For Bruno Caboclo, listed at a conservative 6’9”, and swinging limbs long enough to fit in during, fittingly enough, the Cretaceous era, the question has never been about his body. Plucked from obscurity at 18 out of Osasco, Brazil, Bruno has always appeared as someone who could play basketball. The early footage of him lofting up a ball from behind the three-point line, or loping down the open court, suggested a certain grace; later, the glimpses of dunks and blocks and bursts of suffocating perimeter defense, suggested reserves of force. Bruno’s physical tools have always been obvious.
Instead, the question for Caboclo has always ever been about his mind. Since shyly emerging in Toronto in 2014, with little English at his command, we’ve wondered what exactly is going on behind those quiet eyes. Is Bruno actually picking up the game of basketball? Is he learning not only to react to what happens on the court, but to anticipate it? Is he figuring out how to use his obvious physical gifts effectively? And now, perhaps most importantly, is the control over his emotions growing at the same rate as the new muscles in his arms?
Over the weekend, Caboclo was sent home from the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup tournament by Brazilian senior men’s national team officials. To say this was an abrupt end to Bruno’s first international experience is an understatement. On Friday in his official debut, Caboclo put in a strong 11-point, 11-rebound, 37-minute performance in a tight 76-74 win against host country Colombia. This, after a 23-point, 14-rebound showing in a friendly versus Argentina. On Saturday against Mexico, Bruno played just nine first half minutes after apparently pouting through his team’s warm-ups. Then, despite requests from coach Cesar Maximo Guidetti, he refused to re-enter the game. We don’t know what exactly was said between Bruno and Guidetti, or Bruno and any of his teammates. We will probably never know the details of what transpired on the bench, and in the locker room, before, after, and during the game. But we do know Brazil eventually lost 99-76. And we know that the AmeriCup tournament, which runs until September 3rd for 12 other teams including Brazil, is over for Bruno.
The concerned rumblings about Bruno’s mind state began back in July 2014, the first summer of his professional career. Still just 18 years old, and existing as the most unknown of unknown quantities, Caboclo got a taste of his future life in the NBA when C.J. Fair, a player never to be heard from again, dunked on him during a game in the Las Vegas Summer League tournament.
It’s a play that happens every single night in the NBA, but it clearly caught Bruno off guard. In the above footage, Caboclo gets upset, shoves an opponent after the exchange and gets called for a technical foul as a result. None of this would be particularly noteworthy today save for the fact that upon his return to the bench, young Bruno — relatively new to the game of basketball, and definitely new to the “amazing” athletes of America — reportedly draped a towel over his head and began to cry. As his teammate and friend Lucas Nogueira said at the time: “[H]e’s 18 years old, so it’s normal he is sad.”
What we’ve seen of Bruno in the NBA since then has been extremely limited. He’s played a total of 106 minutes across three years of Raptors blowouts and late-season giveaways. His rookie season debut against the Bucks is still a piece of delirious legend, but the highs since then have been fewer and farther between, their peaks not quite reaching the same level of that first magical night in November 2014.
For what it’s worth, my first hand experience watching Bruno in the summer of 2016 confirmed the ongoing assessment: raw talent, physical tools, but a lack of confidence. Often during that particular summer in Vegas, it felt as though Bruno were looking over his shoulder during play, constantly checking to confirm he was making the right decision. A breakaway up the floor would result in a soft foul rather than a thunderous dunk, drives to the basket were cut off, passes were made to reset but never advance the action. Stories like the one from this past weekend suggest a change in Bruno’s assertiveness perhaps, but they also indicate the remains of a fragile ego and shaky maturity level that threaten to undermine the entire project. The Raptors organization wants Bruno to play with confidence, sure, but acting out is not the same as acting up. The latter suggests something almost aspirational, a sort of look-at-me showmanship that can gain traction in the NBA. The former is a quick way for a player to be shown the door.
That’s not to say nothing good has happened for Bruno in the intervening years. He’s spent the past two seasons in Mississauga finding himself with the Raptors 905, the latter of which while playing under the tutelage of Jerry Stackhouse on the way to a G-League championship. Owing to an influx of talent on the 905 roster however, Bruno’s numbers actually dipped during his second season with the club. (This is what happens when you field a team with three or four NBA-calibre players at any given time.) He put up fewer shots, scored fewer points, grabbed fewer boards, and was overall still a work in progress. While I’ll leave the detailed assessment of Bruno’s overall growth to Blake “the 905 Whisperer” Murphy, it suggests a ceiling on Caboclo’s value. Bruno never quite took command of the team, even with a franchise tailor-made to nurture his talents. On the other hand, Bruno did put up a career-high 31 points (with 11 rebounds) in the 905’s championship-winning game. And so the intrigue continues.
After deleting all of his Brazilian team-related Instagram posts and then briefly deleting his entire account, Bruno restored his online photo log with a new apology. In all, this is a modest gesture, and again, we likely won’t learn of the effect, if any, it has on Brazilian team officials, coaches and teammates. It’s nice to see it from Bruno anyway, suggesting as it does a certain level of ownership and responsibility for his actions. As with his previous overt display on the bench, I suppose the hope is for Bruno to learn from this somehow and find a new way to channel his emotions into his play.
" Eu Quero me desculpar com a Confederação Brasileira de Basquete pela minha conduta durante o jogo da noite passada. Respeito meus treinadores e colegas, e deixei que minhas emoções entrassem no caminho dos objetivos da nossa equipe. É uma honra representar o país que amo e humildemente aceito as consequências para as minhas ações. Estou crescendo como um profissional a cada dia e me esforçando para tornar os meus fãs, companheiros de equipe, país e família orgulhosos ". • • • • • • • "I want to apologize to the Brazilian Basketball Federation for my conduct during last night’s game. I respect my coaches/teammates and disappointed that my emotions got in the way of our team’s goals. It’s an honor to represent the country I love and will humbly accept the consequences for my actions. I am growing as a professional each day and striving to make my fans, teammates, country and family proud."
Caboclo is now 21 years old, a few weeks removed from his 22nd birthday. He’s heading into his fourth season with the Raptors, the final one of not only his first professional contract, but also of Fran Fraschilla’s original “two years away from being two years away” assessment period. Somehow, this suggests both a conclusion and a new beginning for Bruno. The 2017-18 Raptors season could very well be his last year in the NBA, but it could also be the true start of his professional career. After three years with the Raptors, the team’s training regimen has sculpted Bruno’s body and honed his innate physical tools for this eventuality, but his interior life remains a complete mystery. As has always been the case: we just don’t know.