Raps stand by Araujo

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:59 AM ET

When the Raptors used their eighth pick to draft Brigham Young centre Rafael Araujo last year, many people questioned the wisdom of Raptors GM Rob Babcock.

Many of these people are now questioning Babcock's sanity.

Listen to the crowd at any given Raptors game and you'll hear a myriad of negative comments directed toward Araujo, a 6-foot-11 Brazilian centre who many fans consider a washout.

The knocks against the 24-year-old rookie centre include: He's too slow; he looks nervous and overwhelmed; he looks lost; he can't jump; he's not particularly athletic; he can't shoot ... and on and on.

After 53 games, Araujo still is starting for the struggling Raptors, although some basketball insiders question the wisdom of that decision. Rumours circulate around the Air Canada Centre that head coach Sam Mitchell is being ordered by Raptors management to start the kid in order to see what he can do, something both Mitchell and Babcock deny.

Araujo is logging 12.5 minutes per game and is averaging 3.7 rebounds, 3.3 points and 1.06 turnovers. Mitchell keeps running him out on the court as a starter even though he has gotten past the 20-minute mark in only five of the 24 games he has started since Dec. 28. In Toronto's 121-115 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, Araujo played just eight minutes in total as a starter, picked up three fouls, two points and zero rebounds. Not exactly numbers to get excited about.

MAJOR TALENT

There was major talent available in the 2004 draft, with the likes of Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng proving themselves to be everyday standouts. Those three were drafted ahead of Araujo, but many Raptors fans believe, given the play of a number of quality players drafted after Araujo, that Babcock blew it with his eighth pick. Philadelphia guard Andre Iguodala, picked ninth overall, has started every game for the Sixers this season and is averaging nearly nine points, six rebounds and three assists a night. Boston forward Al Jefferson, who will replace an injured Okafor in tomorrow's Rookie Challenge game, has been a major surprise as the 15th pick, as has Atlanta forward Josh Smith, selected 17th. In terms of rookie points and rebounds per game, Araujo has failed to crack the top-10 among first-year players.

Still, the Raptors braintrust believes Araujo will develop into a solid NBA player once he understands that rebounding, setting screens and playing physical are specialities he needs to perfect. Indeed, a screen he set on Kirk Hinrich on Wednesday almost sent the Chicago guard into the sixth row.

"I wouldn't say he's a washout," Raptors radio analyst Paul Jones said. "But I would say his development isn't coming along as quickly as the Raptors would like. He needs to concentrate on being a good role player, a guy who can be a good banger, a rebounder."

One NBA insider said that Araujo does a lot more for the Raptors than his numbers show, such as setting good screens, boxing out, allowing his teammates easy access to the basket with his physical presence inside and, more than anything else, allowing second-year star Chris Bosh the opportunity to shine at power forward.

"It's no coincidence that Bosh's numbers have gone up dramatically since Araujo began starting," the scout said.

For his part, Bosh believes Araujo will round into a good, everyday NBA player once he gets a grasp on his strengths as a player and adjusts to the speed of the NBA game.

"He's the first guy in the weight room and one of the last to leave," Bosh said. "His work ethic is not a problem, it's just getting adjusted.

"As long as he's my teammate, he's going to stay in this league," Bosh said. "Because I'm going to stay on him all the time."


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