Praise for Raps' rookies

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

PHOENIX -- Raptors coach Sam Mitchell often comes up with unique ways to get his point across.

For instance, when asked yesterday about Andrea Bargnani's toughness, or supposed lack thereof, Mitchell replied that the best way for anyone to find out is to ask the rookie to step outside.

"I wish one of you guys would," Mitchell told some reporters. "Then he would exact some punishment from you all."

Punishment, Mitchell said, for not writing (in his opinion anyway) that Bargnani has played better than any rookie in the NBA -- not including the first two weeks of the season.

"You guys come here and ask me all these questions, but nobody will ever say that this kid is playing better than the other rookies. Have any of you ever said that he's playing better than any rookie right now?" the coach questioned. "It would be nice sometimes if you would all say this kid is playing as well as any rookie in the league and he's quietly showing people why he is the No.1 pick (in the 2006 draft)."

Lectures aside, there's no doubt Bargnani, and fellow Raptors rookie Jorge Garbajosa, quietly have positioned themselves in the early running for NBA rookie of the year honours.

And it's a safe bet both will be invited to play in the rookie game at the NBA all-star weekend, Feb.16-18 in Las Vegas.

USA Today recently published a piece heralding the 29-year-old Garbajosa as the league's top rookie to this point of the season.

Neither got off to a quick start with the Raptors, but both the 7-foot centre from Italy and the 6-foot-9 forward from Spain are coming on strong.

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Garbajosa is first among all rookies in rebounds (5.7 per game), steals (1.8) and double-doubles (three) and is fifth in scoring (9.2 points per game). Bargnani, a 21-year-old offensive whiz, is second in blocked shots among rookies (.87 per game), fourth in scoring (9.2) and ninth in rebounds (3.2). He registered his first career double-double (18 points and 10 rebounds) on Sunday in a 120-115 victory over Golden State.

Mitchell admitted he does take pride in the fact that two rookies under his watch are shining in their debut NBA seasons.

For his part, Garbajosa insisted he won't allow himself to think about the possibility of winning rookie of the year, or, to a lesser extent, playing in Las Vegas.

"I would like to," Garbajosa said yesterday, after the team's morning shootaround. "I don't think about it every day, but if it happens it would be great.

"But I try to not think about personal things. I like to think of the team."

Mitchell said if Bargnani is selected to appear at the all-star weekend this season, it won't be his final appearance.

"Imagine him two years from now when he actually has an idea and starts really understanding the game and starts figuring out the tricks," Mitchell said, adding that teams are already having trouble figuring out how to guard the athletic 7-footer with the sweet jump shot.

"Two years from now he's going to be scary."


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