The Long View

November 03, 2014

The Raptors stunned many by drafting an obscure Brazilian teenager in the first round. An instant contributor? No. A future star? Maybe. Building Bruno Caboclo from the ground up is their grand experiment

WHERE'S BRUNO? The search is on at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. It is September, a few weeks before training camp, and a Raptors staffer is looking for 6'9" rookie Bruno Caboclo. Everyone swears to have just seen the 19-year-old forward. He was in the weight room a minute ago and in the locker room a second ago, and wasn't that him in the hallway? He is everywhere, yet he is nowhere. That's fitting because since the Raptors picked him 20th in the June draft, Caboclo has seemed more a legend or a figment of athletic imagination, like Sidd Finch. There are tales of Bruno that border on the unbelievable, of arms the length of garden hoses, of blocking four or five shots on a single possession back home in Brazil, of his transformation into an NBA prospect only five years after first playing basketball, at age 13. But where is Bruno in the flesh? Does he really exist?

At last a smiling Caboclo (cuh-BO-clo) appears, no longer just the image he was in grainy videos when Toronto made him what seemed impossible in this era of exhaustive global scouting: a largely unknown first-round choice. Caboclo doesn't have much of a basketball footprint. He has no eye-catching statistics from international play. He did not attend the draft combine or make the rounds for private workouts with teams, and his name was absent from countless mock drafts.

Raptors scouts became serious about him last year, when he was MVP of a Basketball Without Borders Americas camp in Argentina for international players under 19. Several members of the Toronto organization traveled repeatedly to Brazil to evaluate him. Days before the draft general manager Masai Ujiri called coach Dwane Casey and told him there was a prospect for Casey to watch at a workout in Houston. "I wasn't trying to be secretive," says Ujiri, "I just wanted him to see Bruno with a completely open mind."

Casey was as impressed by Caboclo's wingspan, talent and shooting form as the scouting staff had been. He was also thrilled with how quickly Caboclo responded to instruction. Casey gave him a quick tutorial on how to use his forearm when defending in the post, and Caboclo applied it immediately and effectively in scrimmages. "Seeing him, you think he's special," says Casey, "but working with him, you know he is."

By the draft Toronto was aware that a few other teams, including San Antonio and Houston, were interested in him as well. When Tyler Ennis, the Syracuse point guard the Raptors had targeted, went two spots ahead of them to Phoenix at No. 18, they opted to grab Caboclo rather than take the chance he'd still be available in the second round. "We knew there would be a lot of fans and media saying, Who is this guy?" says Ujiri. "But we had been following him closely, and we feel he has the raw talent to become a special player."

THE KEY WORD is raw. Caboclo is a hunk of high-quality clay. He focused on soccer until he was 13, when his feet grew so big that he could no longer find cleats that fit. (He now wears size-14½ sneakers.) Because of his height, basketball was the logical next choice, so Caboclo joined a youth team. "I liked Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant," says Caboclo. "I didn't really know anyone else." Caboclo picked up the game quickly, dominating competition on the under-19 version of his club team, Pinheiros. After an injury on the senior team opened a spot for him during the FIBA Americas League last January, Caboclo played well enough that he decided to declare for the draft.

That choice meant leaving his parents in his hometown of Pirapora do Bom Jesus, a small community near S√£o Paulo. Caboclo's mother works as a maid, his father is a truck driver, and he has two older sisters. His parents are proud of him, he says, "but they don't really know what the NBA is."

With long arms that give him a 7'6½" wingspan, he flicks three-pointers effortlessly. "He shoots the corner three as well as anybody," says Casey. Caboclo reminds Casey of a young Rashard Lewis, but his wiry build (he's 205 pounds) and shooting range have caused others to call him the Brazilian Kevin Durant. The Raptors would like to bury that description, but Caboclo doesn't run from it. "I am not Kevin Durant," he says in halting but improving English. Then he adds, "But in a few years, if I work hard and listen to my coaches, maybe I can be like him."

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, one of the few media members who knew anything about Caboclo before the draft, famously described him on draft night as "two years away from being two years away." The Raptors don't think he's that far away, but they also aren't counting on him to make an immediate impact. Caboclo is an experiment: Can a team pluck an obscure teenager out of South America and build him into an NBA standout? "We're trying to develop him from soup to nuts," says Alex McKechnie, Toronto's director of sports science. "We're not thinking locally, about just Bruno the basketball player. We're thinking globally, about Bruno the person."

The Raptors have taken Caboclo into their laboratory, and though they don't profess to know what will emerge, they think they might be growing a franchise player. Toronto hasn't attracted superstars through free agency, a fact that's not lost on Ujiri, so rolling the dice on occasion is necessary. "We are in a position in which we might have to be a little more creative," he says.

