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Showcasing Bruno

Photo credit: Christian Bonin / TSGphoto.com

Stage one of the Bruno Caboclo experiment is coming to an end. With his rookie contract expiring at the end of the year, the Toronto Raptors are almost certainly going to refuse his 1Y 3.5M qualifying offer. Is there an NBA player lurking within Bruno’s aesthetically-NBA-ready limbs, or is his career limbo going to expire with his rookie deal?

Caboclo’s strengths are apparent, even to the most casual observer. He is outrageously tall and long, with a smooth shooting stroke on offence and impressive mobility on defence. The NBA Showcase had some highs and lows for Caboclo, and it resulted in the team’s 10-game winning streak ending in overtime to the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Perhaps the most indicative aspect of Caboclo’s season-long performance has been the relative quiet surrounding his G-League success: it is now taken for granted. Throughout the season, Caboclo has been one of the leaders of the recently dominant 905.

In the first Showcase game, with dozens of NBA scouts and managers looking on, Caboclo let his unselfish play talk for him. He only attempted 6 shots – a far cry from his 13.3 attempts per game – but made half of them. Instead of forcing his offence, he focussed on the defensive end, contributing two blocks and two steals in his +16 (the team won by 26) during 23 minutes. More important than his numbers, though, were the ways in which he contributed to stops.

Caboclo showed high-level defensive chops and awareness on multiple defensive possessions. Here, he navigates a screen and roll impressively, guarding Quinn Cook, an NBA-level guard (and G-League MVP candidate) in his own right. He traps Cook in the corner. Later in the possession (after minimal rebounding effort, allowing the ball to bounce to Cook), he defends a Cook baseline drive well, moving his feet with the much smaller man, and not allowing the offensive player to create any separation.

The next play is even more impressive. First Caboclo defends an off-ball flare screen, managing to get higher than the screen and deny the pass with his arm extended into the passing lane. Textbook. He then returns to his own man, who spots up off of a ball screen on the left side of the floor. Caboclo sinks lower than the level of the screen, disrupting the action and trusting his athleticism to allow him to return to his own man. He tags the roller, blowing up the entire action. When the ball is swung to his man behind the arc, Bruno flies back to him and nearly blocks the shot, forcing a wild attempted 3 which misses badly. He practically acts as two defenders. Few people can do this, even at the NBA level.

Caboclo’s off-ball defence is already firmly NBA-level. Is his on-ball defence? Here is a highlight from the second 905 Showcase game. Caboclo guards Derrick Jones Jr. – a low-level NBA prospect in his own right, and on a Heat two-way contract – through a screen and recovers well when Jones Jr. pulls the ball back. Caboclo stays with a spin move and unfurls his full wingspan to block the shot. Later, he again positions himself poorly for a rebound but pressures the ball multiple times, even forcing a turnover to end the defensive possession.

This is a difficult stop to evaluate. On the surface, Caboclo has a ridiculous defensive possession, using his footwork and length to contain a drive, block a shot, and force a turnover. But how much of that is due to the lower-talent / -athleticism level of the G-League? If you pay close attention to Caboclo’s footwork while guarding the Jones Jr. drive, he loses him briefly on the spin move but is able to recover because Jones Jr. just doesn’t offer an explosive move towards the rim. If that was an NBA-starting wing Bruno was guarding, such as James Johnson or Jaylen Brown, would the outcome have been as positive? I imagine we would be evaluating this possession quite differently. Caboclo’s on-ball defence is not at the level as his off-ball defence.

Caboclo’s offensive contributions are much easier to assess. He is a good shooter, though prone to extended cold-streaks. He is particularly fond of above-the-break 3s coming out of actions designed for him.

I asked him about this particular shot, coming out of the horns set. Caboclo runs a pick-and-roll with Lorenzo Brown and then rockets behind a Kennedy Meeks screen, popping for an open 3. I don’t think he’s missed one such shot all season. Caboclo agreed that he loves his pet play:

“Yeah [I love it], because sometimes, I’m not getting shots, so that play is for me. I focus a lot on that shot.” He even agreed that he shoots better on above-the-break 3s than out of the corner: “It’s because the plays we have, my shots come more from the top of the key, or from 45 [degree angles], so I shoot more [consistently] on those. But I’m still good in the corners.”

The only problem is that he is not good in the corners, shooting 27.6% on the season from that area. For Bruno to be a productive member of an NBA offence, he can’t only shoot well on plays designed for him. He must be able to fit in around the edges, which is an important skill for any role player. When Bruno has earned time with the Raptors, he has had difficulties finding his range without being involved in the offence. He needs to raise his efficiency while lowering his usage rate. This is difficult but important for him in order to earn another NBA contract.

Caboclo needs to lower his expectation of high involvement in an NBA offence, as his Showcase forays into shot-creation and play-making were sketchy at best.

In the first clip, Caboclo drives to the rim, but he is out of control due to swiping defenders, and despite not going very fast. He shows limited ball handling, finishing, and body control in the play. In the second clip, Bruno fails to create any separation on the drive. In the final play, Caboclo offers a low-IQ play by driving back into a crowd after receiving the ball. The smart play would have been to drive middle or keep the ball moving, rotating it to the other side. Instead he puts his head down and drives into a throng of arms; the play is only saved by the high-level shotmaking ability of Lorenzo Brown.

At the NBA level, Caboclo attempting to make a play off the dribble would most likely result in a negated advantage and an offensive reset at best or a missed shot or turnover at worst. These issues manifested themselves at the end of the Sioux Fall Skyforce game. With a tie game at the end of regulation, Stackhouse drew up a play that got a wide-open Caboclo 3, which he missed. At the end of overtime, down three points, Stackhouse again drew up a beautiful after timeout play that resulted in two open 3-point looks for Caboclo. They were the shots he likes most: above-the-break 3s created through Bruno-centric action. Perhaps with his confidence shaken, Caboclo refused both looks and instead drove. He had the ball slapped out of his hands.

The 905 winning streak ended at 10, and despite a generally-strong showcase for Caboclo, questions persist about the viability of his game at the NBA level. It speaks highly of the young man that he quickly acknowledges his mistakes. Only minutes after the Skyforce game ended, speaking about his refusal to shoot the 3 at the end of overtime, Caboclo admitted his mistake: “I thought I was guarded, but I just took a bad decision. But we learn from that and take from it, and try not to make the same mistake next time.”

Caboclo wants to improve, and his skills and awareness at pretty much everything have improved dramatically since he joined the Raptors. He is not yet at the level where he can contribute meaningfully to the Raptors, which is unfortunate timing due to his upcoming contract expiration. I’m as unaware of NBA contract negations as anyone in this world, but every media member I spoke to during the showcase mused that the most Caboclo would receive in an upcoming NBA contract – if he even signs one – is most likely the minimum. There just isn’t a market for players who haven’t had even flashes of success at the NBA level.

However, the Bruno Caboclo experiment is far from over. It may not continue in Toronto beyond this season, but there is enough potential in Caboclo’s frame that as long as he is young, he will never be off-the-radar in the NBA. After all, even the most casual observer can clearly see the upside in Bruno. Now that the G-League Showcase is done, it will be up to Caboclo whether that upside will ever allow him to translate his G-League success to the NBA.

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