A few minutes into the game, the 18-year-old from Brazil gets the basketball in the corner of the court of a small arena in Las Vegas. It is his second professional outing in North America. Two defenders plough toward him, careening in, and Bruno Caboclo, a gangly 6 foot 9, lifts off and lofts up the three-pointer – and it hits. He lands, his shooting hand still extended, his fingers downwards and wrist fixed in the follow-through.
The newest and youngest player on the Toronto Raptors was unknown to almost everyone in the world of basketball until he was chosen 20th in the first round of the NBA draft in late June. Caboclo was, until now, a unicorn: an unknown in this sporting era without mystery, where everything and everyone of any note, no matter how young, is dissected to an extreme degree.
The mystery will soon enough seem quaint. Growing up poor in a small city outside Sao Paulo, his mother a maid and his father a security guard and truck driver, Caboclo began to play basketball at 13 and his raw talent was spotted several years ago. Word of his potential began to percolate – the Raptors were among the few to hear and the team under the canny direction of general manager Masai Ujiri, who took the gamble.
It is a bet that will take at least some time to pay – but in the cauldron of summertime in Las Vegas, where the NBA stages its annual summer league, a stew of rookies, young players and a few older ballers scraping for one last shot at the dream, Caboclo has been impressive – a boy already able to hold his own.
“A lot of players, especially in this situation, could be scared or overly nervous – and it really could slide downhill for him,” said Jesse Mermuys, the Raptors assistant coach who is in charge of the summer league team. “And he’s come out pretty aggressive.”
In his debut Friday, Caboclo put up a solid 12 points, hitting five of seven shots, including two of two behind the three-point line. Saturday afternoon was bumpier: After opening with the three-pointer from the corner, his missed five subsequent long balls.
But the potential is obvious. He lopes up and down the floor with ease, his reach seems to go on forever, and he is unafraid – a resolute belief that he belongs, even if he is the youngest Raptor on the summer league team by almost three years and barely able to speak English.
Asked after Saturday’s game if he has proven anything to himself, Caboclo – his face still sprinkled with touches of acne – eagerly nodded and said, “Sim, sim” – “yes, yes,” in Portuguese. He is adjusting to the intensity of the NBA but said, speaking through his agent/translator Eduardo Resende, “[I] can play with these guys.”
Caboclo, for the Raptors, is a lottery ticket. Picks in the later first round are hardly guarantees to make any discernable impact in the NBA. First, progression in English must be made, for basic communication on the court for starters. He’s studying 90 minutes a day. Second, there is no hurry. He is not part of the Raptors’ primary plans for 2014-15, a season during which his progression will occur outside the bright lights of games.
If Caboclo fails, he becomes a footnote, a minor misstep for Ujiri. If Caboclo succeeds, however, he could become the type of player who resonates, a power on the court and a beaming smile off of it in the kaleidoscope of Toronto. In Vegas on Saturday, his moments of achievement drew a few cheers of “Bruno! Bruno!” from a couple dedicated fans.
The desire is there. Resende remembers Caboclo in Brazil heading back to the gym after a long day of practice to work with his pro team, late in the evenings, 500 shots a session solo. “All in Brazil know,” said Resende, “if you want to get there” – the NBA – “you’ve got to do something else, more than everybody else.”
And Caboclo’s not yet finished growing. At 6 foot 9, he has grown an inch this year and the figuring is there’s another inch to come. Sure, there is a lot to work on. He’s 18. He gets pushed around on the court, lacking muscle, but muscle can be made. The physical intensity is what has jarred him the most so far, which is obvious seeing him in action, where he can get knocked around like a leaf in the wind.
But while a bewildered ESPN rashly declared that Caboclo was far from ready for the NBA when he was drafted – “two years away from being two years away,” as an analyst said – this could soon enough seem quaint.
“Those people,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, “don’t know anything about basketball if that’s what they think.”