The Raptors are one team fascinated by the lengthy and mysterious 20-year-old who’s been playing basketball for just three years.

Three years and change after being selected with the No. 20 overall pick in the draft, Bruno Caboclo remains as much of a “what if” as he did on draft night. What if that length portends real defensive potential? What if a nice looking shooting stroke starts to fall regularly? What if the development plan for a hyper-raw teenager, one with little professional basketball experience, was better served under the eye of an NBA team rather than a college program or international outfit?Even as Caboclo enters his fourth season, the “what ifs” remain. What if the Raptors had done things differently? What if they had been able to develop him in the G-League initially, without burning time off of his rookie-scale deal because they didn’t have their own affiliate yet? And, of course, what if it all falls into place as Caboclo inches closer to contributing, his defense nearly NBA-ready and his body looking more the part of a power forward every day?That there are still questions can be frustrating for the impatient, to be sure. It’s easy to second-guess things as Caboclo approaches his 22nd birthday, though there’s still plenty of time for things to click (like his defense last season suggests they might). Even the Raptors seem to wonder if the path taken was the right one.”I want to almost blame myself for bringing him too soon to our team,” president Masai Ujiri said Tuesday. “But we wanted to see his development, and it’s the price we paid. It’s the price I paid. I said I wanted to see his development. It’s almost like he’s gone through college on our team.”
Caboclo did not participate in Las Vegas Summer League this year. Still, the Raptors’ roster contained a pair of interesting Caboclo-adjacent what ifs: What if there were a player even more raw than Caboclo at draft time, and what if the Raptors could do things differently with him this time around?Enter Tidjan Keita, the almost entirely unknown 20-year-old who saw eight minutes of action with the Vegas Raptors.To call Keita an unknown is perhaps an understatement. After entering the 2017 draft, no service other than DraftExpress had him ranked in the top-100 prospects. Even DraftExpress’ player page had next to no information on him, and their internal database was just as bare. One independent scout told VICE Sports he had been told not to bother digging too deeply, because there was nothing to find beyond a couple of YouTube workout videos, anyway.The scarcity of information is due to Keita’s relative infancy as a basketball player. It was only in 2014 that he even started playing in his home of Paris, France, and after a year there, he transferred to Thetford Academy in Quebec (the same prep school Chris Boucher, now a Golden State Warrior, played at). Thetford’s coaches, Igor Rwigema and Ibrahim Appiah, saw only one practice and one game while recruiting Keita, deciding that glimpse was enough to gamble on. Keita’s statistics from Thetford aren’t readily available, as his two years at the prep school came on a strong team focused more on bringing along his development than anything else.

In the time since, he’s been living and training in Toronto with fellow Raptors summer leaguer Troy Caupain (an interesting prospect in his own right, a former three-sport track athlete with great size for the point guard position). The two have bonded quickly despite the language barrier—Keita is still learning English—spending the bulk of their time together and even attending workouts around the country together, hitting the road with their shared agent, Gary Durrant. Caupain and Keita are on drastically different points on the development curve, but they’ve forged a quick bond in an attempt to help make each other better.

“I never really had a brother, I’m an only child. As soon as I met him, I knew it was gonna be tough, me being English and him being French,” Caupain says. “I was more in a teaching standpoint when I first got around him. I know that he is shy. You gotta get around him, get to know him more. And as I got to know him, once we got to Toronto, it was like it clicked.”

Caupain understandably had more interest entering the draft as a four-year point guard who’s still just 21. But at 6’10” with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Keita’s measurements alone are enough to intrigue, and so five different teams brought him in for a pre-draft workout, too. That included the Raptors, who called Keita in on short notice as an injury replacement.

His performance in that setting was enough to warrant a longer look, and the Raptors moved to bring him in for Vegas.

Keita jacking shots at Las Vegas Summer League. Photo by Blake Murphy

 

“You know, for him, he’s an amazing story,” says Raptors assistant Jama Mahlalela, who usually runs the pre-draft workouts. “He’s someone who was a replacement player for one of our draft workouts. We didn’t even have him tagged at that level and someone got injured or whatever it was, and he sort of shows up, and he just played with a tenacity and a ferocity that sparks your interest. His size, his length, is really impressive.

