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Lucas Nogueira and how things can quickly change in the NBA

On June 27, 2013, the Hawks drafted Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira 16th overall. While admittedly last season was a miserable draft, Nogueira was largely seen as good value where he was taken. He was a 20-year-old seven-footer with a massive 7’6 wingspan that blocked shots and played excellent defense for a young player in the Spanish ACB league.

One year and two days later, the Hawks traded Nogueira to the Raptors along with Lou Williams for nothing. Well, okay, they got John Salmons, whose contract they plan to terminate for the paltry charge of $1 million in order to gain cap space.

The trade of Williams for Salmons made sense by itself. It gave the Raptors a chance to reinvigorate a formerly useful player in a role that wouldn’t necessarily rely on him to be productive as long as Kyle Lowry returned (he did). If it didn’t work out, Williams is an expiring deal that could be used for salary matching purposes at the deadline to improve the team. The Hawks would get more room, which is their ultimate goal right now. But getting to take a flyer on Nogueira was immediately seen as highway robbery for the Raptors, and Masai Ujiri was praised again for pulling off a valuable heist.

But why would the Hawks be willing to give up Nogueira so easily and only for cap space that they aren’t going to be guaranteed to use? After all, Nogueira largely impressed last year during his summer league stint with the Hawks, showing off an array of skills and a baseline off of which to develop.

The Nogueira situation displays how sometimes a combination of where an organization is in their development, as well as where a prospect is in his, can combine to create a state of affairs that results in the dissolution of what seems like a perfectly healthy marriage. Let’s take a look at some of the ancillary factors that many around the league may not have thought much of at the time, but ultimately became tell-tale signs of what led to the Hawks giving up on their 2013 first round pick so quickly.

Injuries

In his first post-draft season with Estudiantes, the team he had been with since 2009, Nogueira fell victim to “severe knee tendinitis.” This tendinitis brought him back to Atlanta this December, where he rehabbed in the Hawks’ normally-used hospital with team doctors, as well as in Los Angeles. One would think that during this time, they got to know Nogueira and his injured knees pretty well. While the Hawks may have been concerned with his progress, he apparently returned from injury well upon rejoining Estudiantes, winning the ACB top defender award. It’s extremely probable that the Hawks know something about Nogueira’s knees that we don’t. Maybe their doctors gave them information that says Nogueira could have a shortened career, a la Perry Jones III’s diagnosis. However, given the (apparent) nature of his play, it’s hard to envision giving him up for what could turn out to be nothing.

Contract Status

The Hawks clearly made this move as a cost-cutting venture. However, could they have also been cutting the contract of Nogueira in addition to that of the more obvious Williams? It appears that at some point Nogueira became disillusioned with Estudiantes, and Encestando reported that Nogueira was looking towards moving away from the club with the NBA as his first choice and the Euroleague as his second. He had apparently already begun working out in Atlanta with the other Hawks’ 2013 picks and some vets. If that were the case, it seems likely that the Hawks — who, again, were trying to build up as much cap space as possible — would try to move him along in order to not pay him. However, given that Nogueira’s scale #16 slot in the draft this season is scheduled to receive $1.5 million, the Hawks would still have about $14 million in cap space if he came over. It remains likely that the Hawks could have added him as a sweetener in a deal that could actually improve their team as opposed to simply one that opens up space if that was the case.

Lucas Nogueira or Walter Tavares?

The final straw may have occurred last Thursday, when the Hawks were able to acquire Walter Tavares after he fell to 43rd overall in the NBA draft. Another massive project playing in the Spanish ACB league, Tavares stands 7’2 with a 7’9 wingspan. Both he and Nogueira are quite similar prospects in that their value will revolve around the defensive skill and ability to defend the rim.

While Tavares is bigger and has a more NBA-ready body, he doesn’t possess the athletic fluidity or basketball sense that Nogueira showed off in summer league, so I remain skeptical on how he is a better prospect moving forward than Bebe. Having said that, it is possible that the ability to draft another defensive, rim-protecting center project for the future may have given the Hawks confidence to move away from their once-prized first round pick.

A Change in Evaluation

Simply put, sometimes teams can change their evaluation on where a prospect is in their development and whether or not they want to cut the cord. Seemingly, that decision was made a while ago in Nogueira’s case, according to Amin Elhassan of ESPN:

Keeping in mind that he was with the Hawks and their organization while injured for some time this year, the team simply may have decided that continuing to develop him was not worth the effort. Speculation could venture from they didn’t like the work ethic that he showed during his time in Atlanta to the knees being worse than they have been portrayed in public. Maybe they just honestly watched him play this season and didn’t like the progress that he showed for Estudiantes and changed their evaluation based on talent. We really don’t know why the Hawks would give up on a talented big man prospect like Nogueira, and it seems rather unlikely we ever will.

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Sometimes, through a confluence of events that involve both the prospect’s development and organizational maneuvering, these types of trades happen. Hell, a lot of the time it has nothing to do with the prospect himself and it’s just a move that the organization feels will improve them moving into the future. But as explained above, it seems like there were a multitude of factors that led to the Hawks giving him up in this deal. And yet, it’s still surprising given his apparent value. Not even the great Masai Ujiri himself could have expected to be able to get Nogueira when he asked for him in a simple cap dump deal.

The only way to redeem this deal from the Hawks’ perspective is if they can go out and sign some major free agents that will help them compete for home court advantage in the playoffs this season. If they can’t do that, getting rid of the Nogueira lottery ticket will prove irreplaceably fruitless no matter how Bebe’s career turns out. After all, you can’t just go around giving away prospects.

But regardless at this point, it’ll be interesting to track Lucas Nogueira and his progress in his new home in Toronto, and whether or not he’ll be able to make the Hawks pay for giving up on him for such little return. NBA player evaluation is a fickle game sometimes, and now the Hawks will have to hope that this move doesn’t hurt them in the future.

Sam Vecenie

Sam Vecenie is the editor-in-chief of Upside & Motor, as well as an editor at Hardwood Paroxysm. He likes to spend endless hours watching random NCAA game film, and scouring the internet for international basketball. You can find his other work at SBNation's college basketball platform.