I got to cover the Toronto Raptors during the 2005-2006 season for the now-defunct HoopLife.ca website. It was a lean year for the Raps, Chris Bosh was young, Mike James and my hero Jalen Rose were the team's leaders and Rafael Araujo was a rotation player. But rookie Charlie Villanueva gave us hope! Here's a feature I wrote on him during his only season in Toronto.
As we’ve past the midway point of the NBA season, a lot is said about the progress of the league’s rookies. There are surprises, busts, bold Rookie of the Year predictions and of course, the dreaded “rookie wall.”
The Raptors’ most high-profile rookie, Charlie Villanueva, has handled the situation very well. Like almost any other NBA rookie, being here is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Villanueva says he was ten years old when he decided he wanted to be an NBA player.
“I just had the attitude that there was nobody stopping me and I was going to be in the NBA,” he says.
Though Charlie V’s road to the L has been shorter than that of some players now collecting NBA checks, the 21-year-old is no stranger to hard times. A native of Queens, New York, Villanueva describes Elmhurst, the neighbourhood where he grew up, as “tough.” He almost laughs at the suggestion that “Elmhurst” sounds like a nice place.
“There was a lot of drugs, a lot of violence,” Charlie says. His family moved away from the area when the youngster was eleven, because “my parents and I had enough … it was getting too crazy.”
After two years attending Newtown High School in nearby Corona, Queens, Villanueva escaped even further, enrolling at Blair Academy, a private prep school in New Jersey. Along with current Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng, he earned 2003 McDonald High School All-American honors before the two headed to separate collegiate powerhouses, Charlie V to Connecticut and Deng to Duke.
The versatile 6-foot-10 forward had actually flirted with the NBA draft in 2003 before removing his name, but after winning a NCAA chip with UConn his freshman year and putting up 13.6 points, 8.3 boards and 1.8 blocks for the Huskies his sophomore campaign, Son was ready.
Picked seventh overall by the Raptors in the 2005 Draft, Villanueva had no reservations about moving to the T-Dot.
“Oh I didn’t have no problems with it,” the big-city kid says. “I went to Blair Academy in the middle of nowhere in Jersey, so this is way better than that!” He says Storrs, Connecticut, home to UConn, was pretty deep in the woods too. “I knew this was going to be a good situation for me.”
And like every other American to ever cross the border, Villanueva says Toronto is much cleaner and safer than NYC. “I know there are hoods out here, but I haven’t really been to them yet.”
But by the time CV arrived in the T.O. the day after the draft, the local media was already sippin’ that Hater-ade, accusing Villanueva of being “soft” and questioning his work ethic.
They shut up once the preseason began, as the aptly-nicknamed “Big Smooth” proceeded to lead the Raps in scoring in their eight exhibition games, including a 24-point, seven-rebound outing against New Jersey and a 22-point, 7-board performance to wrap up the preseason against Portland.
Charlie V’s big-game ways spilled over into the season as he put together back-to-back masterpieces in mid-November, blowing up for 26 and 12 against the Sonics November 13 and pumping in 27 and 13 against the Sixers two days later. Unfortunately, Villanueva’s efforts, as well as the great play of a matured Chris Bosh and a rejuvenated Mike James, didn’t translate into Raptors wins, and Toronto stumbled to nine straight losses out of the gate.
One of three Raptors rookies still learning the game, Villanueva kept up the good work in December, working out to the tune of 14.2 points and 4.9 rebounds. The Raps’ fortunes improved as well, earning a 7-7 record in the month and putting together five consecutive wins at the end of the month and the beginning of the New Year.
For his efforts, Charlie earned the Eastern Conference Rookie-of-the-Month Award as well as a nickname bestowed upon him by the Raptors’ veterans: Seven O’clock, “because I be ready to play at seven o’clock,” he says jokingly.
Don’t think Charlie’s first NBA go-round has been all ups and no downs. He’s sometimes been prone to the same inconsistency that plagues all rookies, but the work ethic that the draft pundits said wasn’t there hasn’t been the problem.
“I’m trying to get Charlie to understand that he can help us in other ways than scoring,” Sam Mitchell said after a mid-January practice. “He can defend, he can rebound, he can pass the basketball and he understands that.”
Charlie agrees completely. “That’s been one of my problems,” he says. “I feel like when I’m not scoring, things go wrong. I can’t let that happen. There are other things I can do to help this team, as far as rebounding, blocking shots or hitting the open man, making my team better.”
Mitchell is often hard on his players in media, and Villanueva’s second half bench spot in many games has had the beat writers smelling blood in post-game interrogations. One day after practice Mitchell is clearly tired of the questions about his rook’s minutes.
“Is there a reason Charlie didn’t get in after halftime?” a reporter asks.
“Because I’m the coach,” Mitchell says simply, not the answer the group is looking for. “I can’t have (the media) asking me after every game, looking at the stat sheet, about how many minutes one of my young guys played,” he says. “Some nights they play 35 minutes, some nights they play 15 minutes. I use them according to the way I feel they can help us.”
Slim doesn’t take it personal.
“It’s frustrating,” he admits. “(But) I’m not frustrated at the coaches. I’m frustrated at myself, the way I’m playing,” he insists. “It’s my fault. I deserve to be on the bench if I’m not playing well.”
Another bump on every rookie’s road is the mid-season wall that beat reporters love to make a big deal about every year. Third-year Raptor Chris Bosh remembers it well.
“I think your game isn’t the same,” Bosh recalled after a mid-season practice. “You’re trying things that you normally do, but nothing’s working.”
The wall doesn’t have to cripple all rookies. Bosh’s rookie classmates LeBron James and Dwayne Wade seemed to fly over the wall on their way to two-handed tomahawk jams, and CB4 himself recovered to finish the campaign averaging 11.5 points and lead all rookies in rebounding and blocks. All three repped the East in the ’06 All-Star Game.
“I mean, you get a little tired,” Bosh said. “But then toward the end of the season, you get, kind of, a second wind. You see the finish line, so you play a little harder, keep going.”
The Big Smooth has kept going, averaging 12.2 points and 8.3 boards since the All-Star Break. Lately he’s been in a scoring slump, having posted only one double-figure game in his last six. It’s obvious that Villanueva has grown though, as he pulled down eight rebounds per game during that stretch—two more than his season average, which means he’s found a way to contribute when he isn’t scoring.
“For the last couple of games it’s been hard,” Charlie admits. “(But) I try to stay mentally tough. I get a little fatigued, but I can’t let it get to me, I’ve just got to keep going. It’s a long season.”
It’s should be a long career too, providing Charlie Villanueva’s game continues to grow and mature. His play in the Rookie Challenge on All-Star Weekend showed that he can be an exciting player with a fan-friendly and very marketable style of play. He poured in 18 points on a variety of dunks, alley-oops and three-pointers and complemented that line with 12 rebounds, a performance that would have won him the MVP hardware had his Rookie squad managed a W.
He worked hard to get here and he welcomes this new challenge.
“In school, I had to worry about a lot of things,” he says. “Now this is my job and this is what I do, what I have to focus on.”
Charlie V’s living his dream now, and no so-called “rookie wall” will stop him.