A year ago Bruno Caboclo looked every bit the lost little boy he was in so many ways.
After the excitement of being drafted 20th overall by the Toronto Raptors had worn off a little bit and the stories about his surprising rise from relative obscurity to a guaranteed contract were written, the rubber hit the hardwood.
Reality hit Caboclo in the form of C.J. Fair, who went over and through the long, lanky Brazilian for one of the highlight dunks of the 2014 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
It wasn’t just the dunk it was the aftermath.
There was Caboclo pushing Fair and getting a technical foul. There was Caboclo on the Raptors bench, covering his head with a towel, wiping away tears, being comforted by his slightly bewildered teammates. A professional basketball player getting dunked on isn’t that unusual. Having them be reduced to tears certainly is.
A year later, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri believes the story says more about Caboclo’s promise than anything else. That’s important because for now that’s what the Brazilian teenager represents: promise, potential and the possibility of a big bet paying off.
Even with just 23 NBA minutes played and a couple of fractured D-League stints to show for it since Caboclo was plucked from obscurity on draft night, Ujiri is ready to double down.
"We’re much more enthusiastic now than when we drafted him," he said recently as the Raptors were preparing to build their off-season plan for Caboclo. "When you see the kid begin to fill out and start to understand little things about the NBA, and it’s a kid you’re bringing in from a totally different culture, you get excited. He’s basically a baby and you’re bringing him in to the NBA life, which is tough.
"He fought, he tried hard. His teammates supported him really well. In terms of development within our organization he did excellently. [In the] summer the concentration will be on him."
Even Caboclo’s teary-eyed moment in Las Vegas offers encouragement.
"He cares about winning. He cried in the Summer League because we were down 20 and he got dunked on. [We] took out for dinner he said it was because we were losing the game. It was a summer league game."
On Friday at the Thomas and Mack Centre in Las Vegas, Caboclo will get more than 21 minutes of playing time in a basketball game for the first time in 358 days. By the time the annual rite of passage for NBA hopefuls wraps up, he’ll have played more in a week than in the year since he was drafted. It might be an exaggeration to say that this is Caboclo’s Super Bowl, but the week he spends in Las Vegas is more meaningful for him than most other young players.
Until now Caboclo has been more of an R&D project than a basketball player. In theory a young player with rare physical gifts (according to a 15-year database compiled by DraftExpress.com, no other player six-foot-nine or shorter has ever recorded a wingspan matching Caboclo’s condor-like seven-foot-seven spread) and who receives the best training an organization can offer should improve. But spending an entire year without playing meaningful basketball is far from ideal when you’re trying to catch up to the best, most competitive players on earth.
Not surprisingly, as the Raptors get set to unveil Bruno 2.0 in Las Vegas, the internal expectations are muted.
No one is more curious about how Caboclo will fare than Raptors assistant coach Jama Mahlalela, who has virtually been Caboclo’s personal development coach since his first pre-draft workout with the club. They’ve spent hundreds of hours training together and now they get to see where it’s gotten them.
"This is his first actual crack at playing games. You could see it at practice. He’s done the drill work, but how do you translate that to live action and apply those drills I’ve been doing all year into a game?
"The expectation from the coaches isn’t that it’s going to happen in the first or second game, but the hope is that it happens as he gains more experience."
I last had a chance to talk with Caboclo during the playoffs and already he was looking forward to the summer after a trying season glued to the bench, spending day after day doing drills but never using them.
"I’m getting a lot better," he told me. "It was tough in the beginning of the year, more mentally than physically. You’re not playing, you’re just practicing and you get a little frustrated. But after you learn about it and the frustration makes you more strong.
"It was tough, but in the future, in summer league and the next season, the hard work will help me."
On the eve of his second summer league season, Caboclo was sounding buoyant about getting started: "I’m almost 100 percent comfortable," he said on Raptors.com, displaying his much-improved English, the product of long hours with a tutor. "Last year was my first year so I was a little bit confused about the plays, but this year I will be fine."
Greg Stiemsma and Landry Fields will ultimately go down as footnotes in Raptors lore, but if Caboclo ends up becoming an impactful player, they will forever be owed a debt of thanks. After most practices and before most games, Fields and Stiemsma would join Caboclo, and usually fellow Brazilian project Lucas Nogueira, for games of two-on-two or three-on-three. Watching Caboclo grow over the season was almost like seeing an NBA player develop via time-lapse photography.
