"12 FOULS? He picked up 12 FOULS IN SUMMER LEAGUE PLAY?"
Yes...this was indeed the comment made to me by Raptorshq's own Dave Randell after perusing a box score from 2004's summer league action. Our newly drafted center Rafael Araujo had somehow picked up 12 fouls in his summer league debut as there was no "6 fouls and you're out" rule in place for the summer session. We knew Hoffa was supposed to get into foul trouble a bit and had a mean streak...but 12 FOULS AGAINST SUMMER LEAGUE PLAYERS? He wouldn't last 3 minutes without fouling out during the regular season!
And so this ended up being our first official Rafael Araujo as a new Raptor discussion. While the fouls decreased as summer league bore on, his play did little to instill much confidence. Hoffa posted solid rebounding numbers but didn't seem to be the double double threat that we thought he'd be in summer league. As most people have learned by now however, summer league results are to be taken with a grain of salt most of the time. Summer league has made Michael Jordans out of Dajuan Wagners and Dirk Nowitzkis out of Nikoloz Tskitishvilis. Therefore the real truth of the matter would have to be revealed through regular season play. Unfortunately Dave and I were subjected to another painful Hoffa moment prior to the commencement of the regular season...and this one didn't even involve Araujo.
On the invite list to Vince Carter's annual charity game that summer was none other then Andre Iguodala, the player the Raptors' had passed over when they drafted Hoffa. Perhaps the invite was Vince's way to pump up the event (Iggy was rumoured to be a high flyer) or perhaps it was out of spite for Raptors management but either way Iggy's invite will haunt Dave and I to this day. Iguodala put on a show. He and Memphis' Dontae Jones, who was on the team opposing Iguodala, threw down ridiculous dunk after dunk. Alleyoops, breakaways, crams, you name it. All Dave and I could do was sit there and think what could have been. The last thing you want to see when you're already skeptical about your team's pick, is see the player you thought they SHOULD HAVE TAKEN, throwing down 360 dunks on other current NBA vets...
And so the 2004/2005 season began. Loren Woods, acquired to help out at center in the offseason, actually started out playing pretty well. He had back to back solid games to open the season and looked like maybe the answer for a team that had been without a true center presence (Antonio Davis was more of a power-forward) since the departure of Marcus Camby. Therefore Araujo saw only limited action with Chris Bosh and even Donyell Marshall playing a good deal at the center position. However on December 28th, all of this changed.
The local media and fans had been clamoring to see more of our highly touted draft pick, especially since the team was in the midst of an 8 game road losing streak and had dropped 10 of their last 13 games. On top of this, Vince Carter had been traded only a little over a week before and it was obvious that the team needed to do something different.
In his December 28th debut in the Raptors' loss to the Lakers, Hoffa had 8 points, 10 rebounds and 3 steals and only 3 personal fouls. While the Lakers were no longer the Shaq led dynasty of the past, the numbers were encouraging. In fact in the next game against the Golden State Warriors, Hoffa had 13 points, 8 rebounds and even a block. Hoffa continued to have some success in the midst of this west coast road trip and while only putting up 4 points against the Sacramento Kings on January 5th, he did grab 14 rebounds against a player he was often compared with when he was drafted...Brad Miller.
However these results did not last...Araujo's productivity fell off dramatically and 4 point 3 rebound 6 foul games became the norm. The Raptors made a slight playoff push in the early spring and fans began to wonder why coach Sam Mitchell was still starting Araujo when the more productive albeit undersized Donyell Marshall, was coming off the bench. Well, Raptors' fans know the rest of the story...Araujo of course then became the center of what seemed to be a riff between coach Sam Mitchell who didn't feel Hoffa was ready, and GM Rob Babcock, who seemed to be trying to validate Araujo's selection. While in the end this was not the case, the impact on Rafael was noticeable. By the last game of the season, fans at the ACC had begun booing Hoffa almost as viciously as Vince Carter...not exactly a confidence booster for the young center.
Rafael Araujo's rookie season averages read like this:
3.3 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game and 0.1 blocks per game in 12.5 minutes of action.
Pretty meager numbers, even for a rookie. In fact, MILT PALACIO, the Raptors' backup point guard from last season had more blocks with 13! Babcock's credibility was already taking a beating in the press for what looked like an extremely lopsided Vince Carter trade and Hoffa's first season was doing little to reinstill confidence. One thing was certain...if Araujo did not show considerable improvement in his second year, this pick would be looked at as one of the biggest busts of all time, perhaps MORE then the Alexander Radojevic selection as Hoffa was SUPPOSED to be NBA READY. In his first season he indeed looked far from it being consistently overmatched in the post.
However Babcock preached optimism. He noted that big men in the NBA traditionally take longer to develop and the Raptors' GM explained that they would be patient with Araujo.
For discussion sake then, let's take a look at some of the similar big men in the NBA and their stats after their rookie seasons.
Jamal Magloire - 4.6 points, 4 rebounds and 1.05 blocks per game in 14.8 minutes of action.
Brad Miller - 6.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and 0.47 blocks per game in 12.3 minutes of action.
Greg Ostertag - 3.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.11 blocks per game in 11.6 minutes of action.
Chris Kaman - 6.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 0.89 blocks per game in 22.5 minutes of action.
Jason Collins - 4.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.61 blocks per game in 18.3 minutes of action.
Eric Dampier - 5.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.01 blocks per game in 14.6 minutes of action.
Mark Blount - 3.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in 17.2 minutes of action.
Jeff Foster - 3.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 0.4 blocks per game in 16.2 minutes of action.
Brendan Haywood - 5.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in 20.4 minutes of action.
Chris Mihm - 7.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game in 19.8 minutes of action.
Noticing a trend here? Now let's look at Hoffa's numbers again...
