When Toronto Raptors sophomore Lucas Nogueira entered Tuesday’s game against the Washington Wizards with 1:37 to go, he did so to an ovation from the Air Canada Centre crowd. Not long after, he put the crowd back on their feet with a garbage-time 3-pointer, the first triple of his career.
“They don’t know about me. They still don’t know about me,” Nogueira said Wednesday after turning in 28 minutes of decidedly non-garbage time with Raptors 905 of the D-League. “I think they need like five more seasons to start knowing about me, maybe.”
The crowd not knowing Nogueira can hit threes is entirely fair, as he’s now 1-of-2 as an NBA player and 1-of-10 as a D-Leaguer. As Nogueira’s quick to follow, the crowd may not know about everything else that he can do because of opportunity. Or a lack thereof.
When Jonas Valanciunas was injured in late November, Nogueira surprised with an impressive three-game stretch off the bench, including a 14-point, three-assist performance in 25 minutes against the Golden State Warriors. Whatever momentum had built quickly dissipated, as Nogueira suffered an ankle sprain in that game and missed the next three. He received only a brief chance to get back into the rotation once healthy, struggling some before ultimately finding his way back to the bench as Valanciunas returned. Playing 25 good minutes against the best team in the NBA and playing sparingly afterward is a unique bit of up-and-down.
“One day you jump in against Golden State, I think the first reaction of people is ‘coach is crazy.’ Playing against the champs,” Nogueira says. “But it doesn’t surprise me. You guys see me smile all the time, and joke, but I know, I work very seriously at my game.”
What Nogueira works on in particular is doing things that separate him from other big men. His calling card, if he’s to make it as an NBA regular, is going to be defense. He blocked five shots in 28 minutes of action with the 905 on Wednesday – “Like Bismack!” – and that’s always going to be what head coach Dwane Casey looks for first: Protecting the rim, changing shots, and rebounding. But he’s also worked to improve as a passer, as a mid-range shooter, and, as he showed Tuesday, a 3-point threat.
“When I hit the three yesterday, I was laughing because I saw people’s reaction,” Nogueira says, before offering a new nickname that tops The Long(-Range) Weeknd. “People right now on the internet say we already have the Brazilian KD, now we have the Stephen Curry of Brazil. It’s just fun, you know?”
That’s not something that projects as a regular part of his game, at least in the short-term, but Nogueira doesn’t sound like someone thinking much about the short-term. He offers that putting up blocks is important for him because the coaches will know about it, but he’s at a loss for whether that will lead to more playing time, Thursday or at some point later in the season.
“I hope so, I don’t know,” he says. “You guys know why I got an opportunity: Because someone was hurt, not because I deserve it. I want an opportunity because I deserve it, not because people are hurt.”
Nogueira’s stuck behind Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo, who are both healthy and playing well. It doesn’t seem likely that, barring injury, he’ll get a meaningful opportunity soon, even if talent might dictate he’s worth a look. He won’t be nervous if he does “because I’m in the NBA for a reason,” recognizing that the highs won’t always be as high as the Warriors’ game but that on the whole, he can help the team. Except that from the bench, he can’t.
“It’s a little frustrating. ‘You can’t help, no.'” he says.
He flashed enough in his brief stretch of meaningful run, and has done enough at the D-League level, to pique curiosity. What would he look like off the bench against a stretchier opponent, given his mobility on defense and skill as a dive-man? If not in Casey’s rotation, would another team have interest in developing a 23-year-old former Spanish ACB League Defensive Player of the Year? Those are things Nogueira’s trying not to concern himself with. Instead, he opts to focus on just staying ready, both for a chance if it presents itself now and for something further on the horizon.
“Honestly, I can’t give up. Because if I give up, you’re a coward,” Nogueira says. “I need to start thinking about personal goals. Be ready if the opportunity comes again. If not, the Olympics. The Olympics in my country right now is a great opportunity to show people.”
Nogueira pencils in as a likely rotation piece for Brazil, who earned an automatic qualification as the host country. The tournament may still be seven months away, but the Raptors’ locker room, which is heavy on international players, is already preparing with plenty of trash talk. Chief among the trash-talkers is Nogueira, who figures he’ll be able to use some of his defensive acumen against Argentine teammate Luis Scola.
“I told him hey, enjoy your shots here. Enjoy your fadeaways because I’m not going to let you touch the ball,” he says. “So be ready.”
Scola isn’t the only one on Nogueira’s hit-list for the summer. Valanciunas (Lithuania) has drawn his ire, and not even DeMar DeRozan (USA) is safe from threats.
“Valanciunas, too,” Nogueira says. “He talks shit to me, Valanciunas. I say wait. It’s easy to talk shit in my face in Toronto, I want to see you talk in Brazil. Like Big Cat says, Jamal Magloire, ‘I got a surprise for you.’ I got a surprise for Scola and Valanciunas. And DeMar.”
Conspicuous by his absence in the trash-talk agenda is Cory Joseph, whose Canadian team still needs to punch their ticket through a July qualifying tournament.
“He got mad at me,” Nogueira says. “Because I said ‘hey man, you guys aren’t going to make the Olympics.’ He told me he’s gonna tweet #LucasHatesCanada. And he said ‘I’m gonna make #LucasHateCanada against Brooklyn, see who they boo more, you or Bargnani.'”
Before anyone gets to booing or using that hashtag, Nogueira did turn complimentary of the Canadian program.
“I think if everybody plays, they have a chance. But the best chance they had, they didn’t take it, playing against South American team,” he correctly points out. “Now they’ve gotta play against Greece (Turkey), France. I know the ’20, they’re already good. They’re already there.
“But they can make it if Tristan, Andrew Wiggins, Cory Joseph, Nicholson. If everybody plays, they have a chance.”
Ironically, until the tournament rolls around, Nogueria’s just waiting for the chance to play.