Colangelo to make his mark

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

Give that man a flute.

Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo already has been hailed as a modern-day pied piper of Hamelin, except in this case, he's led a pack of Raptors busts out of town.

Since jumping from the Phoenix Suns to Toronto as the team's president and GM this past season, after building up one of the most solid franchises in the NBA, Colangelo already has orchestrated two deals that have turned heads, if not dropped jaws.

Finding someone (the Utah Jazz) to take first-round blunder Rafael Araujo was a major coup, never mind that Colangelo received something useful in return (journeyman forward Kris Humphries).

And then shipping malcontent Eric Williams and limited, if popular, forward Matt Bonner to the San Antonio Spurs for a long-coveted centre (journeyman Rasho Nesterovic) was another excellent deal, an addition-by-subtraction.

But now the time has come for Colangelo, and the Raptors, to sink or swim.

This year's NBA draft will take place on Wednesday at New York's Madison Square Garden, and Colangelo heads into the event with the No. 1 pick overall for the first time in franchise history.

In years past, speculation would not have run so high, as often one player has risen clearly above the rest, with the first pick a slam dunk. One has only to think back to 2003 (LeBron James), 2002 (Yao Ming) and 1992 (Shaquille O'Neal).

But this year's class -- hailed as one of the weakest drafts in years -- is said to be, at the very least, very balanced, with no clear No. 1.

"We like what we see," Colangelo said recently. "There is tremendous talent at the top of this draft."

This is the type of draft where one can ask five or six NBA/college basketball experts, insiders or wags, to lay down their top five picks -- and you would get five different scenarios.

But if there is one player that has been mentioned more than any other as the guy Toronto is leaning towards drafting, it's Italian power forward Andrea Bargnani of Benetton Treviso.

The 20-year-old Euro star has long been speculated as the player the Raptors likely will take, either with the No. 1 pick or a later spot if they trade down.

"I know that there are some teams that are interested in No. 1," Colangelo said. "Maybe they haven't said the right number yet or the right piece or the right combination of things to make us move yet, but right now, all I can assure is, that right now we hold the No. 1 pick and we're prepared to make a selection on draft day."

Colangelo recently hired Benetton Treviso GM Maurizio Gherardini as his assistant GM, which has increased speculation that Toronto will take Bargnani, who was instrumental in Benetton winning the Italian championship last week.

The 7-foot-1, 240-pound Bargnani often has been compared to Dallas all-star Dirk Nowitzki with his combination of size and offensive skill. The 20-year-old causes huge headaches for opposition coaches, in terms of matchups. He has an extraordinary first step and can knock down threes and put the ball on the floor and his quick feet bodes well on defence.

The one concern is that, despite his size, Bargnani has not yet developed yet into a solid rebounder. He also needs to get a little stronger. But with age, that should come.

Still, nobody is ready to bet the farm on the 7-foot-1 forward quite yet.

Many insiders believe that Toronto is just as likely to take Texas power forward LaMarcus Aldridge with their pick. Aldridge is long and athletic, with the wingspan of a condor, and also a workout buddy of Raptors' young superstar Chris Bosh. He impressed the Toronto braintrust when he dropped by the Air Canada Centre two weeks ago for a workout. But there have been questions raised about his strength and conditioning.

RISING

In recent days, Louisiana State power forward Tyrus Thomas has been elevated in many basketball websites as the most likely prospect to go No. 1. Very athletic and competitive, Thomas did not, however, make it up to Toronto for a workout and it seems unlikely that the Raptors will pick him up.

After that, there is a group of about four or five guys whom the Raptors may take, including Washington shooting guard Brandon Roy (a wonderful passer and defender), Gonzaga's Adam Morrison (a tough competitor and the NCAA's top scorer last season, though his diabetes may scare off some teams), small forward Rudy Gay of Connecticut, point guard Marcus Williams, also of UConn, and Villanova shooting guard Randy Foye. In the past couple of days, murmurs have circulated out of the ACC that Morrison, who worked out in Toronto last week, may be the man.

There is an interesting aside to this year's draft. Many punters believe that, if Toronto does not select Bargnani with the No. 1 pick, the Italian will drop significantly in the draft, perhaps to as low as No. 10.

Given that, there has been much speculation that Colangelo will trade down, if he believes that Bargnani will be available with a lower pick, and try to secure a veteran in the deal.

Colangelo has been keeping his cards close to the vest.

No matter how you slice it, it's a good bet that the Raptors will be taking a forward with their pick, whether at No. 1 or lower.

With most of the top prospects in the draft forwards, and the Raptors supposedly leaning in that direction, the question remains, what will Colangelo do about the team's backcourt, with so much talent now up front?

Assuming that the Raptors draft a forward -- be it Bargnani, Thomas, Aldridge, Gay or Morrison -- they suddenly have big depth up front with NBA all-star Bosh, sophomore Charlie Villanueva, who is being groomed to play small forward, Humphries and Nesterovic at centre. But the backcourt is a big question mark.

The widely-held assumption is that the Raptors will sign and trade Mike James. The Amityville, N.Y. native had a breakout season with Toronto, but James is not the true point guard the team needs. Plus, he's in a position to sign a long-term deal and will be out of Toronto's price range. With James out of the picture, and busted-up veteran Alvin Williams supposedly on his way out, something has to be done about the Raptors' backcourt.

Again, there are a number of possible scenarios. The most intriguing replacement would be former Chicago Bulls first-round pick Jay Williams, who is attempting to restart his career after being involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident in June of 2003. The Raptors were interested in signing him last year, but nobody in the league considered Williams ready to play.

POSSIBILITIES

Now, at least six teams, including the Raptors, have worked Williams out this spring and there's a consensus that he is ready. Williams has told reporters on numerous occasions that he is almost 100% physically, and more than ready mentally.

If Colangelo & Co. lose out on the Williams sweepstakes, or consider the former Duke star unfit for the rigours of the NBA, there are other possibilities.

One, of course, is to draft a point guard with their first pick, and there are a couple of interesting prospects. But will Colangelo draft a point guard and rely on him to carry this team through the 2006-07 season?

That's probably not going to happen. First of all, if Toronto takes one of the top point guard prospects in the draft -- Marcus Williams or Rajon Rondo of Kentucky --it's madness to think that the player will be counted on to start.

If Toronto drafts Williams or Rondo, does that mean the Raptors are intent on going with NBA sophomore Jose Calderon to start at the point with the rookie coming off the bench? Probably not. Calderon has shown flashes of skill and leadership, but the Spanish national team star isn't ready to carry a team and there are worries about his feet.

Colangelo could go the free agent route. Speedy Claxton of New Orleans/Oklahoma City is a free agent, as is NBA playoff star Jason Terry of Dallas, who will likely remain in the Lone Star State.

There's even talk that Colangelo will package Villanueva in a trade for a veteran guard. For weeks, Bonner was said to be walking on thin ice and then, bam, the Red Rocket was shipped off to the Spurs. Often, when there is smoke, fire follows.

There are countless possibilities that Colangelo has, no doubt, considered and will consider right up to draft time. And given that there is no clear No. 1 this year, that makes the draft all the more intriguing.

One thing is sure, though. With the highly respected Colangelo at the helm, and the No. 1 pick in his pocket, long-suffering Raptors fans certainly are more excited this year than they have been in quite a while. The future is starting to look bright.

As long as Colangelo does not pick a Brazilian with the first pick.


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