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Bruno Caboclo Still Seeking Stardom Six Years After Being 'Two Years Away From Being Two Years Away'

Six years after he was selected No. 20 overall in the NBA draft as an unknown 18-year-old, Bruno Caboclo knows his time is running out to make it as an NBA star.

Adam Silver, usually an unshakable presence at the draft podium, looked rather sheepish when reading Toronto’s first-round selection in the 2014 NBA draft. He strode up and awkwardly announced the Raptors had selected Bruno Caboclo, mispronouncing the Brazilian 18-year-old’s last name as “Cuh-BAH-low” instead of “Cuh-BO-clo”. Silver, like the vast majority of NBA fans at that moment, clearly did not know who Caboclo was.

In the ensuing segment analyzing the pick, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said Caboclo was “two years away from being two years away” and that he “didn’t really know how to play yet.”

There’s no doubt Caboclo was raw. He hadn’t started playing basketball until he was 13 and didn’t watch a real-time NBA game until a few years later—his family didn’t have cable growing up. In the season before the draft, he played 17 games for Brazilian club Pinheiros, averaging 4.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. His biggest claim to fame at that point was being named the MVP of Basketball Without Borders in Argentina in the summer of '13—undoubtedly an accomplishment, but a far cry from the NBA. He’d end up being the youngest player drafted in '14.

That didn’t stop Rece Davis, Jay Bilas and Bill Simmons, who helmed ESPN’s NBA draft coverage that year, from taking Fraschilla’s sound byte and running with it, making several jokes and cementing “two years away from being two years away” in draft lore.

“I wasn’t trying to be disparaging,” Fraschilla said in an interview later that day. “What I meant was he has great long-term potential, but he still has a lot of work to do to play in a playoff game in the NBA.”

Caboclo admits he used Fraschila’s quote as motivation for a period, but ESPN’s international basketball guru wasn’t exactly wrong. Caboclo spent most of the next four years developing with Toronto’s D League affiliate, helping that squad win a D League title in '17 but playing just 25 games for an ascending Raptors team over the course of his rookie contract.

“When I got on the Raptors, Coach [Dwane] Casey was playing 7 or 8 players a game. They weren’t looking to me very much,” Caboclo told Sports Illustrated over a recent Zoom call. “They said I was going to play every season, but I really didn’t play most of the time. I could see how it was going.”

He was traded to Sacramento in February 2018 for Malachi Richardson, played 10 unremarkable games with the Kings and was waived from a training-camp contract with Houston that fall before landing with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets’ G League affiliate.

Four years after Franschilla’s infamous proclamation, only once had Caboclo scored double-digit points in the NBA, in Toronto’s final game of the 2016-17 regular season.

Just as it seemed the NBA might give up on him, however, Caboclo ended up having a mini-breakout during the 2018-19 campaign. After Memphis signed him away from Rio Grande in January, Caboclo played in 34 games (19 starts) and averaged 8.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting 36.9% from three-point range in 23.5 minutes per contest—all career-high marks.

Dec 1, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Bruno Caboclo (5) dunks the ball during the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

“They welcomed me from the first day. Marc Gasol was there, he treated me very well before he was traded,” Caboclo said. “The coaches were amazing and always supported players with everything we needed. Memphis was a great place for me.”

The high point was Caboclo pouring in a career-best 24 points and securing 11 rebounds in a late March win against the Thunder, his favorite team as a teenager because of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Two days later, Caboclo recorded 17 points and 13 rebounds against the Warriors, even blowing past Durant for a dunk.

It seemed Caboclo, who was labeled by some as the “Brazilian Kevin Durant” as a prospect, finally had begun to realize his potential. He even kept the momentum going at the FIBA World Cup last summer, coming up with the game-winning block to help Brazil defeat Greece, 79-78, while holding reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to 13 points.

Alas, the Grizzlies initiated a wholesale rebuild after the season, replacing coach J.B. Bickerstaff with Taylor Jenkins and handing the front-office keys to Zach Kleiman. The new regime went about installing a scheme favoring faster, athletic players. Caboclo, who’d always played small forward or power forward, would now be getting his minutes at center.

