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How the Raptors found — and fell in love with — Bruno Caboclo

How the Raptors found — and fell in love with — Bruno Caboclo Photo:

Cobbling together mock drafts is an inexact science. For most mock drafters -- this one included -- projecting a 30-player first round requires a combination of exhaustive reporting, scouting and, frankly, guesswork. But even then, it’s a challenge. Team executives are, understandably, guarded about talking about which players they like; agents, whose sole responsibility is to improve a player’s draft position, can be misleading; and sometimes what you think a team needs in the draft, well, it doesn’t line up with what the team thinks. —

Still, in the days before the draft the top 30-35 players start to crystallize. Successfully predicting most of the order is exceedingly difficult, particularly when one pick can completely shuffle the deck. Take Kentavius Caldwell-Pope. In 2013, Minnesota was locked in on Caldwell-Pope with the ninth overall pick... right up until Detroit snatched him up one spot earlier. The scrambling Timberwolves then drafted Trey Burke (who they didn’t really need) and proceeded to flip him to Utah for the rights to Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng

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No one could have predicted that sequence of events, of course. But Caldwell-Pope, Burke, Muhammad and Dieng were all first-round picks and all drafted in the general area they were expected to. There are risers and fallers in every draft but it’s not often a first rounder totally stuns you. Rarely does a pick make you scratch your head and ask, ‘Who?’

A pick like Toronto’s Bruno Caboclo

Dwane Casey remembers the first time he heard of Caboclo. Sort of. It was early June and the Raptors coach, a month or so removed from a painful seven-game series defeat to Brooklyn and a few weeks past signing a three-year, $11.3 million extension with Toronto that took some of the sting off of it, was home, in Seattle, when Masai Ujiri buzzed his cell phone. I need you to come to Texas, Ujiri said. I need you to see this prospect we’re looking at.

OK, Casey said. Who?

I’ll tell you when you get here, Ujiri replied. 

Ujiri swears he wasn’t trying to being secretive. He just wanted Casey to see the workout with a completely open mind. “I want my guys to have an opinion,” Ujiri told SI.com. “I don’t want to hype someone up. They see the kid and they make a judgement.”

Caboclo had been on Ujiri’s radar for almost a year. Last summer, Ujiri received reports from Basketball Without Borders tournament. Caboclo was the MVP. “He was an intriguing athlete,” Ujiri said. “At that point, he was just someone to keep an eye on.” And he did. Over the last year Ujiri, Vice President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, Director of Global Scouting Patrick Engelbrecht and scout Curtis Crawford made several trips to Brazil to see Caboclo. Each time, they left impressed. 

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“He was just a kid that loves to play,” Ujiri said. “He always seemed very focused. His ability, you can tell he had a good shot. Most young kids can’t figure out how to shoot. You could tell he had a chance to become a very good shooter.”

Defensively, Raptors execs love his potential. A wiry 6-foot-9 with a 7-6 wingspan, Caboclo covers a lot of ground. Ujiri recalls one practice where in a five minute span Caboclo registered five deflections. When Casey, an assistant coach with Seattle from 1994 to 2005, watched Caboclo work in Houston, images of a young Rashard Lewis flashed in his mind. 

“He reminded me so much of Rashard,” Casey told SI.com. “Same lanky body, same raw talent. Rashard was probably a little better fundamentally at that age. But Bruno is a better three-point shooter. A lot of young guys can’t make the NBA three-pointer consistently. Bruno can.”

In Houston, Casey tested Caboclo’s ability to accept coaching. When he saw Caboclo hugging the three-point line on his shot, Casey suggested he give himself some space. Caboclo did. When Casey instructed Caboclo to use his forearm to defend in the post -- a technique used often by NBA players, less so by college and international prospects -- Caboclo spent the rest of the workout digging his skinny arms into the backs of offensive players. 

Said Casey, “He was very receptive.”

As the draft approached, Toronto was sold on Caboclo. But where would they take him? The Raptors had two picks in the top 40, No. 20 and No. 37. They were high on Syracuse (and Canadian) point guard Tyler Ennis, according to multiple sources, and were hoping he slipped to No. 20. When Phoenix snapped up Ennis at No. 18, Toronto had a choice: Take someone else and roll the dice that Caboclo would be there in the second round or take him earlier than anyone anticipated. 

Ujiri weighed several factors. First, he had a growing suspicion that someone was going to make a run at Caboclo early in the second round. Dallas, which picked 34th, was interested. Boston, which did not have a pick in the second round, was fascinated with Caboclo, too. And there wasn’t anyone on Toronto’s board that they felt overwhelmingly strong about. And with the Raptors roster well-stocked for the season, Ujiri believed the team could afford to take a chance on a player with such a high upside. 

When Ujiri brought up the idea of drafting Caboclo at No. 20 in the Raptors war room, it was met with resounding support. 

“In my room, there was no debate,” Ujiri said. “Instead of going through the stress of trying to get him at No. 37, we decided to get the guy we really liked now.”

Not surprisingly, the pick was met with widespread skepticism. Reporters started scouring Google for information. Social media exploded with some variation of ‘Bruno who?’ ESPN draft analyst Fran Fraschilla offered up the most memorable quote when he said Caboclo was “two years away from being two years away.” An overwhelming majority believed, in the first 24 hours, that the Raptors had reached too high with the pick. 

At summer league though, opinions started to change. At 18, Caboclo is obviously raw. But there were flashes of potential. Privately, Toronto coaches didn’t expect Caboclo, in his first experience against NBA-caliber competition, to average more than a point or two. In five summer league games he averaged 11.4. His three-point shooting was so-so (30.8 percent) but Casey says he was impressed with his effectiveness from the corners. And both Casey and Ujiri cited Caboclo’s toughness and desire to go right back at a player that scored on him. 

Caboclo will be a Raptor next season, a decision that has stirred even more debate. Europe has become an attractive option for teams to stash young players drafted in the late first or second round. The thinking is that a player can develop overseas for a few years before signing an NBA contract, giving teams, presumably, a more advanced player than the one they drafted without having to waste the first two years of a rookie contract. Caboclo, who averaged 4.9 points and 3.1 rebounds in 16 games last season playing for Pinheiros in Sao Paulo, would seem to be a prime candidate to take that route. Ujiri disagrees. He sees more value in keeping Caboclo close--primarily in Fort Wayne, with the Raptors D-League affiliate--where the team can closely monitor his development. 

“When a guy goes overseas you don’t get to monitor him as closely, to see if he is getting stronger, to see all of what he is doing,” Ujiri said. “Keeping him here, we can do that. When he needs playing time, send him to the D-League. He can play in NBA practices, he can go through a training camp and after the year we will wait to see where he is and what more he needs to develop.”

Ujiri knows he is out on a limb here. The 2014 draft was one of the deepest in recent memory, and if rookies like Rodney Hood (who looked fantastic for stretches in summer league), Shabazz Napier or Kyle Anderson, all picked after Caboclo, turn into rotation players, the Raptors could look foolish. But Ujiri is convinced that what he saw in the gym in Brazil was real, that Caboclo, with a little coaching and a lot of muscle, can be molded into a star. The risk, Ujiri believes, could pay off with a huge reward. 

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