Everyone was surprised when the Toronto Raptors chose a complete unknown as their 20th pick Thursday, but the decision didn't come out of nowhere.
Bruno Caboclo, an 18-year-old from Sao Paulo, Brazil, impressed Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri with his performance in South America's 2013 Basketball Without Borders tournament, in which Caboclo was named MVP, according to the Associated Press.
The Raptors had been hoping to snag both Caboclo and local player Tyler Ennis in Thursday's NBA draft, but after the Phoenix Suns picked Ennis, Toronto had to act fast, according to the Associated Press.
"We'll develop him and we're excited that we got a talent like that," Ujiri told AP.
When basketball's best young players were in Brooklyn, N.Y., waiting to hear their name called in the draft Thursday night, Caboclo was in a taxi. He 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."
"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 in Pirapora do Bom Jesus, a tiny town outside of Sao Paulo. He comes from a "difficult family, financially," according to Resende. "Even at his age he supports 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.
Caboclo has an impressive 7-foot-7 wingspan, a feature that has led some to call him the "Brazilian Kevin Durant."
But while he's a tall, athletic player, many have pointed out his inexperience.
One blogger on Raptors Republic said he thinks Caboclo lacks strong offensive and ball-handling skills.
Coach Dwayne Casey, who called Caboclo "an athletic phenomenon" on draft night, acknowledged the young player had a lot to learn.
"He’s raw but he’s going to develop in our program," Casey told the Toronto Star.
ESPN's Fran Fraschilla expressed his doubt that Caboclo would be ready to play anytime soon.
But one of Caboclo's coaches from Brazil defended his abilities, telling the Star he "trains a lot" and "always wants to learn."
Ujiri announced Saturday that Caboclo would be on the roster for the 2014-2015 year.
The young player looked very excited as he was handed 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."
With files from the Canadian Press
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