Lucas Nogueira ducks his head through a tucked-away door at the back of the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas and heads toward the gym. Standing seven feet tall—before accounting for several inches of insouciant tufts of wild black hair—Nogueira is impossible to miss. Wearing a pair of mirrored aviators, a black tank top, and a smile nearly as wide as his 7-foot-6 wingspan, heads turn and the corners of mouths draw upward as he steps onto the court. He makes his way through the Raptors’ bench, slapping or shaking hands with Toronto’s summer squad, which includes a pair of first-round big men, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl.
In a few short months, when the regular season begins, he’ll be looking up at both on the Raptors depth chart. But now, here in Vegas, the affable Brazilian and his infectious energy is making quick fans of the rookies, stealing a microphone to interview Siakam and drawing uproarious giggles from the freshmen. Nogueira is a spectator at the NBA Summer League this time around, having already spent three years in the league’s annual tournament. He’ll scrimmage with the Raptors throughout the week, but with pending nuptials, a child on the way, and a desire to spend time at home in Brazil during the upcoming Olympics, the decision for Nogueira to sit out was an easy one.
It also signaled that the man affectionately known as Bebe had officially entered the next stage in his career.
With Bismack Biyombo departing and a crop of unproven bigs on the roster, Nogueira entered the 2016-17 season with a new opportunity: To carve out a meaningful role in the Raptors’ rotation. After two years of biding his time, and proving he’s too good for the level below the NBA, the backup centre job was Nogueira’s to losethroughout last month’s training camp.
But he’s had chances in the past, only to be beset by injury, usurped in the rotation or both. And now it might be happening again. In the final game of the pre-season, mere minutes from the most important of his four seasons, Nogueira suffered a sprained ankle. Once he makes his debut, he’ll have to fight the rookie Poeltl for minutes and reestablish his worth to the club. Like Biyombo before him, he has the talent and potential to be an X-factor off the bench for Toronto.
But he’s not Bismack Biyombo. He’s Lucas Nogueira.
“Biz is gone. He’s impossible to replace. It’s impossible.” Nogueira explains, “People say ‘Now’s your time.’,But I’m not gonna replace what Biz did. I’m gonna play like Lucas knows how to play.”
How Lucas knows how to play is very different from what the Raptors traditionally expect from the backup center position, a reality that’s taken Nogueira some time to get used to. Head coach Dwane Casey provides his reserves with limited role cards, asking them to focus on defense, setting screens, and finishing around the rim. That Nogueira has flashed 3-point range, that he displayed handles good enough to essentially play point-center in the D-League, and that he makes passes that only a dozen or so other bigs in the NBA can make, is great. But it’s not his job.
“In the NBA I don’t need to do 10, 20 things,” Nogueira says at Summer League in July. “Just three or two, max.”
And so Nogueira spent his summer focusing on the weight room, looking to add strength to bang with larger NBA centers and to improve his conditioning. He’s doing everything possible to ensure he doesn’t miss this opportunity again.
A year ago this time, Nogueira was competing for the gig Biyombo so emphatically won. During training camp in 2015, Nogueira suffered a hamstring injury—the same one that essentially cost him his rookie year four years ago.
Even at full strength, playing time hadn’t exactly come easy for the 24 year-old, and through his first 99 games, Nogueira had played just 27 minutes of NBA basketball. Yet in Game 100, with Jonas Valanciunas sidelined, Nogueira got his first real chance. Midway through the third quarter of a December 2015 game against the Atlanta Hawks—the team that acquired him on draft night in 2013—Noguiera checked in and sparked a furious comeback. Playing the game’s final 16 minutes and grabbing seven rebounds, he helped the Raptors turn a 12-point deficit into a 10-point victory. A few nights later, Nogueira gave the team 25 fantastic minutes against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, scoring 14 points and dishing three assists while his length wreaked havoc on both ends of the floor.
He also suffered a sprained ankle in that game and, in limited action, appeared in only 23 games the rest of the season.
“The key with Lucas is just consistency,” says Casey. “Last year, he’d play well two games, then get hurt. And then the opportunity didn’t come around because Biz stepped in and took advantage of it.”
By the time he recovered, the window had firmly shut.
On Media Day at BioSteel Centre in late September, Nogueira sounds more somber than is his custom, and it’s easy to understand why. Three months can be a veritable eternity when waiting for something, and Nogueira’s been anticipating training camp all summer. Checking in a little thicker through the lower half and without any injury or limitation to report, Nogueira seems quietly – and uncharacteristically – anxious to put hypotheticals behind him and begin competing for a role he knows he can run with.
Before the pre-season Casey referred to him as the “prime candidate” for the backup center spot. But Nogueira has no expectations, and the rapid learning curve of Siakam and Poeltl is difficult to ignore.
