Big men Biyombo, Nogueira keep Raptors in game

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One is the bad cop, the other the good cop. The starter is an intimidating bruiser, while his backup aims to beat you with skill and creative instincts. End to end they form 14 feet of a makeshift twosome at center, enabling the Raptors to survive — and sometimes thrive — in the absence of starter .

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Valanciunas, the 23 year old 7-footer from Lithuania, had been averaging career-bests of 12.7 points and 9.3 rebounds when the fourth metacarpal of his left hand was fractured in an accidental collision with Kobe Bryant on Nov. 20. Since then the Raptors have gone 9-6 — not bad despite also losing the production of their expensive free-agent small forward (12.2 points, 5.1 rebounds), who has been sidelined since Dec. 7 with a knee contusion.

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The Raptors have been able to remain among the top five contenders in the surprisingly competitive East because their interim rotation at center has not let them down. For and , each 23 years old, making good on their promise has turned out to be a relatively straightforward exercise. The miracle of their journeys, the part that still defies their own beliefs, is that they were able to reach the NBA at all.

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No sooner did Valanciunas go down with his injury than Nogueira was being called up from Raptors 905 in the D League. This promotion had come not so long after he had received a scolding from president and GM and executive VP Jeff Weltman, who had been a believer in Nogueira’s potential for years. Weltman and Ujiri held fast to their conviction even though preseason injuries had sidelined Nogueira from the Raptors’ last two training camps, further limiting his progress.

Dunk of the Night: Bismack Biyombo

Kyle Lowry dishes to Bismack Biyombo at the rim and gets the one-handed dunk.

“We have been mentoring him as much as we can,” said Ujiri, who refers to Nogueira by his Brazilian nickname Bebê. “Jeff and I had a tough conversation in my office. When Bebê is injured, he is one who is feeling like he is disappointing everybody. I told him we are going to be really, really behind you. And then I said, `If you come here discouraged, Bebê, then it makes me discouraged. But I am not going to be discouraged that sometimes you are hurt.”’

One year after Nogueira’s rights had been acquired by the Hawks on the night of the 2013 draft after he had gone No. 16 overall, those rights had been packaged into a 2014 trade that also sent Lou Williams to Toronto. Was Nogueira the key player in that deal? The answer is self-evident: After one successful year with the Raptors, in which he earned the NBA’s Sixth Man award, Williams was allowed to leave as a free agent. While Williams was signing last summer with the Lakers, the Raptors were finalizing plans to launch their D-League franchise in order to invest more deeply in Nogueira and his fellow Brazilian prodigy Bruno Caboclo.

“He has elegance playing — he is not a big guy that looks clumsy,” Ujiri said of Nogueira. “I have always said, for 100 years, if you have a 7-footer and he loves to play the game and he is talented, hold him. Just hold him. Because they are rare.”

Nogueira is 7 feet, thin yet strong at 241 pounds, with a thick shrub of hair and supple hands. While he was growing up in Brazil, he will tell you, his feet were as soft as his hands, enabling him to control the football on the first touch. But he kept growing and growing, until at age 15 he was invited to play basketball for the first time. He understood the logistics of basketball instantly.

“I think my IQ for sports is very huge,” said Nogueira matter-of-factly. “In soccer, I always have the vision to pass and stay on the right location.”

Block of the Night – Lucas Nogueira

Toronto’s Lucas Nogueira gets back on defense and makes the great chasedown block.

This became obvious in Nogueira’s breakout game Dec. 5 against the visiting Warriors, who extended their winning streak with a 112-109 victory in spite of 14 points (7 of 9) and 3 assists from Nogueira, who explored the open spaces on the weakside to clean up alley-oops and other opportunities around the basket.

“He always knows where to be on the court,” said Ujiri. “He never gets in anybody’s way. He doesn’t make many mistakes. He is not going to try to do the things that are impossible. But he is going to get better. He will always be a threat because as long as he rolls to the basket with those long arms, there is a target above everybody else. And we have never really had a vertical spacer. He will keep the court really spaced out just from being that threat up there.”

Nogueira shook his head while recounting the speed with which basketball changed his life. “I play a year and a half — maximum — in Brazil, and then I move to Spain,” he said. “I think Brazilian people have it easy to adapt to other places, because it is easy for us to make friendship with other people. We are so open.”

It was not so easy as Nogueira makes it sound, insisted his GM. “Going to play professionally overseas is not like going to school,” said Ujiri, who left Nigeria in order to play basketball at Bismarck State College. “I came to school. When you go to Europe, you’re basically on your own because all of the other people on the team are professionals. You are an outsider coming in. As a young kid it is not easy.”

This is a common bond that unites Nogueira with Biyombo. Each was 17 when they met on a basketball court in Spain.

