When basketball’s best young players were in Brooklyn, N.Y., waiting to hear their name called in the NBA draft Thursday night, Bruno Caboclo was in a taxi.
Caboclo had been training just outside Houston, and he and his personal advisor Eduardo Resende had hopped in a cab when somebody from Brazil tweeted “Oh my god, Bruno at 20.”
“The taxi driver didn’t understand what was going on, we were screaming back there. It was crazy,” said Resende.
“He was jumping out of the roof (figuratively), he was very excited. It’s a dream come true for a young Brazilian player that only can see (the NBA) on TV, and then all of a sudden he’s part of it.”
The 18-year-old Caboclo was a virtual unknown when he became the Raptors’ surprise 20th pick in Thursday night’s draft — a selection that general manager Masai Ujiri admitted was an “outright gamble.”
Ujiri had another player in mind for the 20th pick, and had planned to take the Brazilian at No. 37, but when he lost out on the first player, he wasn’t taking any chances on Caboclo.
The young Brazilian arrived in Toronto on Friday night — and upon finding out he had the practice gym at the Air Canada Centre at his disposal, headed there at 11 p.m. to shoot.
The Raptors staff put him through his first official workout Saturday morning. He then met with a curious Toronto media contingent that numbered in double digits, an immediate measure of how much his life has changed in two days.
“His Twitter two days ago had 19 followers (he’s now at over 5,000),” said Resende, who also acting as Caboclo’s translator in Toronto — the youngster speaks only a few words of English. “You become like a public person. The biggest change for him is this (press) conference here. I don’t think he would ever imagine he would be here one day.”
Caboclo grew up Pirapora do Bom Jesus, a tiny town outside of Sao Paolo. He comes from a “difficult family, financially,” according to Resende. “Even at his age he support his family.”
Ujiri wouldn’t reveal much about Caboclo’s upbringing except “He grew up tough. I don’t want to say too much about his family, and some of the things we know. He grew up in a not-so-great environment. Basketball was his love.”
He has two sisters, aged 22 and 26, who play volleyball. He played soccer as a child, but said he was only “so-so” at it, and switched to basketball at age 13, when he was already five foot 10. Within a year, he could dunk the ball.
The Raptors had tracked Caboclo since he was named most valuable player of the Basketball Without Borders tournament last summer, first sending a team of scouts to watch the six-foot-nine player with the eye-popping seven-foot-six wingspan.
“We felt like he was somebody we needed to follow. Our scouts did a phenomenal job of going and seeing him and gathering information,” Ujiri said after presenting Caboclo with his jersey.
The Raptors GM took some heat after Thursday’s selection, from fans and the media, but shrugged it off Saturday morning.
“Honestly I don’t do it for reactions of anybody. I don’t care. We’re in a business where I can’t react to anything, I just have to do my job, and you hope the best comes out of it,” Ujiri said.
“Is it a gamble? Yes. But do we remember who the 20th picks of the last 10 drafts are?”
Ujiri sat courtside at the ACC as Caboclo practised. Resende helped translate the instructions. He dunked the ball with ease, shot well from long range, and was fluid as he moved around the court despite his long limbs.
“We thought from the little information we have, he’s young, he’s long, he’s tall, he’s skinny, he likes to play basketball, he’s got a little bit of skill, he can shoot a little bit, maybe there’s something we can mould there,” Ujiri said.
Ujiri expects Caboclo to be a solid defender because of his length.
“He moves his feet pretty good, he’s got a touch, he likes to shoot it, so if he can be a two-way player where he can shoot the ball a little bit and he can defend. . . We picked him because we feel there’s some good upside there, it will take time, and we’re ready to be patient for him,” Ujiri said. “He’s a great kid, but loves basketball, he wants to be in the gym every second, which is what you want in an 18-year-old.”
Caboclo said he tries to model his game after his idol and Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant. He feels they have the same body type.
Caboclo’s strength is among the things he’ll need to work on during what should be a tough rookie season, between being so far from home, having to learn English, and adapting to the NBA.
The Raptors will immediately implement a couple of measures to help him adjust — a weight training program and his own English teacher, Ujiri said. He’ll also fly to Los Angeles on Sunday to work with new teammates DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson, and fellow rookie DeAndre Daniels, taken 37th overall Thursday night.
Caboclo will play with the Raptors in the summer league, plus Ujiri expects him to spend some time next season down in the D-League.
Resende said the young player knows the road ahead won’t be all smooth sailing.
“Last night he came to my room and he said ‘It’s a great responsibility,“’ Resende said. ‘Because getting there is one thing, now the real work is going to begin now.“