The Raptors have never been shy about thrusting young players into duty if necessary, and Nogueira’s correct that if he coasts or stumbles, the team has other options.
“I’m not gonna say it’s my spot because I have more time in the league than the rookies,” he says of the elephants in the room, “The Raptors just drafted two amazing big men, so I’ve gotta fight for the position.”
As inconsistent as Nogueira can sometimes be both on and off the court, his attitude toward his role has mostly remained steady. And while sometimes when he speaks you can hear the frustration in not being able to offer the full gamut of his talents, he’s keenly aware of what it’s going to take to win this position battle. Aware that he needs to lock down <em>any</em> role before he can worry about expanding it.
“I have a lot to show people. But not to prove,” he clarifies. “Because I know I can do a lot of things, but the coach don’t need me to do those things. Basically, they want me to catch alley-oops, run the floor, set screens, and block shots. And those things you don’t need to learn, it’s kinda natural. God gave me the size and the length.”
Nogueira isn’t as bouncy or agile as Biyombo, but he’s much bigger, with a standing reach of 9-foot-6. He’s also posted solid block rates nearly everywhere he’s played, ranking second in the Spanish ACB League, considered the second-best league on the planet, before joining the NBA. Last season he turned away 5.5 percent of opponents’ two-point attempts with Raptors 905, a rate that would have ranked him 12th on the junior circuit had he stayed long enough to qualify. And while his skill-set could make him a plus for the second-unit offense, it’s on the other end of the floor where he’ll have to produce to be a part of the Raptors’ rotation.
“We’re not gonna completely change the way we play offensively. What were we, third in efficiency? I’m more concerned defensively with that group of bigs,” Casey says.
Microphones shut off and people shuffle out of the BioSteel Centre while a small crowd lingers around Nogueira. It’s three weeks into the pre-season, and Jared Sullinger, the Raptors’ lone off-season signing, is on the shelf following foot surgery. Through three weeks of camp, Siakam has been deemed more combo-forward than combo-big; and to this point Nogueira has clearly outplayed 21-year-old rookie Poeltl. He’s turned away 7.4 percent of opponents’ attempts when he’s been on the floor, earned rave reviews for doing subtler things right on the offensive end, and most importantly, short of one 3-point attempt late in the shot clock, he’s stayed within his job description. After months of repeating it to himself, Nogueira’s message to himself seems to have sunk in.
“Block shot, change shot, run the floor, grab rebounds, and set good screens,” he repeats, like a mantra. “This is my job on the team and it’s very important I recognize my role.”
Suddenly there’s no longer a sense of begrudging acceptance as those words flow out of his mouth (though he is quick to jokingly remind everyone that he’s capable of knocking down threes). He’s being especially philosophical on this day, as he’s wont to do, and questions about his ability to handle the opportunity in front of him strike a nerve.
“It’s hard to make people trust, believe, and take me serious because of how much I like to smile and have fun,” Nogueira says, his face beaming, seemingly always on the verge of laughter. “Unfortunately, a lot of coaches and other people think I’m not ready or I’m not focused. Sometimes people don’t know how to separate being professional and to be happy. Every day I try to show them that I can separate, to be happy and smile, and at the same time be ready to go.”
Because consistency has always been an issue, a line has often been drawn between performance and Nogueira’s seeming indifference, that because he doesn’t get too down, he doesn’t care. It’s an understandable, if unfair leap.
But Nogueira isn’t about to change his values just to appease those around him.
“I know how tough the business is, the NBA. People gotta be hungry, angry every day,” he says. “But this is not my personality. I just like to have fun. Life is too short to be sad.”
Perhaps it was inevitable given the realities of the NBA marketplace, but on Oct. 23, as he was demonstrating his value in the pre-season, the Raptors exercised their fourth-year option on Nogueira’s rookie-scale contract. He no longer has to joke with teammates about campaigning for his option to be picked up, or wonder how the next bad game might hurt his future. He’s under contract through 2017-18, and he’ll make $2.95-million next season, life-changing money Nogueira downplays needing.
He’s far more excited about the chance to show why the organization made the decision to keep him in the fold. “I know my teammates trust my game, they see me in practice every day,” he says. “But the fans don’t know about me because they don’t see me on the court. This year is a great opportunity to show everybody what I can do.”
Nogueira’s not shying from who he is, despite his injury. As he nurses his ankle back to health, he’s still heard as much as he’s seen, bouncing through the locker room boisterously claiming to be “on a new level,” the latest in a long string of temporary borrowed catch-phrases he regularly drops in conversation. That level of energy is a big part of what makes Nogueira what he is off the court and what he could be on it.
“The Raptors people they ask what I want from me in the future so I say HH: Happy and Healthy,” he says. “When I’m happy and healthy things come natural on the court.”
He just needs the chance. Again.