The average human speaks approximately 16,000 words per day. The majority of these words are meaningless, hardly worth remembering: “Hi, how are you?” “I’ll have those reports to you by three o’clock,” “Let’s eat out tonight.” This is true especially in the realm of sports, where athletes and coaches rarely treat us to anything more than a variation of “both teams played hard.”
But every so often, a player utters a few words, maybe a string of sentences, that become forever tethered to their legacy: Allen Iverson’s “Talkin’ bout practice;” LeBron James’ “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” or “Not one, not two, not three,” or, most recently, “I’m coming home.”
Sometimes, it’s not even what a player says, but what someone says about them that hangs above the player’s head like a halo or a dark cloud. On draft night, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla saddled Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick Bruno Caboclo with the descriptor “two years away from two years away.” It was succinct, it was buzzy, and it stuck like glue to Caboclo, more than likely because it was the first thing anyone had ever been told about the just-until-that-moment unknown Brazilian forward.
Yet, during summer league, Caboclo’s started to prove Fraschilla’s now-famous line was a bit premature. Or, perhaps that we misinterpreted the phrases’ meaning. “Two years away from being two years away” doesn’t mean Caboclo’s a bust, or that he wasn’t worthy of the No. 20 pick, but that he just has a long way to go before he becomes the player the Raptors think he can be.
The Raptors didn’t come in expecting Caboclo to immediately dominate. They know his development will be a long process, which is the exact purpose of summer league.
“The reason we're here is to develop Bruno,” Raptors summer league coach Jesse Mermuys said. “We’re here to get him experience. As frustrating as that loss was, I’m sure he got better and that’s what (summer league) is about.”
Cabocolo’s development isn’t restricted just to basketball. He faces a steeper learning curve than most rookies because he doesn’t speak English. Already, basketball is an incredibly nuanced sport, especially on the defensive end. Even the most polished of rookies come into the NBA struggling on defense, simply because of the wealth of new schemes and terminology being thrown at them on a daily basis. So imagine how difficult it must be for a rookie that doesn’t speak the language in which he’s being instructed.
“You mistake guys not understanding English for being unintelligent,” Mermuys said. “You tell (Bruno) one time to do something and he does it. That’s so important in the game (because) he rarely makes the same mistake twice.”
While Caboclo’s English is developing well (he’s taking English classes in Las Vegas, and will presumably continue them in Toronto), he still has to rely on teammates Lucas Nogueira and Scott Machado to translate for him.
“It helps a lot (to have Lucas),” Caboclo said through his translator. He then added, jokingly, “We call plays for each other that no one understands.”
It’s easy to see what enticed the Raptors so much that they passed up more supposedly “sure things” in favor of Caboclo’s potential. The first thing you notice about him is, inevitably, his arms. They’re improbable. They wave in defiance of reality, because it should be impossible for any human being to have arms that long, except there they are, flaring up and down, a humanoid windmill defending an inbounds pass or blocking a shot.
Once you’ve come to terms with his impossible wingspan, you begin to see skill. Caboclo’s raw, to be sure, but he’s not just some long athlete the Raptors are trying to teach how to play basketball.
“I love everyone (that) says he's two years away from being two years away, because those people don't know anything about basketball,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “(Caboclo) has just as much talent as a lot of these guys.”
In his summer league debut (which doubled as his introduction the general basketball population), Caboclo looked nothing like the shaken, nervous rookie one might expect. He wasn’t dominant, but there was a certain amount of ease to his play.
“When I go onto the court, it’s my habitat,” Caboclo said through his translator. “I feel comfortable and confident that I can do the things I practiced.”
He was a perfect two-for-two from beyond the arc in that first game, and while he came crashing back down to earth in his second game, shooting just 1-for-6 from deep and 3-for-10 overall in a blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets, he still didn’t look out of sorts.
If Caboclo’s first two games were an indicator of what he can become, his third game showed how much work he has to do to realize that potential. He struggled mightily against the Mavericks, not just with his shooting (going 3-10 yet again from the field) but taking care of the ball, turning it over seven times. It’s not that he looked lost, just that he looked like, well, a rookie.
The game was also a reminder of something far more important, something that had little to do with Caboclo the basketball player and everything to do with Caboclo the 18-year-old kid, shuttled to a foreign land with completely foreign surroundings.
With 1:24 left in the third quarter, CJ Fair grabbed a loose ball and streaked down the left side of the court. When he reached the left elbow, he skied to the rim, arm fully extended above him like a basketball statue of liberty. Caboclo rose to meet him, living out Newton’s first law. Except, Caboclo’s force wasn’t enough to unbalance Fair, who dunked all over him. After the dunk, Caboclo made a bee line for the bench, checking himself out of the game and draping a towel over his face as soon as he sat.
It was a the right basketball play, the type of aggression and mentality you want to see out of a rookie learning the nuances of an NBA defense, while the reaction was one of a 18-year old – a perfect synthesis of his promise and the long road before him to achieve it.