Believing in Bebe

As the scrum around his locker swelled following Saturday’s game, Lucas Nogueira grabbed a towel and took a moment to wipe his face. Still damp from the shower, he didn’t want fans to think he has skipped bathing following the victory, he said. Had he just needed a second to hide a smile as wide as his wingspan, he would have been forgiven.

Nogueira had just turned in a fourth consecutive strong performance for the Raptors, and low a bar though that seems, it represents the best sustained stretch of play in his NBA career. He provided a brief glimpse a year ago when Jonas Valanciunas was hurt and the Raptors needed to break his glass casing due to emergency, but then, as always it seems, he was beset by injury. It was the same story in training camp a year ago, in training camp during his rookie season, and even at the end of preseason this year, when Nogueira had run with a job he had the inside edge on only to sprain an ankle in the exhibition finale, forcing him to bide his time and wait for the chance to fight to regain his backup role.

This is the Nogueira story: With a 7-foot-6 wingspan and 9-foot-6 standing reach, the 24-year-old has long tantalized on measurements alone, but knowing what to expect from him week to week has been a matter for the team’s medical staff first and their coaching staff second. He’s required patience, and it’s patience that at one point during his latest absence seemed like head coach Dwane Casey may have been running thin on. He’s required projection, because for all of his obvious size and talent – and even success in the ACB league – there’s not yet an NBA track record to trust.

Those close to the team, and those fans with a longer memory or the patience for Raptors 905 action, are keenly aware of what a healthy Nogueira offers. He sees the floor and is capable of passing like no other big on the roster, teasing D-League opponents with near triple-doubles. He’s agile enough, with good enough footwork, to hedge out in the pick-and-roll and even trap speedier guards outside the 3-point line. When tasked with staying closer to the rim, he can be a strong deterrent, with ball-handlers acutely aware of the need to arc their layups, floaters, and runners over a ridiculously outstretched arm. And he’s game enough, despite not possessing the thickest of frames, to meet a driver head-on and use verticality to contest a bull-rush. And most fun of all, he might be one of the half-dozen easiest lob threats (#SideshowLob) in the NBA.

But again, these contributions have been largely theoretical to this point, and entering the third year of his rookie-scale contract, Nogueira wasn’t even certain his fourth-year option would be picked up. The organization exercising that option perhaps showed a modicum of faith, one that some of the general public seemed to have lost, but it would have been a logical move strictly from a salary cap and asset management standpoint regardless.

Privately, though, key figures around the team, past and present, have maintained faith and Nogueira, and to hear him tell it, it’s made all the difference. Nogueira credits the upcoming birth of his first child, a daughter, for cleaning up his life (he hasn’t had a drink in eight months, by his estimation) and maturing him on and off the court. Nogueira is also intelligent enough to have read the team’s roster and cap situation and correctly predicted that his friend, and the man formerly ahead of him on the depth chart, Bismack Biyombo, would be leaving this summer, leaving the team without much means of replacing him.

That confluence of life and basketball factors finally drove home the message about what was in front of Nogueira the next few months.

“Amazing. Amazing,” he said of how he feels physically right now. “I changed a lot of bad habits during the summer because I knew my chance was gonna come, because the cap, it was gonna be hard to keep Biz. So I knew coaches, GMs, they gonna believe in me. So since the season’s over last year, June, I changed a couple of bad habits during the summer and I put in the work to be ready for the opportunity right now.”

Biyombo’s departure had another impact, too, one that borders on the supernatural. Needing more space for the baby, Nogueira moved into Biyombo’s old apartment, and he now says he’s going to buy it and “stay there forever” since it’s coincided with his success. Really, though, it sounds like the support and belief of a friend and outgoing teammate helped Nogueira maintain the confidence to keep pushing after two hard years more than any inexplicable sorcery.

“Biz, the reason I changed a lot of my habits is ‘cause of him,” Nogueira says. “I don’t know if it’s the magic, but now I have a great moment in my life and live in his apartment. I think this is the reason I’m playing well – I sleep in the same bed as Bismack. When he’s gone, during the summer, he told me, ‘Lucas, your time to shine, go get it.’ I’ve known Biz since I’m 15, playing in Spain against each other, so we have a mutual respect for each other. It’s special. When he’s gone, he told me, ‘It’s your time, go get it.’ And I took it serious, and now things are going well for me.”

The Raptors value the strong culture around the team a great deal, and that culture extends beyond role certainty and hard work to support for one another, whether that be through teaching or mentoring or more straightforward support. Biyombo’s departure hasn’t changed that, as important as he was to that identity. That’s because Biyombo hasn’t been the only one pushing and supporting Nogueira, or any of the team’s other younger players.

As quietly as they may do it at times, and as behind-the-scenes, lead-by-example as their approaches may appear, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been instrumental for Nogueira, too. As Nogueira spoke to the media, the team’s All-Stars wandered into the locker room and jokingly demanded a shout-out. Nogueira happily obliged, turning a tongue-in-cheek aside into a genuine moment of appreciative reflection, as the Brazilian’s become so wont to do.

“Yeah, let’s take a minute. I want to say thanks to Kyle and DeMar,” Nogueira laughed before turning serious. “Because the fans, they don’t know, they don’t live with us. They just come, watch the game, go home. They don’t know what those guys do to me. Since my first year here, they always told me to keep working because they believe in my talent. So now I have a chance to play with them, so I feel special. It’s a great moment to me.”

With Lowry especially, it seems as if the love may come tough. Perhaps that’s his way of determining who’s willing to put in the work and prove worthy of his time, energy, and counsel. If that’s the case, there are probably some who are surprised to hear that the buoyant and affable Nogueira has been weighed and found worthy.

“It’s super rewarding for me,” Lowry said Saturday of Nogueira’s play. “I know I’m always tougher on all my guys because I want the best from them. To see him coming out there and playing the way he’s playing and showing the ability that he has, and getting out there and showing what he can do, it always make a guy feel better, but it always makes the team feel better.”

“It’s great. Fans don’t get to see how much work guys like Lucas put in,” DeRozan agreed.

Nogueira’s success over the last week is and isn’t surprising, at the same time. After two years of waiting for it, maybe it started to seem as if it wouldn’t come. Given the chance, again, Nogueira hasn’t disappointed. Whether or not it continues, and whether he can stay healthy, remains to be seen but is entirely beside the point. Nobody should have given upon a 24-year-old with obvious gifts who hadn’t been given a proper chance to fail yet, anyway.

The quiet belief the team’s held in Nogueira all along serves a nice reminder in the world outside of sports that support is paramount, especially lately. Teammates are important. Having someone in the trenches with you is important. Remind your friends and family that you support them and that you believe in them, and they’ll reward you. Maybe a well-timed Biyombo-like comment will hit home at exactly the right moment and make a world of difference. Maybe it won’t matter at all, but when’s the last time reminding someone you love that they’re amazing had a negative outcome? We should all have Lowrys and DeRozans and Biyombos pushing us and encouraging us and believing in us, and we should all be Lowrys and DeRozans and Biyombos to the Nogueiras in our lives.

You don’t know how important it might be. Except that you absolutely do.

“It’s about confidence but not just self-confidence. You need somebody to trust and believe in you. And I can tell right now not only the fans but the whole organization believes in my game,” Nogueira says. “Honestly, I don’t know how to explain. I feel very, like, emotional. Because I know how much I’ve been through the first two years here, and now I have the chance to play those big minutes, and closing the games for me is very special.”

All it took was opportunity. And belief.

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