Wakeup call for Graham

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:41 AM ET

LAS VEGAS -- Nobody on the Raptors was more taken aback by the Charlie Villanueva trade last week than Joey Graham.

With the possible exception, of course, of Villanueva himself.

"It was a wakeup call," Graham said yesterday, from the Raptors' rookie and free agent camp, which is being held a suburban Las Vegas high school. "It was very weird. Strange even. But it just kind of put things in perspective and lets me know, and I'm pretty sure let Charlie know, how much of a business the league is."

In business, if you don't perform, you're out. And as the Villanueva trade so clearly demonstrated, in professional sport, even if you do perform, you still might out.

The entire process has, quite frankly, left Graham a little shaken.

If the Raptors are willing to trade fellow sophomore Villanueva, who finished second in voting for the 2005-06 Rookie of the Year, where does that leave Graham?

Well, it leaves him, in his words, "on edge."

"There's a new crop of guys coming in every season," Graham said, looking around the gym at the collection of new faces. "New guys are coming in, guys are getting traded, you never know what's going to happen, so you've always got to stay on your toes."

When asked to grade his rookie season, Graham, who averaged 6.7 points and 3.1 rebounds while shooting 48% from the field (fifth among rookies), gave himself a B minus. Perhaps a little high, but the former Oklahoma State star acknowledged that, to earn a starting spot with the Raptors -- which is his goal for the 2006-07 season -- or even to stay on this team, he has to improve.

And here in Las Vegas, appropriately enough, he is betting on that happening.

"Last season, I was just growing," he said. "This year, I think it's going to be my coming-out year. A lot of doors are opening, a lot of opportunities are going to happen for me."

Four of the five starting spots on the Raptors are pretty well taken: Chris Bosh at power forward (mainly), Rasho Nesterovic at centre, Ford at the point and Morris Peterson at small forward or shooting guard. That does leave an opening for Graham to step up and earn the starting small forward job.

But to do that, he'll really have turn some heads here in Vegas and at training camp in the fall.

One thing he does not lack, however, is confidence.

"I think that window of opportunity is open for me, so I just have to go in and take it," he said.

As the first morning workout of the week ended yesterday, the Raptors' second-round pick from last month's draft, Texas small forward P.J. Tucker, took a seat on the bench a few places over from Graham.

A number of heads turned last month when Colangelo drafted Tucker in the second round.

TURNING HEADS

After all, his game is a lot like Graham's. Both are 6-5 small forwards, and while Graham may be a bit more athletic, Tucker is said to be more intense and more of a rebounder.

Could it be that the Raptors drafted Tucker to light a fire under Graham's butt? That's one theory. Another is, the Raptors would consider trading Graham if Tucker proves to be more adept at the small forward position. Graham himself knows enough about Tucker to be impressed.

"I knew him when he played at Texas," Graham said. "His game reminds me a lot more of Ron Artest. Both solid, wide guys, with a low centre of gravity, silent kind of guys that play defence, that can knock down shots."

Which puts even more pressure on the normally laid-back Graham. He could very well play his way to a starting position, or stumble to a spot on the bench. Or worse.

Graham realizes that it's all up to him.

"I just have to play hard," he said, "and do whatever coach asks me to do.

"I have to step it up a few notches."


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