History, Joe Dumars say it’s time to give Charlie Villanueva the benefit of the doubt about his offseason conditioning

Charlie Villanueva doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Nothing inspires confidence like confidence, and Villanueva doesn’t ooze swagger. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun once told Brian Koonz of The (Dansbury, Conn.) News-Times:

"Charlie is maybe the least confident kid on our team. He really is."

I think Villanueva’s confidence has grown since, but there are still issues. Is he a good player? Sure. A nice guy? You bet. But someone you believe can rally a team or a fanbase with his presence? No way.

But I think it’s time to show some confidence in him.

Summer plans

In April, Villanueva said he would stay and work out in his NBA city during the offeason for the first time. Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News reported Wednesday that Pistons officials confirmed Villanueva had been working out “diligently.”

My reaction: ho-hum.

If Kulfan checked on Villanueva’s progress, what were Pistons sources supposed to say? They’re obviously biased, so who knows how truthful they were being? Nobody was even willing to to attach his or her name to the statement.

But then Joe Dumars, who I find much more credible than anonymous sources, corroborated the story during his conversation with Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Charlie and Ben Wallace have been in the gym more than anybody else on our team since the season ended. Charlie started coming in about the middle of May and so did Ben. So I’ve seen those guys in the gym more than anybody else. So Charlie has been a man of his word about the time and effort he was going to put in here. And stay here during the summer. Charlie is a New York guy, spends time in LA, but not this summer. He’s been a Detroit guy, stayed in Detroit and made a commitment that he’s going to be in the gym and proud of what I’ve seen so far this last month or so. He and Ben Wallace, I look out my window on a daily basis and I just about see those guys every day. It’s a great first step.

And Kulfan actually went to the practice facility and saw Villanueva, who seems to understand what’s necessary:

"I want to change my whole body," said Villanueva, who wants to get stronger and quicker.

Still, it’s only June 13. It’s easy to see how a month of working hard can turn into a summer of partying, golfing and relaxing.

But, using history as a judge, I don’t expect that to happen to Villanueva.

The best I can tell, Villanueva has twice pledged to go above and beyond during the offseason. Both times, he honored his word.

Connecticut 2004

Villanueva arrived to Storrs, Conn., a McDonald’s All-American and rival.com’s No. 5 recruit, in 2003. But with a disappointing freshman season that saw Villanueva disappear down the stretch, UConn faithful seemed to think, “this is it?”

But in July 2004, Matt Eagan of The Hartford Courant provided an update on Villanueva’s offseason:

That may be all he said, but Villanueva has spent his summer working to make sure explanations won’t be necessary again. He has added about 10 pounds of muscle and has been preparing his game for more work in the low post.

Both were items on UConn coach Jim Calhoun’s wish list.

“He’s got to be more explosive with his body,” Calhoun said. “The weight is the only way to go. Every other part of the game, you’re amazed by some of the things he is able to do.”

Villanueva concedes as much but has become convinced that he needs to establish himself inside to reach a higher level.

“I’m working on one move in particular, my jump hook, for my post game,” Villanueva said. “Last year I tended to stay outside, but this year I am going to take a whole different approach. I have to work it inside and then go outside.”

It didn’t take long for Villanueva to impress. From Phil Chardis of the (Manchester) Journal Inquirer:

And Saturday, at the first official practice of his sophomore year, perhaps the real Villanueva began to emerge.

"Charlie was a star today he was a big-time player, that’s a better word than star," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said after the three-hour, 10-minute practice. "He dominated at times — he dominated the rebounding, and in one of the more physical box-out drills we’ve had. He was really good."

Indeed, Villanueva already looks like a far more confident player than last year. Noticeably bigger and stronger, the versatile forward from Brooklyn was scoring inside and with his jumper and holding his ground defensively, which was a weakness last season.

"I feel like I’m a bigger presence on the court," Villanueva said. "It comes from working in the weight room and working hard over the summer. I just feel more confident with my body, more confident being out there, period. Last year, I tried to stay away from contact, but now I think I’m working hard in the post and I feel I can be an inside-outside type of player. My confidence level right now is high and I don’t see it going down."

Perhaps more important, Villanueva carried himself differently Saturday — like a player who is ready to assume the responsibility of the Huskies’ go-to player.

A simple stat shows Villanueva’s offseason work transformed his game in the same way Pistons fans would like to see him change this summer.

  • Freshman year: 18-of-49 on 3-pointers.
  • Sophomore year: 6-of-12 on 3-pointers.

Villanueva’s improved play made him the Huskies’ MVP and the No. 7 pick by the Toronto Raptors.

Milwaukee 2008

After a couple disappointing seasons in Milwaukee, Villanueva was mentioned in several trade rumors during the summer of 2008. Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel talked to Villanueva about his offseason plans:

Villanueva also was hampered early in the season because he was returning from shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, a procedure performed in March 2007.

"Last year the whole summer I was rehabbing," Villanueva said. "Now I can play basketball, lift weights. I can improve. I have the whole summer, and I know I can get better, a lot stronger and be in shape when season 4 gets under way."

The next season, Villanueva posted career highs in points per game (16.2), rebounds per game (6.7), assists per game (1.8), PER (18.6), defensive rating (106), defensive win shares (2.7) and win shares (4.9).

Pause for concern

Both those examples were contract years of sorts. Villanueva used his sophomore season at UConn to become the No. 7 pick, and he turned his 2008-09 season with the Bucks into a big contract from the Pistons.

Will he match his intensity of those summers without more money on the line? He’s guaranteed to make $31.2 million the next four seasons – regardless of the work he puts in this offseason. When he becomes a free agent in 2013 or 2014, teams really won’t care what he did this upcoming season.

Perhaps, I’m being naive, but I really believe Villanueva will work hard this offseason. I couldn’t find any previous examples of him promising this type of effort for non-contract years. I think he’s finally beginning to take ownership of his NBA career.

Plus, working out with Ben Wallace will help keep Villanueva in line.

Previously, I defended Villanueva by saying he’s just not as bad as he played this year. Now, assuming his improvement will come only from reverting to the mean might be selling him short. It could be time to expect his play to match his immense talent.

Pressure is on, Charlie.

Tags: Ben Wallace Charlie Villanueva