YOU WOULD have thought the Raptors had drafted Charlie the Tuna and not Charlie Villanueva judging from the mass hysteria on Tuesday night.
The Raptors were widely panned for selecting the University of Connecticut power forward with the No. 7 pick. But GM Rob Babcock thumbed his nose at his critics yesterday, claiming his organization is "overjoyed" to have Villanueva, as well as the club's other three picks from the draft, small forward Joey Graham (16th), point guard Roko Ukic (38th) and power forward Uros Slokar (58th).
"Our staff was fully in support of taking Charlie at No.7," Babcock said. "I know that wasn't a popular opinion on ESPN, but we're concerned more with our opinion and our staff, which has a tremendous amount of expertise."
The book is definitely out on whether Babcock made a wise move claiming Villanueva with their first pick, given the 20-year-old's reputation as a young man with supposed work ethic issues.
To that end, the Raptors arranged a conference call for the media yesterday with Villanueva's college coach, Jim Calhoun. The Basketball Hall of Fame coach was over the top in his praise for Villanueva, who spent two years at UConn and helped the Huskies win a NCAA title in 2004. Calhoun called most of the criticisms directed toward Villanueva "garbage", including one internet basketball site that referred to the Brooklyn, N.Y., native as a "cancer" in the dressing room.
"Did I sit him on the bench when he didn't work hard (in his first year)? Yes," Calhoun said. "But he's an ideal teammate. In the two years we had him, he was as good a kid as we ever had."
Villanueva, who was an early candidate for the 2003 draft out of high school before withdrawing, said his years at UConn really changed his outlook as a player.
"I was a kid coming out of high school who thought he knew it all, who didn't know how to work hard," he said. "But each year I got better."
"We got four guys that exemplify out philosophy of basketball," Babcock said, surrounded by his picks. "They're quality people. They're team-first people. They're hard workers. They're winners, the type of people we need to take a step forward to getting back to the playoffs and contending for a title."
Head coach Sam Mitchell brushed aside suggestions that having two young power forwards in the starting lineup, Chris Bosh and Villanueva, would be a problem for him.
"I see causing problems for other teams," he said. "Both can step outside and play inside. Both can guard people a little bit bigger than they are. Both can put the ball on the floor and shoot. Hey, nobody screams and yells at who's going to play the centre and who's going to play forward with Rasheed (Wallace) and (Antonio) McDyess."