TORONTO — After riding the bench for most of his first two NBA seasons, Toronto Raptors centre Lucas (Bebe) Nogueira made some changes on and off the court.
He started going to bed early, hit the gym more often and improved his work ethic. Nogueira doesn’t go out as often and has completely stopped drinking alcohol.
Motivated by the arrival of his baby daughter, Nogueira is showing some of his potential now that he’s more focused and playing a more prominent role. He’s averaging over 20 minutes of court time per game this season and has taken advantage of the opportunity.
"The sky is the limit for the kid because he’s got a lot of God-given talent," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "He just needs to make sure he continues to work at it, to seriously approach his job in that way because he’s a great kid. He’s a lovable kid, all of his teammates love him, the coaches love him.
"But he’s just got to make sure he understands that (he’s) got to continue on this path to be as great a player as he can be."
Nogueira said he’s injury-free and has much more energy on the court this season. That has allowed him to make better use of his seven-foot 220-pound frame to block shots, open the court for his teammates and help with transition play.
Serving primarily as a backup to starter Jonas Valanciunas, Nogueira is averaging 4.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game. He appears more comfortable this season and has offered a lively, energetic presence that often gives his team a boost.
"My focus is to keep playing and having fun because I’ve been sitting on the bench for a long time," Nogueira said Thursday after practice at the BioSteel Centre. "Now my chance is coming, so I want to take advantage of this (and play) for as many years as I can."
The 24-year-old Brazilian played in Spain before making six appearances for the Raptors in the 2014-15 season. He played in 29 games in 2015-16 and has already surpassed that this season with 31 appearances, including a pair of starts.
Nogueira said cutting out the "little bit" of alcohol he was consuming made a significant difference.
"I changed a couple bad habits during the summer," he said. "I put the work in over the summer and started working harder, being humble, and being more professional. I think this is the reason that things are going way better than my first two years."
His eyes really light up when he talks about his seven-week-old daughter, Stella.
"My daughter made me change," Nogueira said. "I saw my career going down. Two years you sit on the bench, the chance (may) never come. During the summer, I realized it wasn’t the coach’s fault. It was my fault. I (wasn’t) doing the extra (work) or doing the right things to (stay) on the court. I realized in the summer and I put in the work in the summer because I knew the chance was going to be coming, and now I’m so happy that things are going well.
"But like I said, it was nobody (else’s) fault. It was my fault. I realized when I had my daughter that I’ve got to feed her now. So this is the reason that makes me wake up and go get it."
Nogueira has taken on the primary backup role that Bismack Biyombo — now with the Orlando Magic — had last season. The former teammates still keep in touch.
"He’s so proud because when he left, he told me to go get it because this is going to be my year," Nogueira said. "Now I’m just trying to make it happen, make him happy and proud of me."
Nogueira, who has also seen action at power forward this season, is considered a strong passer and a solid rim protector. He has a nice shooting touch but is still a work in progress.
"I just saw the growth from Lucas," Casey said. "His maturity, his development, his toughness. One thing he’s got to continue to do is stay in the weight room because you’ve got some bruisers in this league that you’ve got to take the hits from. He’s been doing that. But his work ethic has really elevated itself because again, it’s his future, it’s his job.
"How he develops is important. It’s important for himself, it’s important for us because he’s becoming an important part of what we’re doing as a team."