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HILL: Charlie Villanueva looks like he's got next

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Randy Hill

Veteran columnist Randy Hill is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.
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LOS ANGELES

Demonstrating the finesse of a theme-park hero, the tall guy from New York poses for snapshots with the high school kids. The high school kids know a basketball star when they see one. They know, because they just competed against him. The guy from New York is a high school kid named Charlie Villanueva, and a lot of citizens who are paid to know believe he can be a first-round pick in next year's NBA Draft. "He's definitely on the radar screen," says an NBA personnel executive with a pause-invoking sigh of the times. "He's not a freak-type athlete, but I like him because he knows how to play." Towing that endorsement, Charlie's in town with his Panther cronies to play in an Adidas-sponsored event called the Best of the Summer tournament. These basketball carnivals help define what I simultaneously love and loathe about the summer hoop circuit. Performing against top competition in front of college-coaching witnesses must be measured against the benefits of trimming game commitments to work on skills. Anyway, I'm not sure if the tournament's game can carry the confident name, although it's obvious that the last was saved for "Best." This is the final high-profile derby in a killer month of high school competition. The bug-eyed college coaches who have bounced over from last week's marathon in Las Vegas loom like diehard moviegoers attempting to squeeze an epiphany from the closing credits. Most of the hottest prospects have called it a summer. LeBron James, an Adidas show-stopper (for now, at least), is not here, although the biggest threat for No. 1 in next summer's NBA Draft has been hauling his broken wrist between these camps and tournaments. As another July reaches its bottom of the ninth, Villanueva — who attends Blair Academy in New Jersey — seems to be the best player still standing. Fittingly, Charlie and the Panthers have just accomplished a stirring resurrection, the final score of 69-68 finally settled when bagged a 3-pointer to beat the buzzer and the kids. Now, the acoustically terrifying auxiliary gym at University has eased toward a gentle hum as Villanueva strikes the pose with players he helped defeat. When the ambassador gig is finished, Charlie is asked for directions to his basketball future. "Right now," he says, "it looks like I'll be going to college." And the basketball traditionalists cheer. "But you always have to consider the possibility," Villanueva adds, referring to the NBA. Pro-choice advocates like me don't mind a bit. In the last draft, two of three high-school hopefuls — Lenny Cooke and DeAngelo Collins — escaped without being selected. But Cooke and Collins were bad-choice exceptions without NBA-encouraged portfolios, kids whose college status was clouded by presumed academic considerations. That was a big reason why Kevin Garnet jump-started this trend seven years ago. To satisfy my professional curiosity about Charlie's NBA capacity, I arrive to evaluate his baseline-to-baseline repertoire, and determine how much it has evolved since last year. At 6-foot-9, he still looks and maneuvers like a natural small forward. As a few of scouting sharpies have indicated, Villanueva appears to be a so-so athlete until presented with the opportunity to gather himself for a tomahawk dunk that would require no apologies in a Gatorade ad. However, Charlie's reputation rides on a gift for passing and handling that's greatly abetted by an unusual agility for a 6-9 kid. Right on cue, the ex-Long Island Panther who defines the traits just listed hustles into the gym. Lamar Odom, stylishly tardy for tipoff, snags a chair slightly downstream from the Panthers' bench. Odom, who now works for the L.A. Clippers, watches his Panthers with equal measures of pain and exhilaration. With a revelation in mind, I tell Lamar that Villanueva is a right-handed replica of himself. Odom smiles. "I hear that a lot." Should he hear that a lot? "Well, his future is unlimited," Lamar says of Charlie. "He has very good handling and passing skills. And I have a lot of love for Charlie because we're from the same part of Queens." Any advice, vis-à-vis the college vs. NBA decision? "My advice would be to make sure that it's his decision," Odom said. "That way, if everything doesn't go exactly as planned, at least Charlie can swallow that if the choice was his." Odom, it should be pointed out, ranks as an inclusive model representing the good and bad along the basketball-phenom road. With that registered, let's go back to our NBA personnel executive for specific analysis of Charlie Villanueva. "Oh, I think he's an NBA player," the NBA guy says. "It's just a matter of when. When could be a year from now ... and he probably has a shot at the first round. "He really is a poor man's, Odom-type player in that he has OK athleticism, but excellent coordination for his height, although Odom has better floor speed. "He also shoots the ball pretty well when I've watched him, but what will get him here (the NBA) is the playmaking skills. It also wouldn't bother me if he played hard on a consistent basis." So you've got to let us know ... should he stay with the college plan or go for the league? "Hey, I'd prefer every kid play six years of college ball," says the NBA guy, his sharp laugh accompanied by a touch of what sounds like bitterness. "Of course, if they're older and mature when we get 'em, we're not paying the freight while they develop, and my job feels more secure." But ... if you play it safe and pass on a high school kid who becomes a star down the line, the job is less secure than you'd hoped. Less secure among Villanueva's peers are those hard-charging prep players hoping to catch an eye for college-scholarship purposes. On the AAU summer tour, these auditions sometimes go at four per day. "That's just too much," says Richard Wiggins, whose stepson plays for one of the local teams in the "Best" field. I'm not sure if four games are considered too much for the stepson or too much for Richard. Richard nods and turns his palms toward the ceiling. "But if it helps some of these kids get noticed," he says, pausing to shake his head and let the premise hang a moment. "Well, put it this way — have you priced a college education lately?" Ah, yes. The college education. We can assure the traditionalists that plenty of college-considering players exist. So the coaches, the pro scouts, the sponsoring sneaker companies and everybody should be happy. Thousands of basketball-playing kids are kept busy for at least the month of July. There are sinister alternatives, such as two hours of torture watching David Arquette in Eight Legged Freaks. The two-legged, basketball-variety freaks will be classified and re-classified as the next season unfolds, but special, NBA-caliber hotshots are difficult to find around here at the end of July. Charlie Villanueva, who's a lot more fun to watch than David Arquette, doesn't mind the attention and the activity. "It's flattering," he admits, "and it's fun." Watching Odom leap from his chair when that closing jumper drops , I decide that it wouldn't hurt all of us to revisit this type of fun a little more often. Randy Hill can be reached at his e-mail address, rhill@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Northern Iowa, Lamar, Long Island, Nebraska, Loyola Marymount

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