Being two years away from being two years away doesn’t sound so harsh two years after the very young Brazilian forward Bruno Caboclo was drafted 20th overall by the Toronto Raptors. With a full NBA D-League season under his belt, Caboclo is starting to look like Raptors director player personnel and Raptors 905 general manager Dan Tolzman envisioned. Caboclo is starting to look like an NBA rookie.
“(It’s) night and day,” Tolzman said about Caboclo after the 905 season finale. “It’s the type of thing where you see (Caboclo) tonight that big dunk and beyond that I liked the emotion he showed at the beginning of the game, just the fire that he is now playing with is something we never saw out of the guy before and he is now building a little bit of confidence and the types of things that he is doing out on the court. He knows that he is good enough and he’s getting closer and closer to the NBA, ready for the NBA level. You can just see this young man starting to realize what he can really become.
“Some of the highlights he does, they are jaw-dropping sometimes. So it is pretty exciting to see the progress he’s made and to know that he is just scratching the surface. It’s a lot of fun.”
It wasn’t like this last year for Caboclo. With no minutes available on the Raptors and the only D-League option being the non-affiliated Fort Wayne Mad Ants who made it quite clear they didn’t want him, Caboclo’s rookie season was worse than a bust. It was a confidence destroyer. Getting multiple DNP-CDs in the D-League quite clearly signals you aren’t considered as good as an undrafted player.
Fortunately the Raptors got their corporate act together and bought their own NBA D-League team in time for this season.
“At Fort Wayne, they weren’t focused on me,” Caboclo explained. “Here they are more focused on me, so I am more free to play. It’s better to play when you are not scared to miss or you’ll be sat (down).”
“A guy like Bruno, from where he was when we first drafted him and the first year and not having this (D-League Affiliate) and seeing the progress now that he’s made being able to come back and forth (Raptors 905 to Raptors) and not even for games, just practicing with the 905 and being around a group of guys that are kind of at a similar stage that he is and have him be a big name around here, it just builds confidence and gets him comfortable and ready,” Tolzman said. “You can’t even describe how important that is.”
“Bruno’s last two (905) games have been really impressive,” 905 head coach Jesse Mermuys said. “From the beginning of the season to the last two games, he looks like a totally different player. He scored 31 points and he made it look easy and it wasn’t forced, he looked like a player.
“Early on and I think everyone could tell (Caboclo) was pressing so much because I think he felt he was behind. He felt the pressure of man, I wasted a year. I didn’t get to play and you could tell, that was coming out in his play. To see him settle in and take that edge off and really calm down, it has improved his shot selection and decision-making, his passing. Everything because he is so talented and he does work so hard that once we got that (pressing) out of the way, the improvement came pretty rapidly.”
Caboclo was drafted as a project player. A young guy with very limited actual basketball experience. He was drafted based on his obvious natural skills, incredible length, quickness and athleticism. He wasn’t drafted because he had any ideas about what to do in an actual game.
“(Caboclo) just hadn’t played much basketball (before),” Mermuys said. “It’s hard to be thrown in to the NBA not speaking the language, not really playing a lot of basketball. It’s not like he got to play junior high, high school, AAU summer tournament, none of that is there. This guy is playing the first real minutes of his career and absolutely you see where he can get to if he gets that time and he gets that experience.
“When I think back to that first game and (Caboclo) was just all over the place, bouncing around, not really knowing what to do, where to be, throwing up crazy shots and at no point did I ever want to just completely stifle him or demoralize him to where he didn’t want to continue because I knew it was going to be really hard. We tried to be super positive, but at the same time be able to pull him out when we absolutely needed to teach him some lessons and let him calm down.”
The transition was tougher than Caboclo or the Raptors organization let on during the year. Aside from Mermuys admitting early on that Caboclo was expected to be with the 905 for the entire NBA D-League season, there wasn’t any indication of just how far their young forward had to go. The Mad Ants weren’t wrong. Caboclo wasn’t even ready to contribute in a D-League game. However, with a lot of coaching and patience, things changed.
“I remember at the beginning of the season his frustration and you could tell he was visibly upset during the games and that was a carryover from Summer League so we knew that about him,” Mermuys admitted. “I remember a game that was definitely in the second half of the season, I got upset, he took two bad shots in a row, we sat him down and I wanted to see, (so) I looked over to see what what he was doing and he was sitting there like a pro. There was no emotion. There was no frustration. He looked like a guy just engaged in the game waiting his turn to go back in and that was a huge moment for us just to see that growth. He was able to take that criticism because I made it extremely clear that he was being pulled for his shot selection and he was able to handle that and be a pro and when I put him back in he helped us win that game.”
When asked about the development of his game Caboclo admitted, “I think more mental, basketball I know, still working (on it), but it’s more mental.”
Raptors 905 undoubtedly paid a price for Caboclo’s development in the first half of their inaugural season, but they also reaped the benefits of giving the Raptors young project player a chance in the second half and more importantly, they may have salvaged president and general manager Masai Ujiri’s 2014 first round draft pick. Just maybe he’ll be ready to look like a rookie in the NBA by the start of next season.
“He came in when we first drafted him behind everybody to begin with, so he’s still playing catch-up,” Tolzman said.
“Not that he’s out of the woods, there is a lot of work to be done and we are really excited about getting after it again this summer,” Mermuys said. “He is looking pretty good.
“It’s just really exciting for him and his future. He should feel really excited about next season and this summer now that he’s gotten some experience under his belt. He just looks like a player out there.”
Caboclo is still only 20-years-old and that incredible length and natural ability remains. IF he can continue to progress on the basketball front, Ujiri will look like he picked a winner – again.