On Sunday, I attended the NBA rookie photo shoot held at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility in Tarrytown, New York. It was a fun event for the incoming rookie class as they posed for photos and got a first glimpse of their rookie cards. Because a bunch of talented young basketball players were together in a gym, there were impromptu dunk contests as well.
In between taking turns for photos, I also saw Raptors rookie Bruno Caboclo sitting by himself, waiting for instructions on where to go next. Meanwhile, Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinsin III were busy taking selfies as James Young and Julius Randle turned the entire gym into a dance floor.
As a fellow writer pointed out to me, these player interactions and how they conduct themselves in group settings does offer a glimpse -- however brief it may be -- into their personalities. It's fascinating to know right away the ones who are outwardly confident, and the ones who like to keep to themselves.
Caboclo was definitely in the latter group, and while no one should have their personality assessed from observations like these, it's definitely worth noting that the Brazilian rookie is still grasping the English language, and knew as much about the other rookies as they probably knew about him, which is very little both ways.
The question of course, turns to how Caboclo will fit with the team next season. Beyond just finding a role in the rotation and adjusting to the game at the NBA level, it's also about the aforementioned language barrier, a new city and so forth. All of it takes time.
The signing of fellow Brazilian Lucas Nogueira will help in some regards, but what if the more broader question was: is this Toronto team as currently constructed better than other teams in terms of integrating a rookie of Caboclo's background, and how will he fit in on the basketball floor with the other players?
These questions bring up sports terms that most people cringe at: team chemistry, the willingness to be there for one another, teammates who genuinely care for one another and well, you get the point. With statistical advances in the basketball community, there appears to be no room for these discussions, let alone the space to even argue about such topics.
But in truth, teams still care about continuity and cohesion. It was something Masai Ujiri preached about at the end of the season. Talent matters, yes. We only need to run through teams who have won the title in this league to know that you need superstars when it counts. But Ujiri's points aren't without merit. A strong locker room matters, a support system for a rookie matters, because his development is important especially for a team hoping to turn a late first round pick into a viable asset and part of the regular rotation for the future.
Still, the question remains: how do you put a value on team chemistry? How do we go about quantifying such a thing and for me to actually look at Caboclo slumped in his chair, and say: well, according to [insert future statistic about team chemistry], he should do just fine with this Raptors roster. At the very least, he'll have a better chance to succeed relative to some other situations around the league.
And then I remembered an article I read earlier this year from Jordan White at Hardwood Paroxysm which you can read in full here. In the piece, White spoke with Daniel McCaffrey, the co-founder of SyncStrength, a team comprised of coaches, researchers and scientists who are attempting to quantify team chemistry, and answer the questions that myself and many other people have about something that seems so arbitrary.
The logistics of how they are going about it sounds complicated and extremely challenging, which is not a surprise because it's such a difficult question to answer. It involves neuroscience and psychology. They're exploring biological markers and trying to come up with synchrony measurements for teams and their players.
SyncStrength presented at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year. From their research, they've acknowledged that team chemistry is an actual thing, and something that can measured and ultimately impacts the performance of a team.
How we actually get to the point where we can actually quantify all of this is something best left to smarter minds like McCaffrey, or anyone else venturing into this realm of the unknown. And perhaps the end result won't answer the question of: which team is best equipped of integrating a particular rookie player into their team, as a basketball roster and as a group of men.
But the most encouraging thing about these studies is that these days, when you have a question that seems impossible to answer in a way that is measurable, someone out there is probably figuring out how to answer that question already.
That part is exciting, because a world where we can have actual discussions about team chemistry and not be brushed aside seems like a significant step to take in order to have better conversations in sports.