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Bruno Caboclo gaining confidence with greater playing time

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All that really matters is that Bruno Caboclo is playing in real basketball games regularly. How he performs in those games is secondary, so long as he’s improving over the long run, something it would be impossible for him not to do given his complete lack of experience to date. Minutes is the only stat anyone interested in Caboclo’s progress should be looking at for 2015-16.

The Toronto Raptors installed Raptors 905 as an exclusive D-League affiliate in large part to facilitate the development of the No. 20 pick in the 2014 draft. Plucked as a relative unknown out of Brazil, Caboclo was so far from the fringes of the NBA that he knew but a single NBA player by name: Kobe Bryant. As a rookie, the Raptors were hesitant to assign Caboclo to a shared D-League affiliate in Fort Wayne, which was mostly fine; Caboclo was well-served by spending an entire season working on skill development with assistant coaches and watching the NBA game at full speed up close.

The next step in Caboclo’s development calls for playing time, which the 905 can provide in spades. Already, Caboclo has blown by his total minutes in a basketball calendar year and is creeping up on his career-high in minutes at any single level.

Minutes 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
Brazil 270 0 0
Summer League 0 130 147
Preseason 0 69 84
D-League 0 62 215
NBA 0 23 1
Total 270 284 447

That’s a wordy way of saying he’s playing far more minutes at a much higher level than he’s accustomed to. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey raved before the D-League season about the opportunity for players like Caboclo, Lucas Nogueira, and the team’s rookies to get expanded run. The organization is using the close geographic proximity of the 905 expertly to maximize practice time, too.

“I’m having a good time,” Caboclo told Raptors Republic on Friday. “I have good teammates. Some did preseason with the Raptors and they are very nice. So I’m feeling good”

The early returns on the expanded time for Caboclo are mostly encouraging. Caboclo’s averaging 14.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.7 blocks in 30.7 minutes, decent across-the-board production that speaks to him contributing at both ends of the floor. There’s plenty of work left to do, as Caboclo’s often dealt with foul trouble (he’s averaging four per game) and he’s been inefficient scoring, shooting 37.3 percent overall and 25.5 percent on 3-point attempts.

But again, numbers aren’t necessarily a good measuring stick for Caboclo.

“I feel very good,” Caboclo said. “Every game I’m getting better. The mistakes I do in the game before, I don’t do the next game.”

Asked what specifically he’s getting better at, Caboclo answered exactly how the organization likely envisioned before the season.

“Everything,” he said. “Because last year I didn’t play games. In the D-League I can play and do what I’m working on.”

Offensively, he’s still improving his footwork on pull-ups, and while he creates space for himself well with his length, his shooting mechanics suffer when he does compared to when he works the catch-and-shoot. His handle is coming along, too, but his drives can still be a bit out of control. Most encouraging, he’s noticing opportunities to pass when on the move, something he was struggling with as recently as summer league.

And there’s the jumper, one of the most enticing parts of Cabcolo’s game. He shoots decisively, his mechanics are mostly sound, and it’s an unblockable shot thanks to his ridiculous length. Including the D-League, summer league, and preseason, Caboclo is 25-of-101 (24.8 percent) from long-range on the basketball year, but he has a permanent green light and hasn’t had his confidence shaken. Don’t expect the 7.3 3-point attempts per game to come down anytime soon.

“I just had a bad shooting weekend,” Caboclo said. “But I make a lot of 3-pointers in practice. I work a lot on my 3-point shot, so if I get open, I will shoot.”

On the defensive end, he’s using his length well and staying active but can get bullied by strong opponents and has often dealt with foul trouble. That’s not a bad thing, as Caboclo helping aggressively and learning is more important than him simply guarding his man in order to stay on the floor.

“I don’t want him to stop helping,” head coach Jesse Murmuys said last week. “A lot of those fouls is he’s trying to protect the rim and trying to be where he’s supposed to be. We want him to continue to do that.

“He’s gotta just keep working and trying to make little, incremental improvements in those areas with small adjustments. Over the season, hopefully by the end he’s a much better defender.”

Caboclo’s being given the opportunity to make mistakes like over-helping out of the corners, failing to employ the principle of verticality, and trying to make too difficult a pass, opportunities that hopefully ensure those mistakes are ironed out by the time he’s called on at the NBA level. Caboclo’s also learning to play some power forward for the first time, and that requires re-learning offensive plays and defensive coverages from a new spot. It’s also a physical challenge, one he should get used to given the way the NBA is moving.

“It’s very hard because I haven’t played power forward since I started to play basketball. Now I’m getting used to it, and I’ve accepted it,” Caboclo said. He also said he might be able to help good friend Lucas Nogueira at center once he’s mastered the four. “I think so,” he said when asked if he could post his pal up, “Yeah.”

While he no longer has Nogueira by his side in Mississauga, the recent success of his fellow Brazilian stands as an important lesson for Caboclo, Delon Wright, and anyone else sent to the D-League: It can help. Nogueira was seeing no time with the parent club, looked solid in two D-League games, and was recalled when Jonas Valanciunas got hurt. After three DNP-CDs, Nogueira’s run with the chance to play minutes over the last three.

“I feel like Lucas, coming down here, playing two games, getting that confidence in his game, getting that self-esteem in his game really translated,” Murmuys told Raptors Republic on Friday. “He was able to go up there, step into a game for coach Casey and help win a game. That’s what this thing is all about. I was just really excited about it and happy for Lucas and happy for our organization that this is already paying off dividends.

“That’s the first thing we said (to Caboclo and Wright): This thing works, take advantage of it. Get yourself ready to go and when that opportunity comes, step in there and make it happen.”

A meaningful call-up may still be a while away for Caboclo. There are plenty of little things to work on, and his general feel for the game needs an entire season of D-League minutes, if not longer. There’s absolutely no rush, and he’ll almost surely spend most of the year with Murmuys, making only occasional trips to check in with the Raptors.

Once he does get the call, Cabcolo seems to recognize that the work will continue from there.

“I think when he came here, it brought confidence to him. Now he’s more comfortable playing in the league,” Cabcolo said of Nogueira.  “I’m very proud of him. I told him now he’s playing, he needs to work more to get more minutes and do well.”

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