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Lewenberg: Caboclo on a mission to prove he belongs

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Josh Lewenberg
6/28/2014 6:12:13 PM
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TORONTO - Bruno Caboclo, the Raptors' 20th overall selection in Thursday's NBA Draft, arrived in Toronto Friday evening.

A wide-eyed 18-year-old visiting North America for only the second time in his young life, Caboclo immediately noticed the "big tower" his new home is best known for.

Then he got to work.

Caboclo, described by those who know him as a "gym rat," was amazed to find out that he'll have access to the Raptors' practice facility at any time, day or night, just one of the many perks that comes with being drafted into the NBA.

At 11:00 PM, the Brazilian forward was taking jump shots on his new team's practice court, on the third level of the Air Canada Centre. "I need to get a feeling for the gym and I need to get the rust off," he told Eduardo Resende, his long-time friend, translator and closest advisor. A couple hours later he was in bed. It had been a long day.

About 24-hours earlier, on the night of the draft, Caboclo and Resende were in the backseat of a cab, en route from the airport to their hotel in New York City and following along with the picks on Twitter. They expected to be in their rooms by the time the commissioner called Caboclo's name, sometime in the second round, or so they thought.

That's when they got the news. Refreshing the app on his phone, Caboclo learned he had been drafted, that his dream had come true. If you thought you were surprised by the pick…

"The taxi driver didn't understand what went on," Resende joked. "We were screaming back there. It was crazy."

"He was jumping out of the roof. He was very excited. It's a dream come true. For a young Brazilian player that could only see those things on TV and then all of sudden he's a part of it."

Caboclo tried to call his family back in Brazil but no one answered, they were asleep. He fielded calls for hours and finally heard from Masai Ujiri, the man who had just shocked the basketball world by making the pick, at 2:00 AM as the two were ordering some late-night food at a New York pizzeria. At 4:00 AM they were finally able to get some sleep.

Thursday night was an emotional one for all 60 prospects fortunate enough to have their name called - dreams realized, lives changed - but for Caboclo the feeling was a little different. It had to be.

A native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Caboclo - the youngest of three siblings - grew up in a rough environment.

"He comes from a difficult family financially," Resende said. "He supports his family."

Without cable in his house Caboclo was unable to watch NBA basketball until recently, but he's been playing the game since he was 13-years-old, dunking since he was 14.

When did he know he wanted to play in the NBA?

"Always," he said, after Resende relayed the question in his native Portuguese.

The Raptors were intrigued since the moment they saw the 6-foot-9 Brazilian. With a couple of Toronto's scouts watching, Caboclo won the most valuable player award at the 2013 Basketball Without Borders Americas. At the request of his staff, Ujiri went to go see the young man play in Brazil. He would later make two more trips, bringing with him Jeff Weltman, Toronto executive VP of basketball operations, and other members of the organization.

They weren't the only team wise to Caboclo, though they were one of a small handful. No more than five teams knew about him, according to a club source. "You're going to get some scouts fired for this," one Raptors staff member told a team scout, jokingly, while watching Caboclo in amazement. If he realizes his potential in the NBA, despite flying under most of the league's radar, it could change the way many teams approach their scouting process.

Ujiri and company kept a low profile on these trips, for obvious reasons. Even Caboclo had no idea he was being watched, playing sparingly for Pinheiros in Sao Paulo at the time. Ujiri happened to be in attendance when one of Caboclo's teammates got hurt, creating more playing time for the young forward. He brought back some film of that game to review with his staff… on his cell phone.

Even with limited live action data to work with, Ujiri quickly fell in love with Caboclo's upside. As he worked out in Toronto just before being introduced to the local media for the first time Saturday morning, it wasn't hard to see why.

With a 7-foot-6 wingspan, he barely has to leave his feet to extend above the rim. He's wiry, can handle the ball and his shooting mechanics are "excellent", according to a front office source who has seen him play.

At one point during the workout, Caboclo was asked to dribble past a coach and dunk the ball. Instead, he passed that coach the ball. His English, like the rest of his game, is a work in progress but he's absorbing everything like a sponge. "Soon he won't need me here anymore," joked Resende, who has known Caboclo since he was a kid, working with him for the last two years.

"His improvements have come very fast," he continued. "He is nowhere near the Bruno who was MVP at Basketball Without Borders. He is way past that."

"He's a little shy until he gets used to what's going on, and then he's very open," Ujiri echoed. "He's a gym rat, and he's competitive. If he doesn't do a drill well, he will want to finish it. That's him. He's a great kid. Loves basketball. He wants to be in the gym every second, which is what you want in an 18-year-old."

"It's a gamble," Ujiri acknowledged. Although Caboclo has the tools to succeed in the NBA, it will take time. Listed at 205 pounds, the young man will need to add muscle and get comfortable with the language on top of the work he'll need to put in to grow his game in the league. As for the negative reaction to his unexpected pick, Ujiri doesn't care. "Honestly, I don't do it for reactions of anybody," said the Raptors' general manager.

He may well be "two years away from being two years away", as Fran Fraschilla so eloquently put it on the ESPN broadcast, he may be "five years away from being five years away", as Ujiri joked on Saturday, but the Raptors feel strongly about their pick and will patiently ride it out for as long as it takes.

Caboclo's drive, passion and work ethic should justify that patience.

"He is very aware that he's coming to a league that's pretty tough and he's only 18 so they're probably right about two years from being two years or whatever," Resende said on behalf of Caboclo. "But he said he's a hard worker and he's going to cut that [timeline] down and contribute before everybody [thinks]"

The work begins immediately. Caboclo will travel to Los Angeles on Sunday to meet and workout with some of the team's players and coaches. The Raptors plan to get him on a weight training program right away, while he puts in time with an English tutor, something the team did with Jonas Valanciunas after he came over from Lithuania. He won't play for Brazil this year - though he hopes to represent his country in the 2016 Rio Olympics - as he has committed fully to the Raptors. He'll participate in the team's Summer League entry in Las Vegas next month and then prepare for his rookie season. Ujiri anticipates Caboclo will spend at least a portion of his first year bouncing up and down from the Development League (Note: the Raptors have yet to announce their D-League affiliate for next season).

"He's going to start learning," Ujiri said. "Starting today. He's a basketball junkie. Those guys usually figure out a way."

Bruno Caboclo (Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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(Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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