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Blazers sweet on 'Spanish Chocolate'

by: Christopher Onstott, Trail Blazers 2006-2007 draft pick Sergio Rodriguez answers questions about the upcoming season.

When the Trail Blazer brain trust had its war-room powwows last week, the basic line of thinking on Sergio Rodriguez was to take him as a pick for the future.

Suddenly, the future is now.

That doesn't mean the flamboyant Spanish point guard, who turned 20 on June 12, is going to muscle out veterans Steve Blake or Jarrett Jack during October training camp.

But the young man on whom international basketball fans have hung the sobriquets 'Spanish Chocolate' and 'Spanish Magician' won't be honing his skills in Europe next season. He will be either with the Blazers or in the Developmental League, getting his game NBA-ready in the States instead of abroad.

The 6-3 Rodriguez won't play with Portland's Las Vegas Summer League entry. He'll be backing up Toronto Raptor point guard Jose Calderon on a Pau Gasol-led Spanish team in the World Championships, which begin Aug. 19 in Japan. But Portland President Steve Patterson is working toward a buyout of Rodriguez's Spanish League contract so he can be with the Blazers when they open training camp in October.

Rodriguez's boyhood hero was Jason Williams, the flashy point guard who helped the Miami Heat to the 2006 NBA championship. But Rodriguez has equal admiration for Phoenix's Steve Nash, the league's two-time MVP and a player a little more under control.

'I always imitated Jason Williams when I was playing growing up, but I'm not as crazy as he is,' Rodriguez says. 'I really like Steve Nash, too. I like to play fast like he does, and he has more structure to his game.'

'I see some similarities in the way (Rodriguez) plays and the way those two guys play,' Blazer coach Nate McMillan says. 'He pushes the ball upcourt and he delivers.'

Owner Paul Allen paid the Phoenix Suns $3 million for the 27th pick of last week's draft, which was used to snare Rodriguez. That should tell you what the Blazer brass thinks of the youngster who was MVP of the 2004 Under 18-Junior European Championships in leading Zaragoza to the gold medal.

He followed that up by being named rookie of the year in the Spanish League in 2004-05.

The original idea was to leave Rodriguez in Spain for another year or two of seasoning.

'We looked at it more, and we finally decided, 'Let's bring him in,' ' Patterson says. 'We have two veterans (Jack and Dan Dickau) healing up with injuries, though we expect both of them to be ready for training camp. It's something that made sense.'

Rodriguez is unlikely to impress enough to beat out either Blake or Jack. McMillan calls Rodriguez 'an average shooter right now. But I see a guy who has exceptional court vision and can create offense. He seems like he has speed, and he does a nice job of delivering the ball in an uptempo style.'

It will be a transition year for Rodriguez, who will be learning the English language as he learns the NBA game. He is an engaging young man who knows a little Blazer history because of a countryman who played here long ago.

'Fernando Martin was the first Spanish player in the NBA, and he played for the Trail Blazers,' Rodriguez said of the forward who played 24 games with the Blazers in the 1986-87 season. 'Fernando was very well-known in Spain, so people (in Spain) know about the Trail Blazers.'

It has been a second straight big week for the Blazers, the attention-grabber coming Tuesday with news that Joel Przybilla has agreed to sign a five-year contract worth $32 million. Przybilla turned down similar offers from Detroit and San Antonio.

It was about loyalty and faith for Przybilla and his wife, Noelle, who remember Portland as the only team to offer a guaranteed contract two years ago when he was just another free-agent backup center looking for a job.

'It has been a tough two years of losing,' he says, 'but we've made some relationships in Portland. I've lived in other cities, but Portland is not like other places. The Blazers, the way the whole city has embraced us … I respect the fans for that, the way they've taken us in. There is something special about the city.

'When things do start turning around, I want to be a part of that. I truly believe with the moves they've made, with the direction the organization is going, things are turning around.'

Przybilla likes Portland's top two draft picks, LaMarcus Aldrige and Brandon Roy. 'I believe they can be something special in our league,' he says.

And the acquisition of center Raef LaFrentz - in the trade that sent Theo Ratliff to Boston - meets with Przybilla's approval.

'We go back a ways,' Przybilla says. 'On my recruiting visit to Kansas when I was in high school, Raef was my host. He's a good guy and a good player. He can spread the floor because he's a good shooter. Theo and I play similar styles. I can see Raef and me playing together (at the same time) more than Theo and me.'

The Blazers got lucky. The Pryzbillas have Midwestern roots and were looking seriously at Chicago. Had the Bulls not signed Ben Wallace to a four-year, $60 million contract Monday, Przybilla would have been in their sights.

'We were very interested in the Chicago thing,' Przybilla says. 'After (Wallace's signing), we made our decision Monday night. My wife says she's kind of glad Chicago got Wallace.'

But if the Bulls would have offered Przybilla a deal?

'That would have been a tough decision,' he says. 'I'm kind of glad I didn't have to make it.'