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Canadian Juan Mendez Works Out for Raptors

ay 27, 2005

TORONTO (CP) -- After putting together one of the greatest seasons by a Canadian in NCAA basketball history, Juan Mendez is ready for the next level.

If he can get there in a Toronto Raptors jersey, all the better.

Juan Mendez worked out for the Raptors Friday. (Getty Images)size>
Mendez was one of four players to attend the second day of Raptors pre-draft workouts Friday, but the focus was clearly on the six-foot-eight, 245-pound Montreal native. Mendez, 24, rose to prominence after finishing fourth in the NCAA in scoring average (23.6 points per game) and 10th in rebounding (10.5) last season. He added 2.1 blocks per game, while shooting 47 per cent from the field and 81.5 per cent from the free-throw line.

Midway through the season, the Niagara senior passed Michael Meeks to become the all-time leading scorer among Canadians in Division I basketball. Mendez also led the unheralded Purple Eagles to their first NCAA tournament berth since 1970. They fell 84-67 to the second-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in the first round, despite Mendez posting 22 points and a game-high 15 rebounds.

Mendez was optimistic about his workout Friday, but said the abrupt nature of the pre-draft process is difficult on players.

``It's hard, because they just see you once, hopefully twice,'' said Mendez. ``It's tough, but you've got to come in here, do what you have to do, and try to impress.''

When asked if the Raptors were impressed with his effort, Mendez was less confident.

``Maybe, maybe not, I don't know,'' said Mendez. ``They obviously have their opinions, and we'll just go from here.''

Raptors general manager Rob Babcock was pleased with Mendez's skills, though he said it was premature to say whether or not the team would take a chance on him. The Raptors have a whopping four picks in the June 30 draft _ two first-rounders and a pair of second-rounders _ and will be looking to fill a number of needs, including centre and point guard.

Mendez will have to make the move to the wing in the NBA. (Getty Images)size>
``He's somebody that we're going to continue to look at,'' said Babcock. ``We'll continue studying tape, and studying all the other players. We have a lot of players to look at, and it's way too early to make any judgements like that.''

Despite his success with Niagara, Mendez is a longshot to be drafted. Most teams pass on undersized power forwards, and Mendez's ball-handling and long-distance shooting are subpar for a small forward. A more likely route to the NBA will be through free agency, something the Raptors may pursue.

If Toronto selects Mendez, he would become the first Canadian to ever suit up for the Raptors _ something that could lead a substantial increase in fan interest. Despite the Raptors' cache of draft choices, Babcock insisted the franchise would continue to put performance ahead of patriotism.

``I think that it would be good for our team to be able to have a Canadian, for the fan interest and the fan base and so forth,'' said Babcock. ``That said, we're not bringing anybody on the team unless they're good enough to play on the team.''

Friday's pre-draft workout was the first for Mendez _ he'll visit at least two more teams _ but he admitted he was most excited about performing for the Raptors.

``I don't think I was nervous,'' said Mendez. ``But I was anxious, more anxious than anything, because this is my home country and it would be nice to play here.''

Mendez also said he drew inspiration from NBA most valuable player Steve Nash, a Victoria native who led the Phoenix Suns to a 62-win season and a berth in the Western Conference final.

``The fact that he's Canadian makes it so gratifying, the fact that he's doing all this, and it's been all hard work for him. I take my hat off to him because he's such a great player.''

Notes: The Raptors also worked out Providence forward Ryan Gomes, Kansas forward Wayne Simien and Mississippi State forward Lawrence Roberts. Simien is the most intriguing of the four, projected as a late first-round pick after averaging 20.3 points and 11 rebounds for the Jayhawks last season.