Photo credit: Karyn Stepien/KarynStepien.com
Heading in to the 2017-18 season, Bruno Caboclo appeared primed to make his first real run at the Toronto Raptors rotation.
The 2017 G League Finals served as a coming out party of sorts, a possible graduation from a three-year developmental program if you will. 31 points, 11 rebounds, five 3-pointers and four blocks showcasing all the facets of a game the front office craved at a position of weakness.
Just as quickly as Caboclo’s life changed after his flight from Sao Paulo to Toronto, though, his status among the Raptors rotation diminished. He entered a training camp with poise, shooting the lights out and playing effectively enough for Dwane Casey to publicly announce that he’d be given every opportunity to prove himself. Preseason came, and it was the Caboclo many had seen before. The one who was still a deer in the headlights. Even with a chance to start, he passed to opponents and hit everything but net with his shot. Same old…
Add to his struggles the rapid rise of OG Anunoby, and Caboclo is back in Mississauga trying to g-evelop. Now in his fourth season, the Brazilian had the choice of declining a G League assignment, but rightly chose to go himself in hopes of playing time.
The significance of what he does with his playing time under head coach Jerry Stackhouse this season arguably carries less weight, as the preseason suggested it’s more the mental aspect of his game than anything else than has tempered the translation of his potential into performance at the highest level.
“He has a natural stroke to shoot the basketball,” Stackhouse said moments before the Raptors 905 matinee tip-off against the Lakeland Magic on Saturday. “For whatever reason, he has a lot of confidence when he’s here as opposed to when he’s in a bigger setting.”
For one thing, Caboclo knows where his offense is coming from with the 905. The coaching staff makes it a point to involve him in the very first actions of the game — usually resulting in a corner three — and, for reasons unknown, it helps him get going.
The numbers thus far validate that emphasis. 18.6 points while knocking down half of his 4.8 attempts from beyond the arc, 7.2 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 1.6 blocks through five games could be the head start he needs to make his first G League all-star appearance.
At the highest level, though, that level of trust and priority on a perennial playoff team must be earned, and he has yet to do so. That the topic of conversation still centers around his accomplishments at the lower level is frustrating for some, but perhaps this is where he’s supposed to be at this stage in his career. We all can’t grow like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Milwaukee Bucks superstar’s lightning progress from creeping and crawling to running with a full head of steam is rare and exceptional. Nothing about his game nor stature indicates normalcy. Caboclo is very much still learning to walk. Regardless of the pace at which he’s done so, he has learned, and continues to show a willingness to be taught.
With the 905 roster ravaged by departures to Europe and FIBA call-ups, Stackhouse has been forced to turn to Caboclo on the inside.
“Bruno’s a 4 and a 3, a 3-4, I would say a 4-3. He’s not really a 5, it was just out of necessity because we lost those guys early on. Just trying to field our best team and he got caught at the 5.”
Caboclo has received some touches on the inside, but Stackhouse was quick to point out they’d much rather have him on the perimeter, ready to catch and shoot the basketball. The forward is enjoying the challenge.
“I think it’s good for me,” Caboclo said. “I can learn new positions. You learn new positions so you can be more versatile and play more. This year, I’m learning a lot playing the 5 and the 4 — I know the 3 a lot already — so I think I’m just adding to my game.”
The 905 lost to the Magic in a landslide, but what Caboclo did while playing the interior stood out. He was assigned the task of guarding Khem Birch, and came away bruised but not battered. He had a couple of offensive rebounds in the first quarter, one that resulted in a bloodied nose, but he checked right back in after some treatment.
His biggest moment came in the fourth quarter, when the powerful Birch saw daylight and rose for a power dunk. Caboclo rose with him, and blocked it. A foul was called, but he wasn’t deterred. Birch’s understudy Xavier Gibson tried to finish over the makeshift center, and his shot was swatted away.
“Nobody gonna dunk on me,” Caboclo asserted after the game. “If they dunk, they feel big, so I don’t like that.”
That’s a far cry from when he felt as small as a mouse in the summer of 2014 after C.J. Fair posterized him in just his third crack at North American competition. Sacrificing himself to play a position of need, calling out coverages, and knowing all the plays — that’s veteran leadership, and even a roster full of new faces takes notice.
“You always see him in the gym working out,” Raptors two-way signing Malcolm Miller said before his first piece of game action. “Whether it’s BioSteel night sessions or anything, that mindset that you’ve got to continue to work is definitely huge. You’ve got to listen to him call the plays and coverages, because he’s right.”
The willingness to try new things and lead the way for his new teammates isn’t something Caboclo has shown on a consistent basis before. Some will argue that these efforts only count for so much as long as they’re coming at the Hershey Centre, but there can be no debate over the fact that he’s trying.
He sported a new headband look on Saturday. When asked about it,
“Just something different.”
That, he still is.