The NBA Draft has come and gone and the focus now turns to free agency and summer league as teams begin to shape their roster for next season.
The Memphis Grizzlies are a team in a state of transition, having traded away franchise mainstays in Marc Gasol at the trade deadline and Mike Conley on draft night. They had a pretty good haul at the draft, selecting Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke to team up with Jaren Jackson Jr.
That trio potentially forms one of the most exciting young cores in the NBA. But there’s one player already on the roster who can also fit in with that group.
Bruno Caboclo, who was signed by the Grizzlies late last season, is still only 23 years old with his best basketball ahead of him.
When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors in 2014, there was a lot of head-scratching from fans and analysts alike. ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla famously proclaimed that Caboclo was “two years away from being two years away.”
During his tenure in Toronto, he was stuck on a veteran-laden team that had abruptly changed direction from rebuilding to trying to make the playoffs. As a result, he received very little opportunity to play. What court time he did get was spent with the Raptors 905, Toronto’s G League team.
“I didn’t get that much experience playing in the NBA, but playing with the 905, I think that was good for me, I got a lot of experience from that,” Caboclo told Basketball Insiders. “Working out, practicing with the Raptors was a very good experience too, I learned a lot. But I’m just trying to get better and learn every day.”
In total, he spent three-and-a-half seasons with the Raptors and never played more than 8.9 minutes per game. In his fourth season, the Raptors traded him the Sacramento Kings at the trade deadline. He managed to get into 10 games with the Kings, but at the end of the season, they declined to give him a qualifying offer and made him an unrestricted free agent.
Last summer, Caboclo drew interest from the Houston Rockets who invited him to training camp, but he was ultimately cut. He then joined the Rockets G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
With the Vipers, he began to make the transition to power forward and even some small-ball center.
When he was drafted, it was initially believed that he would develop into a 3&D small forward. But with the league transitioning into positionless basketball, and stretch bigs becoming a premium, it seemed natural for Caboclo to make the shift too.
“I’m just trying to develop my game, do what the coaches tell me, and try to get better,” Caboclo told Basketball Insiders. “This is still new for me playing the position, and I think my size is a lot better playing as a four or five. I’m focused on that and trying to work and develop my game at that position.”
Caboclo showed promise in the G League before with the Raptors 905. In 2017, he led the team to the D-League championship, finishing with 31 points and 11 rebounds in the title game. He was used primarily as a small forward, though, with a green light to shoot.
With Rio Grande, he showed remarkable progress on other aspects of his game. His rebounding got stronger as you might expect playing the four and the five. But his playmaking game improved as well. He looked much more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and creating for his teammates.
“I think I can bring energy, defense, I think I have a good read on defense. On offense, I’m getting better too at the reads. My shot percentage is a lot better this year too. I think I can bring a lot of things,” Caboclo told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s that this year I’m getting more shots. I feel more comfortable, I’m playing a lot of minutes too. If I don’t get the ball, I can get a rebound. When I play as the four I can get a rebound or anything.”
His improved game put him back on the radar of NBA teams this past season. In late January, the Grizzlies signed him to two consecutive 10-day contracts before signing him to a multi-year deal. Caboclo was initially signed due to a rash of injuries the Grizzlies suffered. But as the season went on, he proved that he was worth keeping around.
He saw action in 34 games with the Grizzlies, including 19 starts and a career-high 23.5 minutes per game. He shot 42.7 percent from the field and 36.9 percent from three-point range. He also continued to show improvement on the defensive end.
Caboclo really credits the Rio Grande staff for working with him and getting him a bit out of his comfort zone in order to return to the NBA.
“I think the Vipers system is easier to play. There’s a lot of offense and the defense is very good too so that helped a lot,” Caboclo told Basketball Insiders. “There everybody can get a lot of shots so that helped me to get back to the NBA.”
It wasn’t just the workouts with the Vipers staff, it was also the level of competition in the G League that helped push Caboclo. To this point, he hadn’t really experienced much of the NBA game aside from watching on the bench. But he’s been playing in the G League since he was a rookie in 2014.
The league helped facilitate his return to the NBA, and he believes that it can definitely serve as a bridge for players on that cusp between the G League and the NBA.
“I think it’s still good, I like it. It has very good guys trying to go at it to get better. I think the level is very good and always getting better,” Caboclo told Basketball Insiders. “I think every year it’s getting better, the exposure too. I think people could see more about the players that play in the G League because the exposure they’re putting out, that helps everybody.”
While Memphis signed Caboclo to a multi-year contract back in February, his salary for next season is non-guaranteed. It might be safe to say, however, that he showed enough during the second half of the season to warrant the Grizzlies keeping him around next season as a valuable piece off the bench.
He appreciated the way Memphis took an interest in him and showed a willingness to play him, and allow him to develop as a player. After all, he still has his best basketball ahead of him.
“I think it’s just experience. The NBA is a different speed, you got to get used to that. Playing in the G League is very different. I think here they’re just letting me play, I’m getting more confidence, the ball is coming more and I can make some plays and help the team,” Caboclo told Basketball Insiders.
“I just want to go out there and help the team in any way I can, try to make the right play, and play hard every game.”
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