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Lewenberg: Growing pains for Caboclo in Summer League

Josh Lewenberg
7/15/2014 9:35:15 AM
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LAS VEGAS - Nearly a month into his unorthodox NBA journey, with less than three games of Summer League experience on his brief resume, Bruno Caboclo sat on the Raptors' bench, towel draped over his head as he wiped the tears that were building up in his eyes.

It's been a week of firsts for the young Brazilian, a roller coaster of emotions that culminated in a frustrating evening.

Five days ago he signed his first NBA contract, a "dream come true" as he described it. Three days ago he played in his first NBA game - scoring the first bucket for Toronto's Summer League entry in Las Vegas - and on Monday he had his first real NBA learning experience, one he won't soon forget.

With his team down by almost 30 points late in the third quarter, frustration already starting to boil over after committing his seventh turnover, Caboclo went up to contest highflying Mavericks' rookie C.J. Fair, who would end up putting the 18-year-old on the wrong end of a poster. To make matters worse, he was assigned a technical foul for his reaction after being dunked on. Still unfamiliar with all of the league's rules and hindered by a significant language barrier, Caboclo believed he had been ejected, heading straight to the bench where he remained for the duration of the game.

"I wanted to get him back in the game," said Jesse Mermuys, Raptors' assistant and Summer League head coach, following his team's lopsided 88-57 loss to Dallas. "I wanted him to get back out there but he was definitely overwhelmed at that point."

For all the upside and the justifiable excitement surrounding the intriguing, albeit mysterious Brazilian here at the league's annual summer tournament - his athleticism, competitive spirit, impressive defensive instincts and a wingspan you have to see to believe - this served as a reminder. Nothing about his learning process is easy, there are going to be bumps along the way.

"We've got to remember Bruno is 18-years-old," Mermuys cautioned. "He is a kid who does not speak English, this is his first experience. I can't tell you guys how proud I am of that kid."

"I'm super pleased that he was put in this position, the fight that he showed and that he showed an emotion and you could tell how much he cared and how much he felt bad that they were losing like that," Mermuys said of the Raptors' 20th overall selection in last month's draft. "You find out what a kid's like and what a player's like in those types of situations, you really find out who they are. And we have a great kid and a great competitor. And so from that standpoint today was a big success."

With the exceptional, life-changing opportunity Caboclo has been offered by Masai Ujiri and the Raptors, comes the challenge - in his case, a unique challenge - that inevitably goes with it.

Caboclo, the league's youngest player, is just weeks into the extensive and trying process of learning the game, his coaches, teammates and a new language in a continent he's only visited once before. His translator and closest advisor Eduardo Resende has returned home, leaving for Brazil on Sunday after helping to ease Caboclo's transition. Now, he's on his own.

"The best way to learn is by being thrown into the fire," said a member of the Raptors front office, who has been impressed and pleasantly surprised with Caboclo's quick progress.

Through three games in Vegas, Caboclo is averaging 11.3 points, 1.0 steal, 3.7 turnovers and 5.3 fouls, shooting 41 per cent in 25.0 minutes per contest. He has been confident and assertive, showing flashes of what he can become with some seasoning, hard work, and added muscle.

On the court, communication issues have been noticeable, as you might expect. Often, his coaches will point to the spot on the floor he's expected to be, with teammates directing him and screaming out his name. Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira, his teammate and countryman, has been an asset, serving as a translator on the floor and relaying information to Caboclo in his native Portuguese.

Sitting next to an emotional Caboclo on the bench, Nogueira was the first to console the Raptors' forward, offering him words of encouragement and advice.

"It's American basketball, it's not Brazil, it's not Europe," the 21-year-old Nogueira told Caboclo. "Here, everybody [can] jump. Keep playing, think about [the] next play. Don't think about the last play. If you're thinking about the last play, you are giving up. Never give up. Use that dunk on you [to] grow up.

Mermuys admits he may have overextended Caboclo a bit in the second half but didn't want to take him out of the game because he was playing so hard. Although the frustrations of the moment and the high standard he's set for himself may have played a part in Caboclo's emotional outburst, Nogueira offered up another interesting explanation.

"In Brazil you don't have athletic players like C.J. Fair and other guys," Nogueira said. "Americans are amazing, it's amazing, everyone can jump here. In Brazil, no. Nobody dunk on him there, because he is big and he's athletic. And he's 18-years-old, so it's normal he is sad."

By all accounts, Caboclo is a sponge both on and off the floor, eager to learn and highly motivated to get better. He's about three weeks into his English lessons, spending 90 minutes with his tutor almost every day before games and practices. In the hopes of better communicating with his coaches and teammates, the first sentence he asked to learn was, "Where do I go?," a question he asks frequently in practice, to the delight of the team.

A lesson is only as good as what you're willing to take from it. The Raptors are confident that Caboclo will continue to evolve with each roadblock he faces. As for the emotional outpour, they see it as positive quality rather than a sign of weakness.

"I just think the kid has a big heart," Mermuys said. "He tried to put us on his shoulders, he was battling out there and his emotions came to the surface because of the situation we were in. I would be frustrated if I was him too, I was frustrated as the coach. We didn't get much fight, we were down 30 and that's a tough situation in front of a crowd for your third NBA game. It's tough."

"I think Bruno, he has a good head and I think that's going to help him to grow up," Nogueira echoed. "I know he is young, but a great guy. I think that play will help him in the future. He is never giving up."

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