Rafael Araujo - 3.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and 0.1 blocks per game in 12.5 minutes of action.
Hoffa's numbers aren't that far off from most of these players, especially if he had played more minutes. While none of the aforementioned are exactly Hakeem Olajuwon's or David Robinson's, in a poll of Raptor fans I'm betting with the exception of maybe Mark Blount and Greg Ostertag, fans would take any of these other players currently over Hoffa. You'll also notice that I didn't include players like Samuel Dalembert, Tyson Chandler and Steven Hunter in the comparison. Hoffa simply isn't that type of player. He'll never be a long and lean shot blocking type post player. In fact I'd compare his game more to a Chris Mihm, Brendan Haywood or Jason Collins. A large body with decent offensive skills who needs to work on rebounding.
Chris Mihm is actually a player that Araujo should model his game after. As a longtime Cavs fan (before moving to Toronto) I was extremely disappointed in the Cavs for trading their 7th pick in the draft (Jamal Crawford) to the Bulls for the 8th pick who ended up being Mihm. I felt that Mihm, while a successful college player at Texas, was simply not athletic enough for the NBA game and would end up out of the league in a few seasons. Mihm's career started to look like that. Like the Raptors, the Cavs' management at the time was looking for an NBA ready player to come in and bang in the paint. He was thrown into the fire with mixed results and ended up being another in the string of Cavs disappointments via the draft. He was traded to the Celtics in the 2003-2004 season after an injury plagued prior campaign with the Cavs. He put up decent numbers in Boston in limited minutes but it his was play with the LA Lakers last season that signalled his rebirth. Mihm was supposed to be one of the Lakers biggest problems manning a Shaq-less center position in the "bigman filled" West. However he averaged almost 10 points a game and 7 rebounds and over a block to become one of the Lakers' MVP's. One of the main reasons for Mihm's turnaround was his improved conditioning. Mihm in college needed to be the big brawny "boll guys over" type post player but in the NBA, you can't exactly do that with players like Shaq and Dampier. So Mihm slimmed down and built up his quickness and agility allowing him to beat larger players to the hoop on offence while still maintaining his strength to keep players off the glass on the defensive end.
This past offseason, pink eye setback aside, Araujo attempted to do just this, slimming down and working on his footwork and conditioning. So far in the preseason it's appeared to pay off. Hoffa looks better moving without the ball and looks much more fluid, especially on the offensive end. If he can work to keep improving in these areas, maybe the Mihm comparison isn't much of a reach. In fact no one's ever questioned Hoffa's desire or work ethic...this is the same player who shows up at 9 AM for the 10:30 practice and is one of the last ones to leave. However it must be said that Araujo simply was never a top 10 talent from that draft. Not to say that means he's a bust, but it probably will just take a couple years for him to develop and he's got to keep his confidence up. Araujo seems to get down on himself easily for making stupid mistakes and that's natural for anyone who works that hard and is that competitive. He's just got to keep working through it however, especially on the defensive end. ESPN.com's John Hollinger had Araujo as one of the worst players in the NBA statistically in terms of what he brings to the court per minute of play. Based on last year's foul prone tendencies, it would be hard to argue with that assessment. And that's why even if Araujo doesn't average 10 points and 7 boards ala Chris Mihm this season, he must at least do a better job staying in games and not picking up quick fouls. Most of this has to do with positioning and playing with his feet on defence instead of with his hands. Hoffa's problem in the NBA will always be his athleticsm...he simply is not quick enough of a leaper to snatch the ball off the rim. His strength is all upper body, not in his legs. Therefore he's going to have to learn to be a smarter player. Look at Vlade Divac's rookie season numbers.
8.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.39 blocks in nearly 20 minutes of game time.
Divac was never the world's most athletic player nor did he have Shaq like size for boxing out purposes. However he was always one of the top pivots in the league due to his full complement of abilities. He was a great mid- range shooter, had great passing skills and also understood positioning allowing him to be a good rebounder and shot blocker. Araujo already posseses a great shooting stroke (perfect from the line in preseason) and has shown a knack for passing so if he could add the defence and rebounding to his arsenal, he'd be a much more valuable player for the Raptors. Let's not confuse Hoffa with Divac however. The point here is that players who've lacked the necessary physical attributes associated with their position CAN overcome their various shortcomings through hard work and improved knowledge of the game. (Earl Boykins is another perfect example of this.)
As mentioned, Araujo has already shown improvement in preseason play. Whether this translates into a successful season remains to be seen. However if the Raptors got on average 6 points and 6 rebounds from him each night, I think this would be a major step in the right direction. The rebounds are ESPECIALLY important as this is one of the areas this team needs the most help in.
Interestingly, the Raptors' tip off the season tonight against the Washington Wizards, a team who's center spot is manned by one of the players previously listed for comparitive purposes...Brendan Haywood. Haywood as well struggled as a rookie but began to get his swagger last season and is now looking like a respectable center. Perhaps big men just do take longer to develop. Perhaps Hoffa is a season or two removed from being a dominant interior presence. And then again perhaps Araujo simply won't ever materialize into the player Babcock expected he was drafting. However let's keep this in mind before joining in the chorus of boos this year. The kid didn't choose to get picked 8th overall. Any booing due to another rocky season should probably be directed more towards the Raptors' management who made him the 8th overall pick.
And then again IF Hoffa starts to struggle, new teammate Joey Graham can remind him of the dominance he once exerted over Graham and his Oklahoma State Cowboys in a game back in 2003. Graham's coach Eddie Sutton stated after the game that "we just couldn't stop Araujo."
Here's to hoping that at some point Raptors' fans hear those same words from opposing coaches...but until then, we'll be checking the boxscores hoping that the only number 6 we see is in the rebounding column...not under "personal fouls."