Thursday, February 12, 2009

Roko's Ballin' Life: Raptors rookie breaks out

One game does not make a season but heading into the All Star break an all out, scrappy effort from the entire Raptors team to upset one of the best in the NBA cannot be understated. A high level of play from deep down the depth chart is a nice perk as well.

Last night that is exactly what they got all around, with big game efforts from Jason Kapono, Andrea Bargnani, Anthony Parker, and most notably from the often-overlooked rookie, Roko Ukic.

If there’s anything that personifies the Raptors season it could very well be the play of Ukic. As a late, second round draft pick (41st overall) in 2005 by Rob Babcock, the lanky Croatian Guard had many of the Raptors faithful touting him as a diamond in the rough, his arrival was highly anticipated for years.

Since his NBA debut however Roko has appeared lost on the court at times, the brimming confidence of the young man overshadowed by inconsistent perimeter shooting (now 9-for-40 in 3 pt. shooting on the year) and wild turnovers that have appeared in games. A decent slasher with the ability to control a game from the Point, it has been Ukic’s shortcomings that have always stolen the headlines when describing the rookie. Obviously the Raptors led into this year with great expectations which have failed to materialize to date, to the point where the term “most disappointing team of the season” has been used by critics to describe the Toronto outfit as of late. But this team can surprise and remind you that there is a chance there is enough talent to not pass over, and that was Roko last night.

The pessimists will look at this game and call it a fluke. Yes, Ukic he hit a couple from beyond the arc (including a critical shot with under a minute left to play), but it was more luck than talent that his shots were falling (had he missed that off balance shot at the end he would’ve been vilified). And the only reason there was ever a chance anyways was due both to San Antonio’s long road trip and the fact that this was the last game before the All Star break for them as well.

The optimists will sing another tune however, seeing what they thought all along reinforced yesterday. They have defended Ukic at times using the Jose Calderon debate, stating that the first season the Spanish guard spent in the NBA he too looked out of place, and that it wasn’t until he saw increased playing time that his game and talent emerged. A depleted roster heading into last nights game, compounded by an injury to Joey Graham early on is what allowed Ukic to tally up the minutes and a career high in scoring as well (9-for-13 for 22 pts). Now there’s more ammunition to argue that it really does just come down to giving the young Guard more time before he surprises and flourishes in the way that Calderon has did in the 2007/08 season, and therefore he deserves the shot.

Whatever way you look at it, Roko Ukic beamed with the same confidence that everyone in the organization has praised him for since his arrival last night against the NBA dynasty that is the San Antonio Spurs, and finally delivered with a Raptors performance to match their opponent. The final layup came over Tony Parker and you get the feeling that names did not matter one bit to Ukic, there was a job to do and he did it and that was all.

"I really like live play and trying to make something happen. I didn't feel much
pressure. I just took him to the basket because I saw nobody was helping and the
lane was pretty much open and I just tried to go all the way to the basket."

Always willing to learn, even staying after practice to work on the lesser parts of his game (something that has left an impression with the Raptors organization seemingly from the start of the season), one can see the desire is present in Ukic. Last night he took his chance to show that the hype, the investment, all of the anticipation was not necessarily wasted. Last night “Rockin’ Roko”, as Matt Devlin likes to call him, did not disappoint, and neither did the Raptors. Last night needs to come about more often, for all parties involved.

Congrats to the Raptors, and especially to Roko Ukic, and thanks for leaving Canadian hoops fans on a positive note before the All Star break. Now just remember to pick up where you left off after your return from the long weekend.

Ukic spurs Raptors to win (Toronto Star)
Toronto’s no-stars get job done (National Post)

1 comment:

Jeffrey Manuel Wong said...

Nice overview, Mike.

I'm a big fan of Roko's; my blog is the home of the "Croatian Pistol." But realistically, it is his rookie year, and there will be mistakes.

The best is yet to come.