"It was like playing with a kid, kind of at times, at the beginning, " Fields told me. "As a 19-year-old he would have just been a freshman in college, so there is no way he would be able to know the nuances of the game; there were reads he didn’t make or what have you. But there were some days when he was unstoppable because of his length and his strength. He’s thin, but he has a strength to him where if he has the ball up you can’t block it. If he gets a good start to the rim it’s almost impossible to guard, so there’s moments where you’re like, ‘wow,’ if he figures it out and his mentality catches up with him, maturity wise, he’s going to be a heck of a player."
Caboclo’s promise is an acknowledgement of basketball geometry: the court is only 50 feet wide. Every inch of that which is covered requires every pass to travel a little higher and thus slower, making it easier for the defence to adjust. Caboclo’s length and athleticism is what got him drafted and it hasn’t gone away. He has a chance to be a disruptive force merely by getting into defensive stance. If you play in the NBA you have been surrounded by athletic marvels most of your life. But Caboclo still caught his teammates off guard.
"We joked about it [his length] all year," said Fields. "Even though you see it, it’s still deceptive. You feel like you’re open or you see that someone is open and you make the pass and these Inspector Gadget arms come out of nowhere and he steals it or deflects it. You’re almost baffled. He’s halfway down the court getting a layup, you’re trying to figure out what just happened. That’s just God-given ability he has and physical stature. If he can figure out how to best use that he’s going to be a real problem."
The best part is from his seat at the end of the Raptors bench, always watching, never playing, Caboclo proved more of a student than a fan. Sure he was wowed watching LeBron up close after seeing him only on television; Chris Paul, too. But the player Caboclo identifies with is San Antonio Spurs do-everything forward Kawhi Leonard.
"Leonard is so serious. He plays very strong all the time. He doesn’t relax in the game," says Caboclo. "He’s amazing. If he misses, he keeps going, he doesn’t let it change his game. I seem myself more like Kawhi Leonard. He works so hard. He was new in the league but he’s improved and now he’s one of the best players in the league. He’s improved a lot every time. "
The Raptors hope Caboclo will begin making his great leaps. Ujiri says having him stay with the big club rather than play in Brazil or Europe this past year was worth it, even if his young rookie missed out on competing.
"It was worth it, keeping him with us," says Ujiri. "He gained 20 pounds of muscle; he learned how to eat properly. He saw what the NBA was like and he learned the language. If he played somewhere else last year he’d still have to do all of that stuff now."
But it’s hard to develop as a player without competing. Heading into the 2015-16 season, something had to be done.
Getting a D-League team has been on the franchise’s radar for years, but the quest was put into overdrive by the problems they had getting Caboclo playing time this past year. As one of several teams funnelling players to the unaffiliated Fort Wayne Mad Ants this past year, the Raptors had no control over how he was used when he went down.
"It has made us prioritize owning a D-League team," says Ujiri.
The Mad Ants felt no obligation other than to field their best and most experienced players. Sitting in the NBA was one thing, but playing just a few minutes a game during his placement in February was Caboclo’s low-point, those around the team acknowledge. He came back discouraged and depressed.
The Raptors allowed him to go to Brazil for a few days to see friends and family, and re-doubled their efforts to get a D-League team in the Toronto area for the 2015-16 season. That they were able to land the Mississauga-based Raptors 905 was significant in large part because of the presence of Caboclo.
"It will be huge for him," says Ujiri.
But even in that disappointment, the Raptors saw encouraging signs. He was down, but didn’t stay down. As the season came to a close and the summer drew closer, his workouts gained more urgency. Mahlalela has a shooting drill he’s been doing with Caboclo all season where he takes 150 threes from 15 spots on the floor. A year ago he would struggle to make 75, or 50 percent. As the season wore on, he crept up to the 60-percent range. Just a few weeks ago he cracked the 70-percent barrier, the threshold for what the Raptors would consider a solid performance for a good NBA shooter.
Since the season ended he’s been on a six-week program working backwards from summer league. For five days a week he lifts for an hour, does drills for an hour and — most importantly — scrimmages for an hour with some of the other young Raptors and some local professionals back for the summer.
"That was the first time he got to play basketball regularly for a year and he loved it," said Mahlalela. "The intriguing part was that in week one he didn’t stand out, but by week two, three, four, he did and we found ourselves saying that’s the No. 20 pick, that’s the guy who can be somebody in this league."
But first, there’s Las Vegas.