a public figure with all of his highlights on YouTube.

At the McDonald’s All-American game this past April, the Raptors scouting staff compared their notes on the Brazilian with the talent on hand at the American talent showcase and concluded Caboclo would be at the very top of the class.

“If he was coming out of high school here, he’d be going to Kentucky,” said Ujiri.

But after seeing him in December and making multiple visits to Brazil along with other members of the Raptors staff, Engelbrecht became most impressed by his nature. The MVP award at the BWB camp isn’t just for the best player, he points out, but for the best camper–the kid who hustles, listens, works and is generally the most keen.

That’s what made the Raptors more and more comfortable as they went further along in the process. After his standout showing in December, Ujiri made sure his entire talent evaluation team saw Caboclo play multiple times and over several visits some deeper trends emerged.

“I saw his work ethic,” says Engelbrecht who downplays any suggestion that he ‘discovered’ Caboclo and rather credits Ujiri for investing the time and resources to follow a distant prospect. “He’s wired in a way that he loves basketball, he loves to be coached, he’s a sponge. He accelerated his development because he had the good fortune to played for Pinheiros and they had (former NBA players) Leandro Barbosa on the team and Rafael Araujo and some good Americans. It was a veteran, good team and he listened and progressed pretty quickly.”

The Raptors were hoping to take Caboclo with the 37th pick in the draft, but became concerned that other teams were getting up to speed on their ‘secret’ prospect. With the 20th pick and the clock ticking Thursday night, they made their decision.

One week in December and the follow up work that came out of it gave them the confidence to introduce Bruno Caboclo to the greater basketball world sooner than anyone ever expected.

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