“He had to leave his family to chase his dream, and so did I,” said Biyombo, who had begun playing basketball in Congo when he was 13. Three years later Biyombo was leaving his family to play for six months in Yemen, where he was discovered and signed to play in Spain. There, in a junior game, he found himself playing against Nogueira.

“I walk out there on the floor, and there is Lucas,” Biyombo said. “He is this tall guy with a bunch of hair. And then I had a great game, and so did he.”

Nogueira would remain in Spain from 2009 until his 2014 trade to the Raptors. Biyombo’s rise was faster: Weeks after he became the first teen to achieve a triple-double (12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks) in the Hoop Summit, where his teammates on the international side included Nogueira, Biyombo went No. 7 in the 2011 draft to Charlotte. Biyombo would average 4.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 21 minutes per game over his four seasons with the Bobcats/Hornets. Last summer in free agency he signed with the Raptors, reuniting him with Nogueira.

Biyombo Flushes

Terrence Ross finds Bismack Biyombo who slams in the dunk.

The promise of Nogueira is based in his instincts for offense. Somehow as a 7-footer he is capable of appearing out of nowhere to finish plays that only he and point guard Kyle Lowry can anticipate. Biyombo’s game is more passionate and muscular. His impact is made most obviously at the defensive end, where the power of his 255 pounds and his explosive vertical enables him to play bigger than his listed 6-9 height.

Patrick Patterson, the Raptors’ 6-9 forward, sees the comparisons between Biyombo and Ben Wallace. “At times I feel like I’m taller than him on the court,” said Patterson. “But I see what he’s doing out there, blocking shots, dunking head above the rim. That is a freak athlete.”

The other point of reference, which Patterson and his teammates love to raise, is Biyombo’s age. “That’s always the joke in the locker room,” Patterson said. “How old are you, really? Like, how many times did they change your birth certificate? We really want to know your age.

“We say that because he acts much older and more mature. He is so well-rounded for his age. It is comforting to see, because when he is out there on the court, that is a guy that you can always rely on.”

The way Biyombo plays — connecting his teammates defensively, making extra efforts to help cover for their mistakes — is consistent with his larger approach to the opportunities that have been created by basketball. When Ujiri recently held an annual fundraiser for “Giants of Africa,” his program to use basketball as a means to educate and enrich the youth of Africa, he invited Biyombo to speak and he did so cheap jerseys china with sincerity and passion.

“Bismack is tough, and I love that about him,” said Ujiri. “He enters our defense and you know he is the one talking, he is the one moving, and that brings people together. And the truth is when they see the guy behind him, our guys are confident. It is positive energy. There are certain people that just have it and draw people to them, and he is one of those people who has that confident vibe about himself. And it is very cool.”

“When Masai had the (similar) event last year, I texted him thank you for what you are doing for many of these kids in Africa, for giving them hope,” said Biyombo. “He has a belief in human resources, and that’s what I have a belief in. People go to Africa to explore the natural resources and what is under the ground, but not what is on the ground. What is on the ground is most important, because it is going to live here forever.

Get to Know: Lucas Nogueira

Go behind-the-scenes with NBA rookie Lucas Nogueira.

“When I got to the NBA, I wanted to go back and help people. For me in the beginning it was just 25 kids and we were having fun. Now the 25 kids are 2,000 kids. It is almost our obligation to go back and help. By doing that it brings you joy. It brings you happiness, and I think that is my purpose — to help people. We know where we came from.”

Valanciunas made his return to practice on Monday, and his presence was welcome. Though Biyombo has provided 11.1 rebounds, 6.1 points and 1.7 blocks in 15 games as the starter, and Nogueira has shot 72.7 percent from the floor in his 10.7 minutes per game off the bench, the former has been challenged offensively and the latter has been sidelined for the last two games amid his prolonged recovery from a sprained ankle. Along the way the Raptors have been haunted by slow opening quarters, forcing them to play from behind far too often to suit coach Dwane Casey. Perhaps Valanciunas will help steady their starting lineup.

But more patience will be required. Valanciunas will not be available Tuesday night against the visiting Mavericks. Biyombo and his understudy will have to continue to lead the way.

Biyombo is more the finished product — several years from now he will be playing to the same strengths that have emerged over these last few weeks — while Nogueira is only beginning to reveal his promise. He displays his moods as if riding a high-speed elevator, rising fast when times are good and threatening to crash otherwise.

“In the NBA they say you cannot show your emotion,” Nogueira said. “Many times my agent and sometimes the coach will say it is not the right place to show emotion, because people can use this against you. But I don’t care. I keep showing my emotions. If I am sad, I’m sad. If I am happy, I’m happy. I am not going to lie (about) who I am. I am not political. I am going to show my emotion forever.”

Like that of an artist, Nogueira’s future is both auspicious and unpredictable. At the very least we will know how his career is going. Bebê will be sure to let us know.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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