The Toronto Raptors have a center ranked in the top 30 of our total points added (TPA) hierarchy, but it’s not Jonas Valanciunas.
While the starting 5 sits at No. 269, sandwiched directly between Joffrey Lauvergne and James Michael McAdoo, Lucas Nogueira has risen sharply. Despite coming off the bench, he’s made the most of his minutes and checks in at No. 26, just ahead of Kyrie Irving, Karl-Anthony Towns and Blake Griffin.
Are we saying Nogueira is already better than those prominent All-Star candidates? Of course not, even if he trails only five centers in TPA.
The Raptors have maximized him nicely in his limited run, to the point that he’s playing some of the league’s most efficient and valuable basketball. Without him, Toronto wouldn’t be within sniffing distance of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.
As such, he’s earned a bigger role and a chance to prove himself in higher-leverage situations, despite the mediocre appearance of his per-game statistics: 4.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.8 blocks. Those numbers belie the true value of his on-court presence, which has helped boost Toronto’s net rating from 4.0 to a historic 18.3.
This is new, and not just because Nogueira’s presence only led to a more moderate increase in net rating last year. Take a peek at how his TPA has trended during his three-year career, using prorated numbers for the current campaign:
No one factor has led to this type of improvement.
The 24-year-old center has grown on both ends of the floor. He now thrives as a per-minute rebounder and interior presence, and his self-awareness on offense may be more valuable still.
Not too shabby for a player Toronto acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in a salary dump.
If you looked only at Nogueira’s defense around the rim, where he’s allowing opponents to shoot 49.2 percent, you could be fooled into thinking he’s on the verge of becoming a liability in the restricted area. But for a few reasons, that number is misleading.
First, Nogueira is more involved than most at the basket. He contests 13.5 shots per 36 minutes, which is actually more than the elite marks posted by top-notch interior defenders such as Rudy Gobert (12.5) and Joel Embiid (11.4). Involvement is crucial in a defense that likes to funnel players toward the middle when he’s on the court.
Even more importantly, Nogueira achieves the rare combination of shot-blocking ability and presence on the defensive glass. Too often, the league’s better rejection artists can chase highlight-reel swats at the expense of proper positioning on the boards (see: Whiteside, Hassan in early 2015-16), but he doesn’t fall into that trap.
While he posted 9.44 defensive-rebounding chances per 36 minutes in 2015-16, he’s elevated that number to 11.6 this year. Far more frequently, he’s showing the discipline necessary to deter a shot attempt and come down with the board, as he did here against the Brooklyn Nets:
But even more impressively, he’s able to turn blocks into rebounds.
Nogueira doesn’t fall into the Dwight Howard trap of swatting shots out of bounds and giving opponents extra possessions. Instead, he tries to keep the clock running and create a transition opportunity for the Raptors by channeling his inner Tim Duncan.
It doesn’t always work. But even on failed attempts, like the one below against Kyrie Irving, you can clearly see him making the effort to deflect the ball into play:
Ditto for this next one, which came at Tim Hardaway Jr.’s expense. Except this time, Nogueira was able to pin the ball to the backboard and convert the rebound:
Few weakside shot-blockers have the presence of mind and the dexterity necessary to tip the ball to their teammates after making the initial block. But even that’s in play for Nogueira, as was the case after he lurked in the paint and baited Draymond Green into a doomed post-up attempt:
Nogueira has developed into a versatile off-ball defender who still ranks in the 79th percentile for isolation defense.
Sure, he can be fooled by deft post-up players and sometimes strays too far from spot-up shooters. But his activity from the weakside and ability to make the most of his rejection attempts—he trails only Embiid in block percentage—has helped him save more points on defense, per TPA, than all but nine players.
Nogueira will never serve as a primary facilitator. You won’t see him spark an offense from the elbows, as Nikola Jokic does for the Denver Nuggets and Al Horford did while still with the Hawks. But he’s no longer a black hole when he touches the ball on the interior.
For the first time in his three-year career, he’s recording more assists than turnovers.
One reason is his newfound ability to recognize defenders doubling down against him. Whereas he’d force up a shot in previous seasons—or just turn the ball over—he’s now capable of finding the open man with a quick skip to the perimeter.
This pass to DeMarre Carroll is not easy:
The same is true of this one to Patrick Patterson, who has often serves as the beneficiary of Nogueira’s unselfishness:
Nogueira has also realized he doesn’t have to turn every offensive rebound into his own points.
He actively seeks out second-chance opportunities, but he now recognizes when the situation isn’t advantageous. Instead of forcing up attempts, he’s willing to kick the ball back out to the perimeter for the most efficient shot in the NBA—the second-chance triple.
The decision often works:
During his first two NBA seasons, Nogueira recorded a combined eight assists and 13 turnovers. This year, he’s at 21 and 18, respectively, and it’s not just due to an increase in playing time.
Nogueira knows exactly who he is.
He’s never going to take mid-range jumpers, because he can’t hit them (he’s lofted up only seven shots from beyond five feet). He won’t go to work as an isolation threat or post-up scorer. Instead, he collects garbage on the offensive glass and finishes plays relentlessly as a rim-runner in pick-and-roll sets. That self-awareness is why he’s shooting 71.6 percent from the field.
Nogueira isn’t just a good finisher after setting a screen (or cutting to the basket from the weakside). He’s legitimately great and currently ranks in the 94.2 percentile for points per possession (1.38) as a roll man.
But you shouldn’t be too impressed by a dunk over Lou Williams, even if it required patience to avoid cutting too early and drawing a defender on the charge toward the hoop.
It’s touch that stands out even more.
Nogueira has displayed that on a regular basis in 2016-17, whether he’s finishing reverse layups through contact or going to his off-hand to complete a play in the restricted area:
Over half of the big man’s buckets have been dunks (27-of-48), but it’s the finishing touch on non-slams that allows him to play such efficient offensive basketball. Before too long, his defender will be forced to stop cheating toward Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan, which might make the deadly Raptors offense even more unstoppable.
Per NBAMiner.com, Nogueira has been one of the 20 players with the closest average shot distance, among only those who have taken shots in at least 20 contests. But proximity doesn’t guarantee efficiency, and certainly not efficiency at the Brazilian 7-footer’s level:
Would this change if the Raptors were willing to hand Nogueira more minutes? Probably, since they can’t reasonably expect him to maintain this historic level.
But Toronto should still be willing to try. Even if he misses a few more shots and sees his interior defense decline as his run increases, he’s deserving of a bigger role. It’s not often someone becomes a TPA All-Star while playing fewer than 20 minutes per contest.
Adam Fromal is the founder of NBA Math. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.