Villanueva's game on the rise

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Charlie Villanueva took an entry pass in the low post from David Padgett, power-dribbled, spun and scored over Curtis Sumpter.

A few possessions earlier, Villanueva grabbed an offensive rebound, got hacked and converted the free throw for a three-point play.

Earlier in the USA Basketball trials practice last weekend for the World Championship for Young Men's qualifying team, he blocked a Sean May shot, and then hit a 3-pointer at the other end.

Throughout it all at the New Jersey Nets practice facility, the rising Connecticut sophomore forward was pumping his fist, encouraging his teammates and being as involved emotionally as he probably was throughout most of the Huskies' championship season.

Who is this guy?

He might just be the heralded recruit the Huskies thought they were getting a year ago.

If Villanueva continues on this career-changing development this summer, then he will play himself into the first round of the 2005 draft, let alone potentially lead the Huskies back to the Final Four.

We're not kidding here. Villanueva is a changed man. He knows it and so, too, do the Huskies' coaching staff.

"A year ago, I would stay outside,'' said the slender 6-foot-11 Villanueva. "I was more outside-inside. But I want to try and be more inside-outside and be a dominant player in the post.''

Villanueva was a role player on the Huskies' title run. His importance varied, but he ended the season with a modest 5.3 points a game average. But a closer look at his numbers (8.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg in 19 mpg) show that he was productive when given the chance on the defensive side.

"He ended up altering a lot more shots then people thought because of his length at the rim,'' said Connecticut assistant Tom Moore. "He's a smart player. If he can't move a big man in the post, then he'll go around him with a baby jump hook.

"He needs to be a big-time player for us,'' Moore said. "He's having a great summer.''

Villanueva almost made another mistake by thinking too soon about the NBA. He said he thought about declaring for the draft after the season. He did that a year ago after he graduated from Blair Academy (N.J.). But there was no buzz about his game, and he pulled out when it was clear he was a second-round pick.

He would have been in the second round again because of his potential, not his productivity in one season. But he's leaving a lasting impression for the NBA personnel watching the practices this week. He's expected to be one of the featured players on Team USA in the competition next week in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Villanueva, who said he could have played for the Dominican Republic too because of his dual citizenship, said he chose to play for the USA because it would be more beneficial to him and, it seems now, to Team USA's chances of winning the gold.

"It would mean a lot to me to play for the U.S.,'' Villanueva said.

The Huskies lost Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Taliek Brown off the championship team. They return plenty and add a big-time recruit in wing Rudy Gay as well as bruising transfer forward Ed Nelson, formerly of Georgia Tech.

Villanueva could actually be considered the third pro prospect on the team, with Gay and forward Josh Boone slightly ahead of him. That could change if he keeps up his play this summer. He could end up being the No. 1 option for the Huskies in the fall, even with the return of guards Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown.

"I want the responsibility of being (the go-to guy),'' said Villanueva, who missed the first six games while the NCAA investigated his pro workouts for the NBA draft a year ago.

"I want to be that leader and help my team win.''

Connecticut assistant coach Clyde Vaughan met with Villanueva in May, telling him that he was fooling himself if he thought he could be a pro by not getting stronger and working harder.

"We may have him for only one more year,'' said Vaughan, who works with the big men at Connecticut. "But I told him if he wants to play 27 to 30 minutes then he has to get stronger, get in the weight room and keep working. It sounds like he's doing that.''

Vaughan witnessed Villanueva's improvement during the counselor games at the Reebok ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., earlier this month. He's checking in with Villanueva every other day while he's training with USA Basketball.

"This is the time, when there aren't any classroom responsibilities, for him to work hard and focus on basketball,'' Vaughan said. "I'm glad the light went on for him.''

If it stays on, then Villanueva could be the most improved player in the country in 2005.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.