“He’s super raw, but as he learns the game, there’s an excitement of what he could potentially do. Because you see his ability to jump, to block shots, his length, that’s special. Finding those special things is a coach’s dream. And then working with it over time to develop it into a basketball player is the next step.”

Catching the attention of the Raptors was step one. While he didn’t get to show a ton in limited minutes, his length is obvious, and he glides effortlessly in the air. In practices and shootarounds, he shows consistent range out to the corners, has a nice one-step-in short-corner push shot, and Caupain says behind closed doors, he’s coming along as a pick-and-pop threat above the break. Keita played primarily at the five even though he prefers playing the stretch-four role, but his size dictates he’ll probably be a center in the modern NBA, and banging with bodies like Jalen Reynolds and Kennedy Meeks was a quick lesson in how far his body will have to come. Coaches (and one-man orientation committee Lucas Nogueira) were impressed with how Keita picked things up over the course of the two weeks, and he spent the bulk of the time with a smile on his face, embracing the challenge.

“I think it’s just fun for him,” Mahlalela said. “We had a practice and DeMar [DeRozan] practiced with us and played a little bit. And Tidjan got matched up with DeMar for a second. To me, that’s magical, that’s incredible. That’s an experience that he’s gonna walk away with, and that’s really good.”

In Keita’s first action in Vegas, Caupain fed him for a dunk, a fitting nod to their relationship. He missed his only other field-goal attempt in the tournament, a three, and picked up a pair of fouls.

“I learned a lot of the game,” Keita said in Vegas. “It feels good. First dunk in the NBA.”

There’s still a long ways to go for Keita, which is why the situation is so interesting. The comparison between he and Caboclo is perhaps unfair given that they are somewhat dissimilar players stylistically at this point, but it’s an easy one to draw given the attributes that make them attractive prospects, some of the roadblocks they face at the same point, and because Caboclo is sort of the benchmark for rawness in a prospect.

“He’s a guy, he’s been playing basketball for three years. Like, literally. He makes Bruno look like he was far along in the process when we got Bruno,” Raptors assistant general manager Dan Tolzman says. “That’s not in a negative way, it’s just that it’s gonna take work. It’s, who knows where it goes from here? He’s shown enough flashes that it’s kind of like, wow, for a guy who’s playing for three years to get to this point in NBA summer league, it’s pretty impressive.”

Where Keita goes from here is an intriguing question. Normally a player this inexperienced coming out of prep school would be headed to college or an international pro team, either playing small minutes or landing in a lower division. Keita’s camp wants him in North America, though, where he can continue picking up the language and learning the NBA system, and they’re hopeful he can land in a situation where a team wants to continue to track his progress from up close. (There was second-round interest in Keita as a draft-and-stash pick, but Durrant was forthright that they didn’t want Keita overseas.)

Where the Raptors kept Caboclo on the NBA roster for lack of a G-League affiliate at the time, Keita would seem to be a fit for development at that level, off the NBA books (the a risk of another team plucking him on a two-way contract would be minimal given his distance from the NBA at this stage). If the Raptors are interested after that extended look, they could invite him to Raptors camp and make him a G-League Affiliate Player, select him in the G-League draft, or hope he goes undrafted and add him as a local tryout player.

There are options, and it sounds as if the Raptors are at least intrigued by Quebec’s latest mysterious basketball export.

“He has all the athletic tools, he’s long, he’s athletic. He’s young, he just needs to continue to work fundamentally, learning the game, because he has all the skills,” head coach Dwane Casey says. “I don’t know that he’s ready to be an NBA player right today, but he has all the physical skills. That jumping ability, running the floor. Most young players have to learn how to play without the ball, play with four other guys on the court, spacing, defensive rotations. All of those things will come, and he has all the tools, the size, the length to play at a high level.”



Given that it’s taken Caboclo three seasons to get to the precipice of potential NBA minutes, the timeline for Keita will probably be a longer one. They’re not the same player, but the message will be similar: Keita will need to add plenty of size, to learn the game, the language, how to translate skills and tools into actual production, to, above all else, get minutes. If that’s with Raptors 905, he’ll be free from the pressures of an NBA contract, of “two years away from being two years away,” and, eventually, of comparisons to Caboclo.

He’s his own prospect, a unique blend of length and touch and eagerness, and as the NBA puts more and more of an emphasis on long-term player development, he might be the next big “what if.”

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