Heading into Tuesday’s matchup versus the New Orleans Pelicans, the Toronto Raptors have lost six of their last seven games. We know that’s because of some leaky defence, but one of the bright spots has been Lucas Nogueira.
The 24 year-old centre has the best net rating of Dwane Casey’s rotation players at 14.1 per game and has blocked at least one shot in 32 of his last 33 games. Nogueira ranks seventh in the NBA in blocks despite not playing consistent minutes to start the season. Currently, he’s one of two players in the league with 70 plus blocks and less than 1,000 minutes played. The other is Sixers super rookie Joel Embiid.
Because of his improved play Nogueira has seen his minutes triple from a season ago and leads the Raptors blocks (1.8), field goal percentage (68%), and is third on the team in plus minus (+5.2) behind Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson.
Sportsnet caught up with the Raptors big man to talk about the team’s defensive struggles, his newfound role and, of course, his buddy Bruno.
Sportsnet: Why has the team struggled defensively of late?
Lucas Nogueira: Right now I think it is just more communication, I don’t think we have bad team defence. When we have better communication things will be better.
SN: You have been a big contributor defensively. What is your specific role that you’ve been asked to execute?
LN: Blocking shots, changing shots, running hard in transition on offense and defence, trying to grab offensive rebounds when it’s possible, setting good screens, short roll and pass to the corner, full roll and catching the alley-oop finish. This is basically my whole game. I can show a couple more things in my game, but right now it’s not necessary. Coach wants me to do 2-3 things max to help the team, so I want to do what he wants me to do.
SN: Where does extending your range and shooting the three-point shot fit in that equation?
LN: I have that in my game. I’ve been working on three-pointers since I was in Europe. Coach doesn’t want me shooting threes right now because we have great shooters on the team. I know if you do what the coach wants he’s going to keep you on the floor for a long time.
SN: We’ve seen you play power forward at times this year. How is that different than playing the five?
LN: Every time I play four I get more used to it. The only hard part in comparison to playing the five is guarding the players in this league, because the four guys are so skilled. My teammates keep helping me on the gaps and it makes things easy for me.
SN: Have you had to adjust your game to adapt to the NBA?
LN: I don’t see any big adjustment. What you guys see right now, this is basically my game. I think this is the reason people think I can play in the NBA. I used to do this in Europe. I think this the reason I had the chance to get drafted. I just never had the chance to show it and play consistent minutes [at the NBA level]. But I don’t think there is any big adjustment. This is basically my game since I started playing basketball.
SN: What was the biggest challenge in playing limited minutes the last couple years?
LN: It’s hard. Not just for me I think a lot of young players in the NBA are in the same situation. Sometimes when you are playing on a winning team like Toronto it is hard to get oppourtunity. But things change. A couple people left and it opened up some spots here. So right now I’m so happy to help the team win games and take advantage of my opportunities.
SN: When Bismack Biyombo signed with the Orlando Magic in the offseason did you figure you were going to have a bigger oppourtunity?
LN: Yeah. I knew he was not going to come back. Before the season is over I knew he was not going to come back, because of the [salary] cap. So I started preparing myself over the summer because I knew the oppourtunity would be there. But if you are not ready to take advantage nothing is going to change.
SN: Have you talked to Bruno Caboclo about the transition you’ve made from a similar position that he’s currently in?
LN: I don’t know anymore. I don’t know anything more to say to Bruno. We had the conversation many times about being ready and being patient. But it’s hard. I told him not one time— we’ve had that conversation maybe 100 times— because we both grew up together the same year, same franchise. Right now I made that step forward. Anytime when I can I try to remind him it is possible I do. Just trust in God and trust the process and when you get there doesn’t matter if you play five or thirty minutes, you’ve got to play your best. Now I play 25 minutes a night but before I used to play two. In these two or three minutes you can gain the coach’s trust and he might keep you in the rotation. You have to be ready to play. You have to make sure Bruno see’s that and stays patient.
SN: You get one of the loudest ovations at the ACC when you check in. How’s it feel to have quickly become a fan favourite?
LN: It is special. It is special because people who are season ticket holders saw me grow up here on the team, be on the bench, sometimes don’t even dress and now I have huge progress. It is special to me to have affection from the people. Canadian people, they are so fanatical about sports so I’m so glad to be here and whenever I take the court the people have respect for me.
SN: The other life change for you is you are now a father. How have you changed since your daughter was born?
LN: Before she is grown up I realize I have to change my habits to be in the NBA. Of course she helped me to become a better person, a better human, a better player. Before my daughter was born I realized I need to change my life to stay here in the league. Now you don’t think about yourself anymore. Before you think about yourself you have to think about her. It’s a great experience.