Ujiri eschewed the common practice of drafting and "stashing" a callow international player overseas until he matures. "I like having more influence over what he learns and how he learns," says the GM. One of the first things the Raptors did after selecting Caboclo was fly him to Los Angeles to train with two of their starters, All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and small forward Terrence Ross. "We wanted him to see right away how first-rate NBA players work out," Ujiri says. "It was good for him to start learning immediately what would be expected of him."

Four days after the draft Ujiri acquired 7-foot Brazilian center Lucas Nogueira from the Hawks. Although he was a first-round pick in 2013, Nogueira's greatest value to the Raptors is his ability to be a friend and translator for Caboclo. The effervescent Nogueira, whose nickname is Bebe, is the perfect complement to the amiable but reserved Caboclo. "We're the Bruno and Bebe show," says Nogueira, 22. "I make sure he has fun." What has Bruno learned from Bebe? He answers the question in Portuguese, and Nogueira translates: "How to get in trouble." They both laugh.

To further ease Caboclo's transition, the team helped him and Nogueira find apartments across from Air Canada Centre. Over the summer the Raptors monitored Caboclo at an athlete development center in British Columbia. After eating a nutritious breakfast, he began working with McKechnie and the rest of the training staff on "movement strategies." McKechnie has assessed Caboclo in every imaginable athletic area—the way he runs, jumps, twists, pivots—and devised exercises designed to assist him in doing all of those efficiently and with the least risk of injury.

Then it was lunch, where Toronto ensured Caboclo got fruits and vegetables, because he says his favorite North American foods are chicken wings and doughnuts. Caboclo consumed about 6,000 calories a day, more than twice the average amount for an adult, in an effort to put some meat on those lengthy bones. Lunch was followed by drills, and later there was dinner and English lessons. He could speak only a few words of the language when he was drafted—"He didn't know if guys were cracking jokes with him or talking smack," says Casey—but Caboclo can hold a conversation now with only infrequent translation by Nogueira. Asked whether English or basketball is harder to learn, Caboclo says, "Neither one is hard if you work at it."

CASEY AND UJIRI have visions of the deflections and blocked shots Caboclo will someday provide, skills he displayed during an impressive summer league performance in July. He also showed that NBA-caliber opponents don't intimidate him. After he drilled a corner three against the Lakers, Caboclo blew on his fingers as he ran back on defense. "He looks timid and shy, but on the court he's got a lot of fire," says assistant Jesse Mermuys, the Raptors' summer league coach. "He's not lacking confidence."

There were also times that reminded everyone about Caboclo's youth. After former Syracuse forward C.J. Fair soared for a vicious dunk over his outstretched hand, Caboclo was so shaken that when he came out moments later, he sat on the bench in tears. The mention of that sequence still causes his usually pleasant expression to darken. "No, no, no," he says when asked if the dunk made him cry. "I was just upset that we were losing." Toronto viewed his reaction as a positive sign. "It bothers him to have another player get the better of him," says Ujiri. "That passion is what will drive him to be better."

Caboclo was not as productive in the preseason, when he averaged 4.2 points on 40.0% shooting, as he was in the summer league, when he averaged 11.4 on 39.5%. In the preseason he often stationed himself in the corner, as he was told. "We don't want him to worry about driving yet," says Casey. "Just get to your spot and shoot it when you're open."

The Raptors are attempting to keep the instruction simple, but there is much to digest. "I might say to him, 'You have to tag and X out on the back side,'" says Mermuys. "That means in defending the pick-and-roll he has to take the roller for a second, and then he has to go close out on the man who gets the second pass. Even if you've spoken English all of your life, it takes some time to understand all of that. Imagine what it's like for Bruno."

Or imagine the full picture for Caboclo, a teenager with little basketball experience trying to compete with the best players in the world while learning a new language in an unfamiliar country. When he is asked if he is homesick, Caboclo has to have the concept explained to him. "Oh, no," he then says. "No time to be homesick. Too much work to do."

"I'm not Kevin Durant," Caboclo says. "But in a few years, if I work hard and listen to my coaches, maybe I can be like him."

PHOTOPhotograph by Jonathan Bielaski for Sports Illustrated PHOTOPhotograph by Jonathan Bielaski for Sports IllustratedBIT OF A STRETCH Caboclo has a thin body of work, but Toronto is enamored of his physique, competitiveness and shooting stroke. PHOTOPhotograph by Jonathan Bielaski for Sports IllustratedHELPING HAND Toronto traded for Nogueira (above) not only to fortify its front line but also to make Caboclo feel comfortable off the court. PHOTODAVID DOW/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESQUICK STUDY Despite the language barrier and his inexperience, Caboclo (right) has made early progress in picking up the intricacies of NBA defense.

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