Two years ago the Toronto Raptors shocked the basketball world when they drafted Bruno Caboclo, a youngster from Brazil who wasn’t really on anybody’s radar as a first round pick. It was made clear from day one that Bruno was to be an experiment: can you take someone with all the physical attributes you look for in a basketball player but who has never actually played high level competitive basketball and use the D League to turn him into an NBA player? 2+ years in the jury is still out, leaving many Raptors fans questioning whether the experiment is worth continuing and putting Caboclo in the unenviable position of having to outperform people who may have thousands of hours of competitive basketball experience over him to justify his continued existence in this organization.
The expectations are more than a little unfair; they may be fair expectations of a player who grew up playing high school and AAU ball and then moved on to the NCAA or one who turned pro in Europe during his teenage years, but Caboclo is neither of those. The 1270 minutes he played in the D League last season makes up roughly ¾ of his total high level basketball experience, and going into last season he had less experience than your average high school kid. Expecting him to jump from that to being an NBA contributor in 2 seasons is unrealistic. You can argue that Masai should have taken someone more NBA-ready but on a team that already has NBA ready youngsters who they may not be able to find minutes for I’m not sure what the point would be. The Raptors found themselves in a position to try something new and they leapt at it.
The lack of experience that holds young Bruno back is also what makes this experiment so fascinating. It means he has trouble recognizing game situations that his peers have seen hundreds of times before but it also means he’s avoided some of the trappings that come from growing up a prized athletic prospect. There are no bad habits from playing against inferior comp he can physically overwhelm, no attitude issues from people constantly in his ear telling him he’s the next big thing and no entitlement issues from a lifetime of being given free gear. He’s about as close to a blank slate as a modern NBA team will ever be able to bring on board, which leaves them free to create him in whatever image they would like. They have the opportunity to take a physical freak and tailor his skillset to the brand of basketball they would like to play. It’s such an intriguing idea that there is a part of me hoping they never really give up on it. That last roster spot does not usually make a difference anyway, let the kid hold it until he’s 27 just to see what happens.
He still has a tendency to play like a deer in headlights on the biggest stage, even in garbage time and preseason, so you can’t really look to that to see evidence of his progress. The work the Raptors have done becomes very apparent when you watch his D League games, particularly the later season games from last season. The jump shot that impressed the coaches and scouts so much leading up to the draft is still there as are the athleticism and fluidity of movement but there are little things that weren’t there before: the way he gets his shoulders past his defender on drives, the way he recognizes opportunities to seal smaller defenders near the rim, the time taken to probe for space instead and patience to seek better opportunities instead of making the immediate play. His feel for the game on defense has advanced even beyond that, with Bruno already having demonstrated an ability to patiently track penetrating ball-handlers and wait for his opportunity to make a play on the ball, close out under control and position himself in ways that allow his wingspan to act as a deterrent to multiple offensive options. Most of that wasn’t there at the beginning of the Raptors 905 season but by the end Caboclo was using all of that to be an impact player on both ends of the floor.
If you’re expecting Caboclo to step in as a contributor off the bench this season then prepare to be disappointed. He’s not that player yet and realistically there was no way he was going to be capable of contributing like that at stage in his development. This was always a long term plan by Masai Ujiri and judging it in it’s infancy requires more nuance than simply looking at how productive he is as an NBA player at this point in time. Caboclo should be judged by how much progress he has made; last season he added a lot to his skillset and you started seeing the transition from the gangly ball of potential he was when he was drafted to the mobile hybrid forward he projects to become. If you’re expecting to see early stages of him living up to the “Brazilian Kevin Durant” moniker or the Giannis Antetokounmpo comparisons brought on by his wingspan you should also prepare for disappointment; Bruno doesn’t have the guard skills of either player and the team seems to be molding him into a dynamic stretch four.
In hindsight the “two years away from being two years away” label was pretty accurate as Bruno is probably about halfway through his development into an NBA contributor. We shouldn’t spend the season pining for more established players who could be underplayed the way Norman Powell projects to be this season or lamenting the lack of roster space for marginal NBA players who don’t project to be as good as Bruno(should this experiment pay off the way most of Ujiri’s moves have to date). Instead we should spend the season tracking his development. If you don’t already tune into Raptors 905 games I’d encourage you to start, if only to see for yourself how the Bruno experiment is going. If he doesn’t add things to his game this season or develop a better feel for the ebb and flow of offense in a professional basketball setting then it may be time to worry but as the 2016-17 seasons approaches Bruno is exactly where he should be.Follow @raptorsrepublic