Baptism by fire for freshman trio

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:58 AM ET

Here is a scenario not even the most prescient Raptors observer could have foreseen two months ago.

The Raptors walked off the court after the first quarter against the Chicago Bulls, leading 25-22. Their starting point guard, who had played all 12 minutes, and played well, took a seat and a guy off the bench took his place.

The starter? Jose Calderon. The reserve? Jalen Rose.

Now this isn't meant to build up Calderon, the rookie, any more than he has been already. The kid's energy and talent and dedication to the team concept has been impressive. Nor is it meant to embarrass a quality veteran such as Rose, who earns $15-million US a year. He has struggled for sure, but he has been all class in a tough situation that few veteran players would tolerate with such maturity.

But it is what it is. These are the Raptors of 2005-06, committed to youth come hell or high water, warts and all. Last night turned out to be another little bit of hell, with more than a few warts. The Raps, who led by as many as nine points, came apart in the third quarter and eventually lost by 11.

"We're committed to playing these young guys but we don't have to play them every night," said coach Sam Mitchell, who was fuming afterward. "You've got to come to practice and work and if I feel you're not working, I'm gonna cut your minutes. Because you can't take days off. If you're ever gonna be good, you have to work for everything."

Which begs a question: Is it better to work young players in gently, putting them in situations where they have the best chance of success? Or is it just as effective to throw them to the wolves and find out early what they're made of?

Most GMs or coaches will take the first option if only for the obvious fact that, if you're going with kids, then you've probably got a lousy club. And if you're going to lose big, and often, you might as well do it with youth.

But once you've come to terms with that grim reality, for the right kids, the sink-or- swim approach might just be the most effective.

Calderon, Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham are in an accelerated program compared to many other rookies around the league. They are often playing at crunch time, a luxury that most teams won't, or can't, afford for rookies. But those minutes can be taken away, just as Mitchell took them away from Villanueva last night.

"Every now and then a young guy has to understand that it's a privilege to play, not a right," said the coach. "He needs to pick it up. Not just in the game, he needs to pick it up in practice."

Graham has been perhaps the slowest to come around to the pro game but last night he was the best of the three.

"Joey played really well tonight," Mitchell said. "His defence was good, he made some strong moves to the basket, he shot the ball. He made a few mistakes but you can live with those. From this he can build on it."

Sure, there are a few rookies in the league who are getting big minutes. New Orleans guard Chris Paul, probably the early leader right now for rookie of the year honours, is playing 37 minutes. Channing Frye of the Knicks, Deron Williams of Utah, first pick Andrew Bogut of Milwaukee and Luther Head of Houston are all getting between 26 and 30 minutes.

But no team in the league has three rookies like Calderon (averaging 37 minutes over the last eight games), Villanueva (28 minutes, average) and Graham (25 minutes last night). Sure, all that youth is one of the reasons the team has only four wins in 22 games. They make mistakes. But they're getting a chance to make those mistakes in real, live pressure NBA situations. Most of the time, the three rooks have been getting nothing but accolades, but a bit of reality came home to roost last night for Villanueva, who had just eight minutes of court time.

"As a coach, I'm learning something about people every day," said Mitchell. "You've got to find out.

"At some point, (players) have got to be able to process information and start doing it. We're teaching it, we're drilling it, we're talking about it, we're watching it on tape, it's in the scouting reports, it's on the board, we're reading it to them.

"At some point you've got to go out and do it."

For the Raptor rookies, "at some point" has occurred sooner than you might think.


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