Young talent keeps things interesting

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:50 AM ET

Instant analysis being what it is, which usually is wrong, we take you to NBA draft night last June when the ESPN's learned hoops crew practically swallowed their microphones after the Raptors selected Charlie Villanueva with the seventh pick.

Within seconds, they had buried the Raptors, their management and Villanueva himself under a pile of half-baked verbiage. Even back in Toronto, a crowd of invitees at the ACC booed the selection.

Now fast-forward to last evening.

Let's make it clear that nobody is conferring Hall of Fame status on Villanueva after his first 36 minutes as a Raptor, but nobody was booing.

Villanueva scored 15 points to go with five rebounds and appeared to have scored the game-winning basket in overtime, at least until Robert Whaley responded for Utah with less than a second on the clock to give the Jazz a 102-101 decision.

The game was a ragged affair that produced 77 personal fouls and 54 turnovers and took nearly three hours to complete. But the stat that had Raptors coach Sam Mitchell fuming was that Utah outrebounded his team 54-37.

COACH LIVID

Even though he may have liked some of what he saw Villanueva do, Mitchell was so upset at his team's lack of rebounding he wouldn't even talk about individual performances.

"That was our season last year," fumed Mitchell. "We get initial stops and we don't get a rebound. I don't know a skill for that other than just toughness. You've just got to want it more.

"We have to find somebody. If they're not in that locker room, hopefully there's somebody walking around Canada or the United States that wants a job. It blows my mind."

To be kind, the 2005-06 Raptors are going to be less about results and more about potential. They will do fine with their fans as long as the effort is there, and if the first impression of people like Villanueva, Jose Calderon, Joey Graham and job-applicant Tierre Brown means anything, there will be enough hustle to go around.

Calderon, a 24-year-old veteran of six seasons of pro ball in his native Spain, was quite a revelation.

The Raptors have been a team without a true point guard for most of their existence, so it was shocking to see a guy on the court thinking pass first, not shoot. It remains to be seen whether Calderon will be a good enough shooter to be a star in this league, but obviously he has a great ability to distribute the ball.

"I have no complaints about the effort, but it's all rebounding and defence, at the end of the day," said Mitchell.

"Maybe we just need to start searching high and low for a guy that can do that."

Tom Cheek has not been far from anyone's thoughts in this town this week, and when I walked on to the floor at the ACC yesterday, looking up at that sea of empty seats, I could see the big lug sitting in the broadcast booth at Exhibition Stadium in the early Blue Jay years, staring out at a tiny crowd of die-hards.

On a drizzly spring evening, wind blowing in off Lake Ontario, Cheek's baritone would boom out over the airwaves: "If you're out and about, why not drop down? Plenty of great seats still available."

Even though the Raptors have somewhere around 12,000 season-ticket holders, there weren't any more than 5,000 -- maybe less -- at tip-off last evening.

The crowd was announced at 12,285, but more than half of them were disguised as empty seats.

They missed a ragged game, as can be expected first time out of the chute, but they also missed the arrival of some fresh young talent.

It's too early to say that this group of kids will change the Raptors sorry legacy over the next few years, but at least there's a ray of hope.


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