Breaking it Down: Nogueira nails the little things in 1st extended run

When the Toronto Raptors recalled Lucas Nogueira from Raptors 905 of the D-League in the wake of the injury to Jonas Valanciunas, I cautioned against setting expectations too high for the floppy-haired sophomore. While remarkably talented for a 7-footer, Nogueira was still working out some of the finer points on both ends of the floor, particularly with respect to the team’s pick-and-roll coverages on defense. With head coach Dwane Casey being reticent to play those he doesn’t trust in the confines of his defensive scheme, it seemed that despite the dearth of options at center, Nogueira would spend most of his time on the bench, at least to start.

That held true over the first three games he was with the parent club, as he drew a DNP-CD in all of them. In a loss to Phoenix on Sunday on the second night of a back-to-back, Nogueira got six minutes of action. Winnable though that game was, they were pretty clearly “show me” minutes, with Casey giving the Brazilian an opportunity to prove that a week of practice and some D-League time had been building to tangible on-court changes. Nogueira didn’t necessarily stand out one way or the other, which is probably all Casey was looking for – an unobjectionable, steady performance in spot minutes.

And so with the Raptors’ offense struggling and starting center Bismack Biyombo a little off his game Wednesday, Casey gave Nogueira another shot. Casey’s dice-roll was well-timed, as the team was playing moribund basketball, and with Kyle Lowry in the locker room sick, it had the makings of a “give the young guys some run” situation.

The 23-year-old checked in with 2:33 to play in the second quarter, finishing out the frame with a single defensive rebound. Stats aren’t going to capture the subtle things Nogueira has been working on, including improving his screen-setting, and Nogueira’s flashier talents are going to be holstered until he’s carved out a larger role and earned the trust of his teammates. Like with Sunday’s appearance, Nogueira would impress and ingratiate himself most by not standing out a ton.

In the brief stint, Nogueira flashed his ability to help protect the rim:
And an improved handle on how to defend in the pick-and-roll when dropping back instead of hedging out:
This is an area Nogueira struggled with some at the D-League level, as it’s a major change from last year’s system, one that suited his length and agility well. It was only 2:33, but it was a mistake-free 2:33.

The Raptors continued to stumble into the third quarter, found themselves down 17 at one point, and Casey called on Nogueira with 1:55 to go in the frame. It was another well-timed call to the bench, both rewarding Nogueira for his earlier play and keeping the Raptors from going to super-small lineups that were outscored by eight in five minutes to that point. Nogueira responded with not only the longest stretch of play of his young NBA career, but the best. He was on the floor for the entire comeback, earning post-game interview honors in the process. He didn’t get to flash any of his impressive playmaking, but like his earlier stint, he played solid, mostly mistake-free basketball, which is all the Raptors needed him to do.

It wasn’t perfect, mind you. He closed out on an Al Horford triple in out-of-control fashion and he was the victim of a Dennis Schroder blow-by that shouldn’t happen in this pick-and-roll scheme. But he did most things well, like proper lane-fills, navigating space well when he wasn’t involved in a drive, setting solid screens, and being vocal as the back-line defender, calling out action. There were a few plays I took note of.

Nogueira helping on a Kyle Korver cut (within the system, as the timely rotation comes behind him):

Nogueira drops back and dares Jeff Teague into a long two, the desired outcome for the defense, and he contests without fouling. The contest is probably more aggressive and risky than the system dictates, mind you:

Another great defensive set:

This play may have been the most encouraging of all, as Nogueira not only times his help well on the initial drive but recovers to his initial position and gets a block as a helper:

Offensively, he did well setting subtle screens and re-screening:

The natural reward for diving well and setting good screens is that your red-hot point guard looks your way. Little things beget bigger things, and Lowry found Nogueira on a smart foray to the rim when the defense forgot about him:

On his other alley-oop, Lowry calls off the pick and Nogeuira still dives. That’s tough timing and spacing to navigate without leaving your ball-handler hanging against a double, and he times his break expertly:

Even on a play he didn’t receive the ball, he times and spaces his dive well to provide Lowry the option without cramping his drive.

None of this is master’s class stuff, it’s Big Man 101 or maybe Big Man 201. But those are classes Nogueira hasn’t had an exam in yet, because to this point he’d never played more than nine minutes in an NBA game. He met expectations, scoring four points with seven rebounds and one block in 16 minutes, and the team played far better with him on the floor than without him.

“Lucas came in and played a hell of a game on both ends,” DeMar DeRozan said after the game. “He played the right spots. He got us a rhythm going offensively and Kyle just took over for us.”

“Lucas gave us a great boost, man,” Lowry added. “It means a lot for us to really see a guy who he’s been bit injury plagued, he came out and had a big game for the minutes he played. It’s really impressive, man.”

Raptors 905 head coach Jesse Murmuys has preached that Raptors assignees should focus on small, incremental improvements that can add up to major improvements when the picture is zoomed out on. I think Nogueira’s performance Wednesday is a good confirmation of that mentality, as he tidied up a few of the intricacies he was struggling with and it helped keep him on the floor and lead to his best overall performance as a pro.

I’d imagine Nogueira has earned himself a bit more run moving forward with this outing. Conversations about him starting over Biyombo can be put to rest – Biyombo’s lack of offense fits better with the starters, Nogueira’s creativity fits well with a second unit that needs help on offense – but it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Nogueira get another 12-15 minutes Thursday. Like Wednesday, his best path to continued playing time is to stay within himself and focus on the little things Casey is looking for; he’s talented enough that the fun stuff will manifest with playing time.

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