Centre of attention

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:37 AM ET

Somehow, while nursing what must have been a painful lower back strain, Rafael Araujo impressed Raptors coaches during his time on the injured list. Caught in a numbers game after the Vince Carter trade, the rookie centre made the most of his five-game forced absence.

Used sparingly earlier this season, Araujo, 24, has started the past two games and hasn't looked like a lost soul after working hard on the practice court. Start No. 3, Araujo's first at home, should come tonight for the Raptors' first-round pick (eighth overall) when the Orlando Magic visits the Air Canada Centre.

"He had some really good practices while he was on the injured reserve," Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said of the 6-foot-11 Araujo, who has played in just 13 of the Raptors' 31 games. "He started paying attention to detail and I just felt like it was time to put him out there in the starting lineup."

Labelled as a first-round bust by some impatient types early in the season, Araujo has elevated as his game during his two games in the starting lineup. In his starting debut last week against the Los Angeles Lakers, Araujo has 10 rebounds and eight points in 19 minutes. A night later, the Brazilian played 22 minutes and had 13 points and eight boards.

Mitchell told Araujo he'd be starting the day before the Lakers game, giving an immediate boost of confidence to the ex-Brigham Young star.

"I was a little surprised," Araujo said. "He called me over and said I was going to start (against the Lakers) and I said, 'Wow.' " He put me in practice with the starting team and I (felt) energy, felt comfortable and I (knew) what I was doing. I'm more confident in myself. Everything just flows.

It came with a lot of work. I came here in the morning, to the weight room in the gym, and it all pays off. I deserve it."

Cynics can say Araujo is only starting because Loren Woods, the previous starter, doesn't resemble Shaquille O'Neal. But Mitchell insists he sees a guy who wants to get much better.

"He was never afraid, just kind of unsure of himself and unsure of what to do," Mitchell said. "To his credit, he really made a conscious effort to really learn everything we wanted him to do ... He started coming to the coaches and asking questions and that was the thing that sealed it for me. Not how he plays, he plays hard every day. The fact that the light came on and (he thought), 'Maybe I need to know these little things and maybe that will help get me on the floor.' He has played great."

Araujo has a simple goal for the rest of the season.

"When you have an opportunity, you don't want to lose that opportunity," he said. "I want to keep my starting position until the end of the year."


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