Masai Ujiri is a master in the art of constructing trades. It’s hard to look back at his trading resume and think of one trade he’s lost. In his time as Raptors GM, he’s turned Rudy Gay into Patrick Patterson, Greveis Vasquez into Norman Powell, and he turned Andrea Bargnani into Jakob Poeltl. Many of these moves have created the foundation for what the Raptors are today and are trying to develop into in the future.
On June 29th, 2014, the Raptors traded John Salmons to the Hawks for Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueira. Salmons was waived a month later by the Hawks, Williams was coming off major knee surgery was an expiring contract, and then there was Nogueira, a throw in, a draft and stash player who hadn’t seen time in the NBA. This trade looked like cap clearing move for both teams, until this year. With the departure of Bismack Biyombo this offseason, the Raptors were desperate coming into this season for a backup centre. This cap clearing move is starting to pay dividends for the Raptors, as Nogueira at 24 years old (same age as Biyombo) has proven himself to be a very capable backup centre with the ability to anchor a defense.
Last season, Nogueira was averaging 7.8 minutes per game. He was bouncing back and fourth between the D-League and the 14th/15th man on the NBA roster, and anytime he got a chance to shine, some weird injury would always get in his way. Things have already been better for him this season, as he has been relatively healthy, and he is flourishing in his new role playing 21 minutes per game, and even making six starts. Nogueira isn’t ever going to wow you in the box score. His offensive game is limited, yet shows a ton of potential, and for a centre his size he still lacks some of the muscle to be an elite rebounder, posting a 13% TRB% this season. Much like Biyombo, Nogueira does a lot of the dirty work to help the players around him more efficient.
Starting with the defense, Nogueira greatest strength is his 7’6” wingspan, blocking shots and being one of the NBA’s best shots disturbers close to the rim. Averaging close to two blocks per game, Nogueira does a great job using his athleticism and defensive smarts to contest shots comparable to some of the best rim protectors in the NBA. His 3.25 defensive real plus-minus doesn’t just rank him first on the Raptors, but it’s good enough for 10th in the NBA. When Nogueira is on the floor, he is allowing teams to shoot 60.4% on shots less than six feet from the basket, which isn’t to the level Biyombo was at last year but Bebe continues to improve on his already stellar rim protection.
If there is one knock on his defensive game, it’s that he can rack up fouls pretty quickly, as right now he’s averaging 6.4 personal fouls per 100 possessions. Recently in a game against the Celtics, when JV picked up two early fouls, Nogueira didn’t help much either by picking up some early foul trouble of his own. This forced Casey’s hand to dip down into his bench, and threw some his first half rotations out of whack.
Looking at the chart below, (courtesy of http://nba-two-man-viz.herokuapp.com) the chart shows defensive rating for the 2016-2017 Raptors in two man groups. As you can see, almost every Raptor improves their defensive rating when they are on the floor with Nogueira. One of the more inspiring two man groups to look at is when Nogueira is paired on the floor with Valanciunas, which has been a starting unit on a few occasions this year. This lineup might work against teams who roll out two bigs like the Knicks and Grizzlies, but it would be interesting to see if it could dominate some smaller lineups. With Nogueira inserted into the starting lineup, the Raptors post a 12.6 net rating, most of this due to the stellar 99.5 defensive rating. With Bebe protecting the rim, and Valanciunas collecting a ton of rebounds (that lineup posts a 82.6% DREB%) this lineup ends up being one of the Raptors most effective defensive lineups.
With both bigs on the floor, this lineup could be a bit of spacing nightmare, but is able to still post a 112.2 offensive rating. While this may not be the Raptors most efficient offensive lineup, this squad still has no trouble working high pick and roll action with both bigs on the floor.
If Casey was to run this lineup out a bit more it could mess up some of the rotations. Patterson could come off the bench no problem, and continue to play in the Lowry+Bench unit, but it becomes pretty thin when looking for a substitution for Valanciunas, as Nogueira is also a very key piece in the Lowry+Bench unit. Leaving only Siakam, Sullinger, and Poeltl as potential options coming in for Valanciunas. It would be interesting to see Casey switch up his second unit a bit more, a lot of this would be based off matchup, but maybe this is a chance for Poeltl to see more minutes, and potentially run Sullinger full time as the backup centre.
If you’ve watched Nogueira enough this season, you can see how valuable he is to the Raptors defensively, but it’s his offensive game that continues to show a lot of promise and room to improve. Currently Bebe is shooting 68% from the field, on 3.2 attempts per game. Nogueira isn’t going to create his own shots as 76% of all his field goals are assisted and 41% of them are dunks mainly coming off the pick and roll. With a 30.3% frequency as the roll man, Nogueira is scoring 1.24 points per possession, with an EFG% of 70.3%! Bebe’s mix of wiry bouncing ability to catch lobs, run the floor, and good hands with able to finish near the rim, make him a very nice weapon in the Raptors offense.
One of the more underrated aspects of his offensive game is Nogueira’s ability to pass out of the pick and roll. There are two kinds of space that can be created on the floor – the kind an elite spot up shooter like a Kyle Korver or Klay Thompson provide, where a defender can never really sag off them to help on penetration in fear that they even get a sliver of open space beyond the arc. Then there’s the kind of spacing that works from the inside, players who are elite at driving and finishing near the rim like Russell Westbrook and James Harden. This is the kind of spacing Nogueira can provide in the pick and roll.
As you can see from the video below, Lowry does a great job finding the cutting Nogueira rolling to the rim. Kyle O’Quinn rotates just a little late and the defense is forced to collapse on Nogueira knowing that the possession will most likely end in a dunk. O’Quinn recovers once the help from Kristaps Porzingis rotates over, and even Brandon Jennings sags off Cory Joseph a bit. With three defenders moving in on Nogueira, he quickly gets the ball to the open Patterson in the corner.
The picture is a screenshot of the moment Nogueira gets the ball, you can see the spacing he’s provided on his roll to the basket.
Nogueira is a great passer and there has been more than one occasion this season where he collects an offensive rebounder and instead of going up with it, he will kick it out to a trailing Lowry, or a Terrence Ross on the wing for three. While it might frustrate some that he doesn’t just go back up with it, this level of unselfishness and court sense out of a young centre is an invaluable skill and something that really can’t be taught at this level of development.
It’s good to put Nogueira’s season into context. This is the first time in his career he’s been without injury, and this is also the first time in his career he’s gotten consistent NBA minutes. Nogueira shows a ton of positives on the defensive end already, and will continue to be a very important defensive piece in the Raptors rotation. Offensively, he has made some major strides to his game in his role, and it seems like more offensive weapons are coming, such as stretching out his game to the three point line. Before this season, Raptors fans didn’t really know what they had in Nogueira. This season, it looks like Masai may have traded for another diamond in the rough.
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