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Player Preview 2016-17: Bringing Up Bebe

The time is now for the lovable Lucas Nogueira.

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Toronto Raptors Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

This column comes to you a bit late. I left it to the last minute, caught up as I was in various other goings on. Life, man. But this column, our final player preview for the 2016-17 season, is also about Lucas Nogueira, whose work for the Raptors has also been a bit late, or inconsistent, or, dare I say, distracted. We have high hopes for Lucas, just like we have for ourselves. In this way, we are all Bebe — minus being seven feet tall of course — just trying to get things done.

At 24, Nogueira has been with the Raptors now for two full seasons. His first, after coming over in the Lou Williams trade, saw him appear in six games. His second, between runs in the D-League with the 905, saw him make 29 big league appearances with averages of 2.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in 7.8 minutes per game. There wasn’t a lot of time to go around for young Bebe — what with Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo in his way — and the moments he did get to be on the court were exercises (adventures?) in a certain type of kaleidoscopic frustration. For Bebe is so big, so nimble, and yet...

In talking to Nogueira before the season, it’s clear he is aware of his sometimes precarious status on the team. True, Biyombo is gone, and the team has no other backup centres with NBA experience on the roster (especially so now, with Jared Sullinger, the team’s small ball 5 out indefinitely). The minutes should be there for him, with only rookie Jakob Poeltl, the team’s other active 7-footer, on-hand to fill them. But Nogueira acknowledges nothing in the NBA is given.

“I’ve been working since the season was over, because I knew this year was going to be a very important year in my life,” said Nogueira on media day. “Of course right now people expect me to be the backup centre because Biz [Biyombo] is gone, but like I said, I don’t create expectation. They just drafted two bigs, very good players, Pascal [Siakam] and Jakob [Poeltl], so I’m not gonna say this is my position, this is my spot because I’m here three years. You gotta fight for it.”

The ongoing perception of Bebe, one he has joyfully groomed over the past two seasons in Toronto, has been of a player who is seriously unserious. Maybe it’s his wild sea anemone hair, or his wide smile, or all those times he’s offered up ridiculously long, rambling quotes to sportswriters looking for something — anything — outside the norm. (Bebe remains the best athlete interviewer of other athletes of all time, for example.) He’s always been entertaining, even when not playing. And while youth and its attendant exuberance has a value in the NBA, particularly when it comes as part of, say, a beautiful swooping alley-oop finish, or a deliciously violent blocked shot, it needs direction and purpose lest it fizzle out as wasted potential.

The Raptors announced this past weekend that they’ve exercised the fourth year option on Nogueira’s contract. Even for a player who has barely played for the team, this is a prudent move, both in a financial and basketball sense. The Raptors maintain control of a young asset for one more year for a very reasonable sum. They reap the benefit of the investment they’ve already made in Nogueira by presumably actually playing him this season. They get to decide going forward how much he’s worth in an NBA context. And Bebe, well, he gets to decide something too, if he wants to. It’s the question that continues to hang in the air: can Nogueira get it done?

“My goal is for people to take me more serious. Because, like... people don’t take me serious as a player,” said Bebe, again showing awareness of the broader perception about him. “Sometimes it’s kind of sad to me. So my goal is not to make $100 million a year or whatever. My goal is people start respecting me as a player.”

Bebe, I mean this sincerely: good luck.