Holly MacKenzie - Raptors.com
Bruno Caboclo’s rookie season was about learning. Arriving in Toronto shortly after the Raptors selected him with the 20th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Caboclo’s NBA education began. It continues this summer.
When Masai Ujiri met with the media after Toronto’s season had ended, he said this offseason would be an important one for Caboclo. While fans chanted his name during blowout wins, eager to see him play, the organization knew the biggest focus for the 19-year-old rookie in Year One wouldn’t take place on the basketball court.
For Caboclo, this season has largely been about learning English as well as basketball terminologies he hadn’t heard before. The jump to the NBA is big for every player. Unknown prior to the draft, Caboclo went from playing for Pinheiros, a team in Brazil, to the best league in the world. His introductory press conference with Toronto media was his first media scrum. With translator at his side and a shy smile plastered on his face, Caboclo tried to express his excitement about the challenge ahead.
Although he didn’t see much in-game action, Caboclo spent the season working closely with Raptors assistant Jama Mahlalela. It made for a packed schedule. Caboclo’s English is vastly improved and he is now comfortable joking with his teammates. He’s learning the NBA game and what is expected of him now that he’s playing in the sport’s top league. Mahlalela and Caboclo adhered to a strict schedule geared toward teaching good habits.
Caboclo had two stints with the team’s NBA Development League affiliate, but spent the majority of the year with the team is in Toronto. After practices, he would generally be the final player to leave the court, working on free throws or ball-handling with an assistant coach. When his teammates were preparing for the night’s opponent, Caboclo was preparing for the busiest day in his schedule, including a late-night face-off against an unexpected training partner well after the conclusion of Raptors home games.
On game days, Caboclo gets to the arena at noon. While the rest of his teammates generally arrive around 4:30 p.m. for a walkthrough, Caboclo is in at noon to do an hour of ballhandling and shooting. Caboclo meets Mahlalela and another assistant coach to rebound and the three listen to music while he worked. The goal of the morning session is to get as many game shots in as possible. After the workout is finished, he is sent home to eat lunch and rest for an hour.
Returning to the gym around 3:30 p.m., Caboclo begins his pre-game workout, spending 30 minutes on the court before the team walkthrough. This workout incorporates shooting and individual work, but also one-on-one. Midway through the season, James Johnson began joining Caboclo.
“For Bruno that’s amazing,” Mahlalela said. “James is a great defender, so for Bruno to understand the space, the angles, we coach him through it, give him details through it. Then to defend J.J. is huge [for Bruno]. He’s a strong guy and Bruno has to use the strength he has and build it up.”
After getting food in the dining area off of the team’s locker room, Caboclo goes through the walkthrough with his teammates before heading back upstairs to the practice court.
Working with strength coach Johnny Lee and director of sports science Alex McKechnie, this session is a half hour of conditioning and strength training. Following the half hour, he will usually return to the main court and get in more work on his handle.
For the games where Caboclo was inactive, he would meet with coaches and watch pre-game film after getting dressed in a suit to sit on the bench. The purpose of the pre-game film viewing is for the rookie to get familiar with the team’s plays, but also to learn the tendencies of opponents he didn’t get to regularly watch while living in Brazil.
“I tell him he’s always learning,” Mahlalela said. “Even when you’re not playing, this is educationally a huge year for you. Learn NBA terminology, learn NBA players, who is Kevin Martin, who is Andrew Wiggins, get to know them, see them, you’re going to play them in a few years so be ready.”
Caboclo spent games on the bench for the Raptors. What fans didn’t see were the post-game workouts on the practice court where Johnson would meet his rookie for yet another workout. Switching his suit for practice gear, the two would have another round of basketball before finally calling it a day around 11:15 p.m.
“Just recognizing how good he was and wanting a one-on-one parter [is how the joint workouts started],” Johnson said. “Someone I can play one-on-one with that’s going to make us both better. [Caboclo is] long and athletic. He’s a tough kid. I know I didn't have any of that when I was a rookie. When I wasn’t playing I was just down and out. To find him, I’d say we kind of found each other.”
Outside of the coaching staff, no one has seen more of Caboclo’s improvement this season than Johnson.
“He’s only 18, 19, but he works out every day, he trains every day and works like he’s been in the league for years,” Johnson said. “That’s a credit to his professional team back home where he’s from. Not a lot of U.S. kids get that opportunity. He was already a pro. He already has the mindset of a pro.”
One of the reasons Johnson likes working out with Caboclo is the 7-foot-7 wingspan.
“Most of the moves I can do on a lot of people, offensively in the game, I can’t make on Bruno,” Johnson said. “If I can make a good move on Bruno, I know it’ll work on 85, 90 percent of the guys in the NBA.”
While there’s still plenty to learn for Caboclo, coaches raved about his work ethic throughout the season. Early to the arena and late to leave, he’s eager to soak up whatever basketball knowledge he can. Sometimes that means hanging out in the locker room or team lounge area, picking his teammates’ brains and learning slang words to add to his English dictionary.
“He’s usually asking if we can start earlier and I have to tell him, ‘No, we have to preserve your body,’” Mahlalela said. “He has the passion to want to get better. And for someone who is not playing, he’s dealing with it so well.”
Caboclo might seem quiet standing in front cameras or when surrounded by media, but Johnson said he opened up to the team as the season went on. Asked how the end of the season compared to be beginning, Caboclo said the biggest difference for him is his ability to be able to communicate with his teammates.
Ujiri shared that Caboclo came into the season weighing 207 pounds. Sticking to the training and eating regimen prescribed to him by the team has him up to 221 pounds.
“He’s tough,” Johnson said. “He’s gotten stronger. He loves contact. That’s rare for a young kid that wants to go in there and take the shoulder hits. Usually they’re frail and just want to throw stuff up, but he likes the contact and he likes to go find it.”
Since his first day arriving in Toronto, Mahlalela has been working with Caboclo. Through summer league in Las Vegas to workouts in Vancouver, the daily grind in Toronto and road workouts during the season, the two have spent chunks of their days together. As Caboclo grows on and off court, Mahlalela has been there to observe it.
“He’s really finding his way through,” Mahlalela said. “It’s one of the most difficult things to do, transition to the NBA as a young man, where he’s coming from. He puts one foot in front of the next every single day and he’s figuring it out. I’m really proud of him.”