Graham in awkward spot

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

What's a nice guy like Joey Graham doing in a predicament like this?

He is standing on the practice floor at the Air Canada Centre, grinning ear to ear, excited like a kid going out for his first Halloween, all dressed up as a basketball player. Family is coming to town. Friends are calling.

This is the beginning. The beginning of his career. The beginning of the comparisons. Yet another new Raptors era, the 11th of the past 11 NBA seasons.

And through no fault of his own, Graham forever will be linked to Vince Carter, and until things around the Raptors change in any meaningful way, he also will be linked to the sagging credibility of general manager Rob Babcock.

And all Joey Graham did was hear his name called in the NBA draft.

Wasn't his fault that the pick the Raptors used was the first tangible portion of the much-maligned Carter trade.

Wasn't his fault that Danny Granger still was available and was passed over by the Raptors.

Wasn't his fault that Babcock has faith in him and most of us have no faith in Babcock.

REFRESHER COURSE

A quick refresher course on the Carter trade for those who haven't been paying attention: The Raptors got Alonzo Mourning, only he cost a lot of money and never arrived. They got Eric Williams to provide veteran leadership and he showed some by sulking and then asking to be traded. They got Aaron Williams for reasons that remain unexplained, even to Aaron Williams: No one in Canada these days earns more for doing less.

In other words, until now they have nothing to show for Carter but lost revenue and future cap space. But they got two draft picks. One of them still unchosen (a Denver Nuggets selection). The other makes his NBA debut tomorrow night.

As if being a rookie in the NBA isn't difficult enough. Try being a rookie when everything you do will end up as a sidebar to a deal you had nothing to do with. Some people would hate the position, only Graham, the small forward, smiles about it, because he welcomes the attention, the commentary, because he might need it.

"That's a good thing," Graham said of the link to the Carter deal. "I want the eyes on me. I want the pressure. I want the spotlight.

"That's going to make me play harder and play better. There's a lot of expectations for me here. I'm definitely up for the challenge."

If first impressions mean anything at all, there is every reason to like Graham and so many reasons to believe in him. He has this air of confidence about him that he respects the place he finds himself in but is not mesmerized by it. He knows what he can and can't do, knows what he needs to learn, hopefully can find a way to get there.

The Raptors' first pick, Charlie Villenueva, already has talked about playing with a chip on his shoulder, proving the world wrong, proving Babcock right, and at least one of those tasks is darn near impossible. Truth is, the last Raptors pick who was booed this loudly happened to turn out to be Damon Stoudamire. The selection of Graham wasn't greeted with remorse, only it will be analyzed for the rest of our lives.

Big deals always are. Once upon a time, Maple Leafs GM Floyd Smith traded away a first-round pick for Tom Kurvers of all people. The choice dealt away was used by New Jersey to select Scott Niedermayer third overall.

"If it doesn't work out I'll be fired," Smith said at the time.

It didn't. He was.

The same may occur if Graham doesn't work out. For his own survival if nothing else, Babcock needs something to be able to put on display to justify the Carter fiasco if not his own worth. He needs Graham to be more than just another happy face.

For his part, Graham can't wait for the regular season to begin.

"I want to be the rookie of the year," he said quite seriously. "One thing I can do is come out here and play some great defence. That's one of those things this organization is looking for me to do.

"I've been waiting for this moment a long time. It's finally here. I'm ready to go."


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