Charlie in charge

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:16 AM ET

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Not one play. Not one stinking play. That's how Charlie Villanueva remembers that statement game last March, the one where he tossed up 48 points against the Milwaukee Bucks.

It was all freelancing that day. The Raptors didn't run anything on offence for him. Villanueva was a rookie forward and that bravado performance was the stamp of approval in a campaign where he eventually would take runner-up NBA rookie-of-the-year honours behind Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets.

"They're running plays for me now, that's for sure," he said Wednesday, standing below the basket at the south end of The Palace in Auburn Hills, a shoot-around respite as the Bucks tuned up for their season opener against Central Division-rival Detroit.

Yes, those Bucks. Villanueva's new team, after a blockbuster trade in June that sent speedy point guard T.J. Ford to the run-happy Raptors.

"I'm definitely over that," Villanueva said with a dismissive half-laugh, half roll of the eyes, talking about the trade. The only real roots that remain run through girlfriend Sylvia, who's from Toronto, and who's with Charlie these days, part of the Milwaukee chapter of the Villanueva entourage headlined by his brother, Rob.

His agent, Billy Ceisler, said Villanueva wasn't angry when the trade news went down. Charlie doesn't get that way. "I don't think there was ever bitterness," Ceisler said. "But you never get over it."

FAITH

It took time. But not too much time. It took his faith, and it took counsel from his inner circle. "It was more disbelief," Villanueva said. "I was shocked. I mean, I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe it. I thought I had a good first year. I thought we were building something."

Yesterday's runner-up rookie of the year was today's bargaining chip for Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo. Maybe TV analyst Stephen A. Smith was right after all. Hey, no offence, but Toronto was dumb for having drafted you in the first place. Why bring you in as another power forward with a seventh overall draft pick with Chris Bosh as the go-to guy?

Then again, the trade was just more adversity. Charlie grew up in a family of ten siblings and half siblings in the hard-knocks neighbourhood of Queens, N.Y. His mother, Doris did most of the heavy lifting growing up, holding down multiple jobs to feed a family of four at the time.

HUMBLES

That's what humbles you, Rob said. Kids would hound and tease Charlie over his skin condition (Alopecia Areata, resulting in total hair loss on the head and face in Villanueva's case). Through a college career at Connecticut he got knocked for being soft and lazy. He still battles that perception. Then the national TV crucifixion of then-Raptors general manager Rob Babcock on draft night in 2005.

Then the trade. Villanueva saw himself as a Raptors lifer. He was going to purchase a home this year. In what seemed like a millisecond by NBA standards, Villanueva went from a rookie on a struggling team that hasn't had a playoff sniff in years --in a porous Atlantic Division to boot -- to a key frontline scorer and rebounder on a 40-win playoff team in the muscle-bound Central Division, beating heads with the likes of Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland. Bucks coach Terry Stotts said the Bucks don't number their options on offence, but if an impressive 105-97 win over the Pistons at The Palace was any indication, Villanueva is going to get a lot of looks. Despite looking tentative with his jump shot, Villanueva finished 6-for-21, had 16 points (second to Michael Redd's 37) and 12 rebounds.

Now Charlie looks cross court at Andrew Bogut, the 7-foot Aussie centre who, with Bobby Simmons at small forward, gives the Bucks, on paper anyway, a formidable front line. Larry Harris, the Bucks general manager, said he brought in Villanueva to shore up the four spot after Joe Smith came up lame after knee surgeries. The team wanted to move Bogut to his natural centre position. If Villanueva continues to fulfil his potential, he helps balance out the Bucks scoring.

Now Villanueva looks at a new future. Now, as his brother said, he's laying down thicker roots, buying a townhouse on the outer edges of Milwaukee.

"I don't think he realizes how talented he is," Bogut said. "He shut some people up. I think he shut Stephen Smith up. He was the second best rookie last year. To be in the top five is a special thing."

Toronto? Ancient history, man.

"Sam (Mitchell) is a good coach, but I think my situation is going to be way better here," Villanueva said. "Terry is more of an offensive coach. He's all about getting the ball to the right guy in the right places. He knows how to put you in the right position. We know where our shots are going to go. Terry has more experience (as a coach). It's more structured here. In Toronto, there was more freelancing. Here, you get plays. The style we play, it's different. It's better for my development. It will make me a better player.

"Toronto was good for me," he said now. "It was a good first experience."

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TALKIN' 'BOUT CHARLIE V

"He's always felt that he has to prove himself, being the younger brother, the skin condition (Alopecia Areata, resulting in hair loss), being teased as a kid. Basketball has been a load on his back as well. He has had to prove something."

-- Rob Elias Villanueva, Charlie's brother

TV analyst Stephen A. Smith openly mocked then-Raptors general manager Rob Babcock for taking Villanueva with the seventh overall pick in the 2005 draft. Smith later cushioned that by saying his words were misconstrued by Raptors fans, that in fact he was trashing Babcock for taking a player like Villanueva with that high pick, when they already had someone similar in forward/centre Chris Bosh. After that 48-point statement game, Villanueva said, "I was actually planning on sending my boxscore to ESPN."

"He plays so effortlessly that sometimes people misconstrue that he's not playing that hard, that he's not motivated."

-- Larry Harris, Milwaukee Bucks general manager

"I remember those so-called draft night experts ripping Charlie Villanueva. They should line up and apologize, because he can play."

-- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers

"When motivated, Charlie Villanueva is capable of posting 20-10s on a nightly basis, but too often shrinks when you put a body on him."

-- 2005 NCAA Basketball Tournament scouting report

"The fact is that he should simply be better than a guy who averages 13 ppg, and only shows up two out of every three games. When Villanueva was in high school, I used to think he was just really lazy, but over time I realized that he simply is not that quick."

-- 2005 NBA prospect report

"He's still reading quotes from people saying he didn't have as good a rookie year."

-- Billy Ceisler, Charlie's agent


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