With the Toronto Raptors on the verge of finishing atop the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history as they set a new franchise record for wins in a season, there shouldn’t be much that isn’t known about this roster. Two four-time All-Stars and the best bench in the NBA, but maybe this team has a secret weapon in third string center Lucas Nogueira that could be a difference-maker when the Raptors are in trouble.
“When Lucas is locked in, I think Lucas is one of the best centers, shot blockers, shot changers in the league,” Kyle Lowry said after the Raptors recent win over the Celtics in Toronto. “It’s unfortunate sometimes his rotations haven’t been good for him all year.
“He’s a true professional. He’s been coming in and getting his extra work in and when he’s playing, he’s been good.”
It’s fair to say Nogueira has been a true professional this season, unfortunately that statement would have been a lot harder to make in the past. The fun-loving big Brazilian center has come across as entitled, unfocused, and soft in past seasons, but his natural gifts made everyone around him hope he could put it together and this year, there’s a case to be made that he’s doing it.
In his 47 games this season Nogueira has put together a team best defensive rating of 96.7. Steady reliable Fred VanVleet comes in second at 99.6 in his 73 games.
When it comes to blocking shots, Nogueira’s been swatting away an insane career best 8.3 percent of the two-point shots while he’s been on the court. To put that in context, the Knicks Kristaps Porzingis is the official leader in that stat this season at 6.4 percent. Jakob Poeltl is next best on the Raptors at 5.4 percent and Serge Ibaka swats 3.7 percent. (Toronto has the second most blocks per game in the NBA this season.)
But it’s Nogueira’s defensive play since the end of February as his teammates started taking their collective efforts off the defensive end that really stands out. In his last 12 games, Nogueira has a defensive rating of 76.4. Over the same time period Delon Wright has been the Raptors best regular rotation player on “D” with a defensive rating of 102.9.
“He gives us a presence at the rim,” Fred VanVleet said. “He makes those intangible plays in the game that are rare for a big.”
And he does make those intangible plays that are rare for a big man, but Nogueira still has to fight the perception that he’ll lose his focus the longer he’s on the court, so coach Casey remains reluctant to use him unless Poeltl and Jonas Valanciunas aren’t getting the job done.
This year Nogueira has been ready to play when Casey calls and he’s been seen so little by the Raptors opponents that he really is like a secret weapon. It is almost impossible to prepare for the impact of a focused Nogueira as his game is completely different from Poeltl or Valanciunas as was readily evident when Casey subbed him in against the Celtics on Wednesday night. (Nogueira had a plus/minus of +19 in 17.8 minutes.)
It’s worth noting Nogueira will be a free agent at the end of this season. He’s talented, motivated, and needs to prove he deserves a new contract next year. History has shown that can be a dangerous combination if you’re on the other team.