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Raptors taking the long, long road with Caboclo

AP Photo/John Locher

LAS VEGAS -- For two years in a row, no one has better conveyed the raw potential of summer league and the high-risk, high-reward ethos of the event's backdrop than Bruno Caboclo.

Over a year after draft night in 2014, when Fran Fraschilla's now-famously described the then-18-year-old Brazilian as being "two years away from being two years away," Caboclo remains a mysterious figure in Toronto and beyond.

"It's gonna take a while," said Jama Mahlalela, an assistant coach who has worked with Caboclo since the Raptors drafted him 20th overall last year. "You can see he started from a very low place in terms of experience, but the effort he's putting forth is getting him better and better. When he started with us, his English really was limited. And his understanding of NBA culture was very limited. He'd never seen it before, so it was a huge learning curve. He's made the transition culturally, and now the challenge is basketball."

Caboclo was trapped with the ball by a Houston Rockets defender on Tuesday and accidentally knocked him down. Instead of taking advantage, he paused as though to help him up and got stripped in the process. The Rockets got a layup on the other end. It was a sweet moment -- too sweet -- but also a reminder that Caboclo is still familiarizing himself with the cutthroat edicts of American professional sports.

That isn't to say he hasn't made strides. Caboclo has come a long way from the flailing wanderer who teared up on the bench last year after being posterized by C.J. Fair. In five games in Vegas this year, he averaged 12 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.4 assists and 1.6 steals for the Raptors (3-2).

"He's a natural shooter. Even when he came to us, he had a natural stroke," Mahlalela said.

"Where he really needs to improve is understand NBA coverages more to become a better defender. That's the big growth area. His offense is gonna come. ... He's gained 20 pounds of muscle. He's gotta continue to gain that muscle to become a stronger player on the offensive end and the defensive end."

On Friday against Chicago, Caboclo nailed a 3-pointer and a floater in the first half, and fully extended his gigantic arms to block two shots in the paint. In each instance, a travelling contingent of Toronto fans erupted in applause. Late in the second half, with Caboclo set to check back into the game, they broke into a "Bruno!" chant, mimicking fans in Air Canada Centre that pined to see Caboclo get some burn during regular-season blowouts.

And therein lies the difference. In the regular season, Bruno played a whopping 23 minutes, a bulk of them with teammates trying to feed the fan favorite for ill-advised shots to amp up the crowd. In Toronto, Bruno is a lovable sideshow. Here, he's the main attraction. Playing 29 minutes per game in Vegas, his fraught potential has been laid bare.

When Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment purchased a D-League Team last month in neighbouring Mississauga, it was ensured that Caboclo's development wouldn't be subject to riding the bench again in Toronto. Along with Lucas Nogueira and rookies Norman Powell and Delon Wright, Bruno is slated to spend a lot of time with the freshly-minted "Raptors 905."

"Jesse Mermuys will be our D-League head coach and he's one of our assistant head coaches, so we'll be running the same offense, same plays, the same terminology, which is important especially for Bruno, with English, it'll at least be called the same thing to make it easier for him," Mahlalela said.

Terminology, in this case, hints at a core motivation for teams trying to purchase their own D-League squad: a desire for organizational synergy.

"Last year, he was not at a disservice," Mahlalela said, "but not having a D-League team that he could get guaranteed minutes for his development. I think the best teams in the NBA have a really good system and synergy between their D-League team and pro team. We wanna try and replicate that and perfect it.

"Because it's so close, he can go back and forth. He can literally practice with the main team and play a game that night with the D-League team. He's gonna get a lot of minutes. He's done a million drills, shot the ball a million, trillion times this past season. He needs to play games. He needs referees, crowds, end-of-game situations."

Said Caboclo of summer league: "I feel good. It's very cool. Playing a lot of minutes, and understanding plays and the defense. My mixtapes, I get better everyday." (By "mixtapes" he means game tapes. Maybe he's more ingrained in American culture than we think.)

If the Raptors can develop Bruno in the D-League, they'll have cracked an impossible formula for in-between playoff teams trying to stave off mediocrity without letting the hinges fall off. While the Raptors work to incorporate free-agent signing DeMarre Carroll into the rotation and leverage incremental improvement into larger short-term gains, the future will rest 30 kilometers away in Bruno's stretchy fingertips.

Seerat Sohi is a writer in Edmonton, Canada. Follow her, @DamianTrillard.