Stigma of Hoffa won't disappear

BILL HARRIS

, Last Updated: 3:00 PM ET

THIS STILL IS about Rafael Araujo, and Rob Babcock knows that.

If Araujo had produced a solid rookie season, people wouldn't have been nearly as quick to jump down Babcock's throat for drafting Charlie Villanueva.

"Oh, of course -- I'm sure of that," Babcock, the general manager of the Raptors, said.

"I'm not a fan psychologist, but I'm sure that definitely had something to do with it. If Hoffa had had a really good year, they would have thought, 'Well, (Babcock) was a genius to take Hoffa, so therefore, he must be a genius again.' "

Few observers were using the words "Raptors" and "genius" on Tuesday night at about 8:15, after Babcock selected Villanueva, a 6-foot-11 forward from Connecticut, with the seventh overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft. The ESPN television crew was incredulous, and when even Dick Vitale -- who loves everyone -- is ripping you, it can't help but rattle your cage.

Babcock's cage did not appear to be rattled yesterday, although the team had gone into spin-doctoring mode. Arranging a conference call so that Villanueva's college coach, Jim Calhoun, could say nice things about the kid was a transparent touch. Even more transparent was parading in a fawning group of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd., staffers to gawk during a media conference when draftees Villanueva, Joey Graham, Roko Ukic and Uros Slokar were introduced.

If the Raptors brass honestly believes the initially negative reaction toward Villanueva had anything to do with failed public relations, they really are out of touch with how the media works and the manner in which the club's frustrated customer base thinks. It's not about image-polishing, guys. It's about track record, on the court and in the front office.

Hopefully Babcock accepts that. But as a human being, he admitted it can sting when you constantly are a target.

"I'd be lying if I said criticism didn't hurt you a little bit," Babcock said. "But it's part of the job.

"If you have a veteran GM who has been very successful and he takes a player up high and people are shocked, the reaction generally is, 'Well, that player must be really good.' It's because the GM has that reputation. I don't have that reputation. But I can't worry about it, that's for sure. You can't succumb."

Babcock knew picking Villanueva would be received poorly.

"When we made the choice to go with Charlie, I knew it wouldn't be a popular decision, because it's not, say, Sean May or Gerald Green," Babcock said. "(The fans) probably would have cheered (high schooler) Gerald Green because everybody has hyped him up with his athletic ability and his dunking ability and all that.

"Gerald Green could be unbelievable, a tremendous player. But right now, Charlie would just destroy him, absolutely destroy him. And Charlie is only 20."

That is an important point to remember. Anyone who says they know for sure that Villanueva is going to be a horrible pro, or a great pro, is lying, quite frankly. It's impossible to know.

As the overall impact of what the Raptors did in the draft started to settle in yesterday, the critics became less hostile. Some said Babcock got "saved" by having Graham available at No. 16 and Ukic available at No. 41, but if you're going to blast Babcock for the picks you don't like, it isn't fair to blast him for the picks you do like.

Babcock said again yesterday he still has several irons in the fire with regard to trades and the manner in which the club will utilize the mid-level salary-cap exception.

COMMITMENTS

"We'll try to work through those trade things first before we make any commitments on the mid-level," Babcock said. "And we're going to have to use part of that mid-level to re-sign Matt Bonner. That's a high priority for us, to re-sign Bonner and Pape Sow."

The Raptors obviously are in better shape today than they were on Monday. But there's a lot on Villanueva's shoulders because GMs do tend to get linked with their top picks.

The first pick Babcock ever made as a GM was Araujo, eighth overall, one year ago.

As the reactions of the past 48 hours have indicated, Babcock has a long ways to go before his reputation can overcome the stigma of that one.


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