Talent wins over

Over his past four games, Toronto Raptors rookie Charlie Villanueva is averaging 19.5 points and...

Over his past four games, Toronto Raptors rookie Charlie Villanueva is averaging 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds a game. (Toronto Sun File/David Lucas)

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:08 AM ET

The wise guys on ESPN guffawed when the Raptors drafted Charlie Villanueva seventh overall last summer.

Much of the ridicule was directed at-then general manager Rob Babcock but there was plenty for Villanueva, a talented but often laconic sophomore out of UConn whose attitude was widely questioned.

The laughter wasn't new to Villanueva. From his first days in a vicious Brooklyn neighbourhood, someone, somewhere, always has been talking or laughing.

He never smoked. Never drank. Never took drugs. Most of all, he didn't look like anyone else.

"Having no hair, the kids made fun of me," the Raptors rookie forward said. "I had to be strong enough to say 'it's okay to have this. You can fight it and overcome it.' That has been the story of my life, overcoming obstacles."

The condition is called Alopecia Areata. It is a malfunction of the autoimmune system in which white blood cells attack and destroy hair follicles on the head and all over the body.

Villanueva is heavily involved in helping kids with the condition. He is putting the finishing touches on a clinic in New York in which he, Mike James and Joey Graham will work with 17 kids with Alopecia Areata.

But what the talking heads at ESPN didn't know the night of the draft was that Villanueva had attacked his conditioning and preparation like never before. He had two personal trainers, one for basketball, one for overall conditioning and diet. Soft Boy had muscled up, body and soul.

The criticism wouldn't turn out to be fuel. He already had forged that motivation in resisting the crime and drugs that infested every corner of his neighbourhood. Villanueva can name you 10 people he knew back home who have died sudden and loud.

"It was a bad neighbourhood, a lot of drugs, a lot of violence," he said. "My mom, Dora, did a great job keeping us out of that. I go back to the neighbourhood and I see guys are locked up, in jail or in rehab."

No, the criticism was more like oxygen.

The trade of Jalen Rose to New York presented Villanueva with his path into the starting lineup Feb. 3 against the New York Knicks.

That night was one of the quiet benchmarks of a season dedicated to rebuilding.

"When I put him in the lineup as a small forward, I told him it was on a game-to-game basis," Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said. "He assured me he wasn't going to relinquish the position."

"I always wanted to be in the starting lineup for an NBA team," Villanueva said. "Once he called my name, I was like, I'm going to try to keep this going every night and show that I deserve it."

So far so good.

While fellow rookies Jose Calderon and Joey Graham have struggled with the demands of their first pro season, Villanueva has thrived.

After leading the Raptors bench players, Villanueva has taken a prominent role among the starting five. He has been good for 16.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per night. In his last four games, he has been even better, averaging 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds.

Choosing Villanueva, interestingly enough, will be Babcock's legacy. Memo to Dick Vitale: Who's laughing now.

"We heard all these things about Charlie in the draft but we felt comfortable that he was not like people said he was," Mitchell said.

"Like all rookies he has his ups and downs but I have to remind myself that he is a rookie because I expect so much more out of him. He has been playing great."

He will not, however, be the answer to the club's perennial search for a centre, despite a frame generously listed at 6-foot-11. Villanueva sees himself as a big small forward but defers to Mitchell as to where he plies his trade.

"I just consider myself a basketball player," he said. "It's up to coach where I play."

"Why try to put 40 pounds on the guy's frame," Mitchell said. "It would have been an injustice to him. He has got an in-between game, he has got a post-up game. Charlie has a chance to be a very good player in the NBA."


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