Every player must prove themselves to a new coaching staff, but Caboclo had an especially tough task in adapting to a new position he’d never played before. Even though he helped Memphis win the Vegas Summer League championship, he couldn’t find his shooting touch at the outset of the season, couldn’t beat out the likes of Jonas Valancuinas, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson for consistent frontcourt minutes, and was essentially out of the rotation by mid-December.

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It left Caboclo feeling like he didn’t get a fair shot to prove himself in his new role.

“I played in training camp, I thought I did very well,” Caboclo said. “But when we started the season, [Jenkins] had a different plan. I was just on the side. A couple games I had an opportunity to get in, but it wasn’t a very good opportunity.”

It wasn’t an ideal situation for a guy on an expiring contract who recognizes that he’s running out of chances.

“Right now, I’m on the edge. I could be out of the league or I could secure myself if I play well [this season],” Caboclo said. “At this point in my career, I need to get some playing time.”

Mar 2, 2019; Dallas, TX, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Bruno Caboclo (5) drives to the basket around Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

After Caboclo and his agent quietly asked Memphis to try and find a trade partner, the Rockets swooped in to reacquire Caboclo for Jordan Bell in February, also planning to deploy him as a center in their ultra-small ball scheme.

At the time the coronavirus forced the suspension of the league, Caboclo had played 28 minutes across five games for Houston, totaling 10 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks, mostly with each game already well out of hand.

Still, at 6' 9", Caboclo is the tallest player on Houston’s roster with a shot at sniffing playing time alongside Harden and Westbrook. Unlike his teammates, the Brazilian didn't have a hometown setup or coaches he could easily return to when the nationwide quarantine began. As one of a few guys who stayed in Houston for the past couple months, he was reportedly one of the first players back in the team facility this week. After Caboclo worked to stay fit with instruction from Rockets player development coach John Lucas II while hunkered down in his mostly bare Houston apartment, he’s confident he’ll emerge in a good position to help the team down the stretch.

“I think this year on the Rockets, I wouldn't have had much playing time, depending on the situation,” Caboclo said. “But I think the coronavirus actually helps me because when we go back, everyone’s gonna have the same chance starting from zero. So I’ll be more prepared to try and get a role for the playoffs.”

Though it’s been nearly two years since the end of Fraschilla’s estimated four-year “arrival” timeline for Caboclo, so much uncertainty still swirls around the former No. 20 overall pick.

Is he a four or a five? Caboclo would rather be a four, but he thinks his future is at the five once he gains muscle mass this summer.

Would his career have taken off quicker if he’d waited a year or two to enter the draft? Caboclo admits he’s thought about this, and that he may have commanded more respect from analysts, coaches and fellow players alike if he’d established himself more abroad.

“With my journey, not everyone can understand how it’s been,” Caboclo said. “The first time I played in the NBA, I felt good. I felt like I belonged there. But you need to gain respect. They don’t pass to you very much at first. But after you start making some buckets, they start to give it to you more. … In my first Summer League, I was playing maybe 30 minutes and got the ball in my hand four times. The thing I learned was to be patient and not change how I play even if I’m not getting the ball—to always play hard.”

But with nearly six years under his belt in the NBA system and a skill set that hints at stardom, Caboclo knows it’s time to establish a reputation that’s about more than just playing hard.

“I want to be able to score on every possible level—layups, box out for rebounds and put backs, on the crease, pull-up jumpers—everything,” Caboclo said. “I believe that I can play at the highest level and do big things in the NBA. I think some people see my talent. I just need to get on the right team.”

Are the Rockets that team? At the very least, Caboclo is seemingly in a decent spot to surpass one of Fraschilla’s goal posts and participate in a playoff game this season (assuming the season resumes at all). At that point, the spotlight would be shining brighter on him than it ever has before.

But for a guy who’s been working to merit that sort of attention ever since he was drafted as a virtual unknown, perhaps that’s the only stage where he’ll be able to fully take control of his narrative and gain the respect he’s been seeking.