Lucky Bounce

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

Raptors rookie Charlie Villanueva has a feeling that his club will do better than expected this year.

Yeah, and Lionel Hutz, that law-talking guy out of Springfield, had a feeling that Marge Simpson wouldn't be going to jail for shoplifting.

"I think we're going to shock a lot of people," Villanueva said recently after his Raptors thumped the Portland Trail Blazers 100-78 in pre-season action.

Optimism reigns inside the Raptors locker room, at least from the mouth of babes. Second-year forward Matt (The Red Rocket) Bonner, who obviously wears rose-coloured glasses to match his hair colour, suggested that he would be disappointed if the Raptors failed to go 82-0 this season.

Of course, this from a guy who, when informed by a Raptors beat reporter that he'll meet up with Bonner and the team in Winnipeg for a pre-season game, replied: "Sounds great!"

He meant it.

Everyone else -- various basketball periodicals, sports magazines, pundits, wags, the Raptors' own general manager -- aren't so bullish on the club.

A Toronto club that went 33-49 last year returns without a key player off the bench, forward Donyell Marshall, and three rookies -- forwards Villanueva and Joey Graham and point guard Jose Calderon -- who are all expected to make considerable contributions to the cause. Fortunately, all three have been pleasant surprises in the pre-season and head coach Sam Mitchell has become more and more comfortable giving them major minutes.

In fact, it's a good bet that small forward Graham will crack the starting lineup.

"We felt very strongly when we drafted those young men. They're class young men, they work extremely hard and guys on our team like them," Mitchell said of the three bucks.

So what kind of team will the Raptors put forth his season? Well, barring any significant injuries, not terrible. Not playoff-worthy, but perhaps good enough to actually improve on last year's mark.

A starting lineup consisting of Chris Bosh (power forward) Graham (small forward), Loren Woods (centre) Jalen Rose (shooting guard) and Mike James (point guard) is decent.

That leaves veterans Morris Peterson and Eric Williams, both of whom are now healthy, adding experience and energy off the bench, along with a rotation consisting of Rafael Araujo, Bonner, Calderon, Villanueva and Alvin Williams.

Of course, nothing is written in stone and Mitchell will change up lineup according to how the team is playing, injuries, etc.

"I'm trying to look at what combinations will make us the best possible team," he said. "Do you front-load all your experience with the starters and then have a bench with guys that are basically rookies or second-year players, or do you try to break it up a little bit?"

There's also the matter of the one available roster spot. The Raptors currently have 14 under contract and Babcock has suggested that if a qualified big-man, who can rebound, becomes available on waivers or via a trade, he'll grab him.

The only slight surprise of the current lineup would be Peterson not starting, but the veteran swingman does not have a problem with it and Mitchell believes that such a move could actually be win-win.

"Coming off the bench might be good for him," Mitchell said. "With Jalen and Chris in the starting lineup it's hard for Mo to get shots, because we're going to run the offence through those guys. You would have more scoring opportunities in the second unit."

Not to beat the horse to death, but the planets have to align a certain way for the Raptors to compete this season with any of the big boys in the Eastern Conference. For a chance of that to happen Toronto must:

NO. 1 STAY HEALTHY

They did last year and still only won 33 games. Any major health problems and a 25-win season will be tough to attain. But after plodding through the pre-season with half the team out with various aches and pains, the Raptors are a healthy squad heading into the regular season.

Veteran guard Alvin Williams is back after missing the entire 2004-05 campaign after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee, and while he will not play more than 10 minutes a game at least for the early part of the season, the 10-year NBAer brings much-needed leadership.

Forward Eric Williams, who also experienced knee woes during the off-season, returned for the final pre-season game in Portland and is ready to go. So too is Bonner, who missed the final three games of the pre-season with a calf strain.

NO. 2 BE ROAD WARRIORS

Last season, the Raptors were pushovers in the other guy's backyard. At the Air Canada Centre, Toronto put together a respectable 22-19 mark, but were 11-30 on the road. Peterson also will have to pick up his game away from the ACC. Last year, he averaged 15.1 points and shot 46% from the field at home, while managing just 10 points and 37% from the floor on the road.

NO. 3 REBOUND!

One of the club's major bugaboos last season was its inability to pull in rebounds. Toronto averaged 40.10 boards per game, fourth-worse in the NBA.

Fixing that part of their game will be difficult as the pre-season demonstrated. The Raptors failed to out-rebound anyone.

Barring the addition of a proven rebounder, Mitchell is imploring each and every one of his troops to make a conscious effort to improve their rebounding, hoping they can make up for the lack of a quality rebounding by rebounding by committee.

NO. 4 PLAY BETTER D

Another glaring hole. Last year, the Raptors, despite their record, was a dynamic team, averaging close to 100 points. They also yielded 101.4 points. Peterson has become an excellent defender, having Alvin Williams back helps, James is an upgrade from Rafer Alston defensively, and defence is also a big part of Graham's game, so Mitchell can see some light at the end of the court. He'll also need Rose and Bosh to step up that part of their game.

NO. 5 LEARN QUICKLY

The young players will make or break this team. It's that simple. Mitchell will have no choice but to play his high-profile first-year prospects.

One player the Raptors were hoping to see improve this season is second year forward Pape Sow, who is very athletic, strong and a good natural rebounder. However, after missing the pre-season because of a groin strain, it seems Sow is destined to be sent to the club's National Development League team in Arkansas. And if Babcock manages to fill the club's final roster spot with a veteran centre, Araujo also play on the Rimrockers.

"We always said, it takes big guys longer to develop," Mitchell said of Araujo. "But he's making improvements (especially two of the past three games). As long as he continues to work we're going to be encouraged by it."

"All young players are going through highs and lows, there's going to be highs and lows for Charlie and Joey and Jose," the coach added.

Araujo, the favourite whipping boy of the fans and media, has shown improvement during the pre-season, particularly his scoring touch, but the big Brazilian, who dropped 20 pounds from last season, still needs to work on his quickness and rebounding.

NO. 6 AVOID DOUBLE TROUBLE

The Raptors need Bosh to work his way through the various double-teams this year.

Now that he's a star on a mediocre team, Bosh is going to receive a lot of attention and he'll have to figure out a way to take advantage by using his teammates.

It could be a long year. But, hey, as Bonner said recently: "The last time I checked, we're still undefeated."


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