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Player Review: Bringing up Bebe’s role in Toronto

Looking back at the season of Lucas Nogueira, the one-time backup centre who lost his spot in the Raptors’ rotation.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere on the way up, the Bebe brand, once built on a solid base of fun and positivity, crumbled into abject sadness. I have to own some of that, suffusing as I did the weekly Bringing Up Bebe column with as much pensive gloom as I could muster. But the work — or absence thereof — Lucas Nogueira put in on the court for the Raptors was the primary reason for this decay. At the start of the season, Nogueira had hopes of becoming respected as an NBA player. It was his stated goal for the year. And, sadly, it didn’t quite happen.

There is an explanation or two for Lucas Nogueira’s sudden absence from the Raptors’ rotation. When the season began, it was assumed Bebe would be given the chance to be the team’s go-to backup centre. The starting lineup was set with Jared Sullinger and Jonas Valanciunas, and the bench corps had Patrick Patterson to rely on. But with only rookie bigmen Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam on hand, it looked like Bebe would be that fourth guy.

Of course, nothing happened as it should have. Sully didn’t play, Siakam got thrust into the starting role, and before acquiring Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Nogueira had his finest stretch as a pro.

The Good

That stretch for Nogueira included an almost five-fold increase in minutes over last season, and per game averages of 4.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in 19.1 minutes. Bebe also shot 66 percent from the floor, and despite his changing role finished the season with the team’s third highest net rating and fifth best plus/minus. Nogueira’s numbers suggest a certain utility. What’s more, after sitting out the first five games of the season with a sprained ankle, Bebe stayed healthy the rest of the year, a considerable hurdle in his young career now cleared.

Without a doubt though, the best part of Nogueira’s game is his passing ability. Yes, Bebe can finish alley-oops with the best of them, and his long reach make blocking shots almost a given, but his talent for moving the ball is something special. For a Raptors team now backed by two big men who lack in the vision department (JV and Serge), having a centre who looks to pass more often than not (sometimes too much!), who can actually make reads out of the pick-and-roll to find open shooters in the corners, is a luxury.

If it was all as simple as running Nogueira through high screen-and-rolls with Kyle Lowry to create 4-on-3 matchups after a quick pass, and then finding an open shooter: Bebe would be a star for Toronto.

The Bad

If one was charting Bebe’s minutes on a dot-graph with the date on the x-axis, it’s hard to miss the decline in minutes precisely after Ibaka and Tucker’s arrival to the Raptors. For much of January and February, Nogueira played in 20 minutes or more per game — peaking with a 42 minute appearance in a loss to the Bulls — such were the Raps’ options at the time. But post-February 14th, the minutes dip, approach zero, and never quite recover. Nogueira played in 57 games for the Raptors this past season, even starting in six of them, but only 10 came after Valentine’s Day.

The sad part here is the realization that while both Ibaka and Tucker definitely deserved to play the majority of forward/centre minutes for the Raptors, it was Poeltl who saw a sudden boost in profile. While Bebe was hit with DNP-CDs (16 in the season’s final two months), Poeltl got into almost every game. There was something in Jak’s game — an attentiveness, an intelligence, a presence, a finer touch, something — that pushed him into Dwane Casey’s rotation. The Raptors have high hopes for the rookie Austrian, and the third year Brazilian could only cheer from the bench.

We’ll never know what happens exactly in practice, or behind closed doors, but somewhere along the line, Nogueira lost the confidence of the coaching staff, and then lost his own high level optimism. At the beginning of the season, I was convinced we’d see a signature “Bebe moment” or two in the playoffs, a touchstone run of play that would see Nogueira change things up for Toronto in some exhilarating way.

It never happened. Nogueira played a total of seven minutes in the post-season and now goes into the summer with one final year on his contract with the Raptors.

The Grade: C

Though it pains me to grade Bebe out so low, this season ultimately hits on what kind of player he is now. There is obvious utility here — Nogueira is still very tall, still owns very long arms, can still jump very high — but the mental aspects of the game, by his own admission, are a struggle.

Nogueira may never be a rugged post defender, he may only sporadically be able to leverage his length into something useful, he may never develop a go-to post move or a legit three-point shot (though, he’s trying on that one). Still, it’s hard to count Bebe out entirely. There were stretches where he looked like a real NBA player. It’s within his grasp to do it again.