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Araujo has progressed a long way to aid BYU

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PROVO — Rafael Araujo, the BYU basketball player that Cougar coach Steve Cleveland has repeatedly labeled "a work in progress" is progressing quite nicely.

Particularly so over the past half-dozen games as the Cougars reach the midway point of the 2002-03 season —Araujo's first year playing at the Division I level.

During the recent six-game stretch, the 6-foot-11 Brazilian has averaged 17.8 points on 45-of-73 shooting — for 61.7 percent — and 11.3 rebounds, plus super-sized contributions in assists, steals and a defensive presence that extends well beyond the key.

"We've always talked about him being a work in progress," Cleveland said. "There's still slippage in his game at times — he's going to have to work through it." But work is the least of Cleveland's concerns, since Araujo is often the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave, all the time working on personal skills and team development with assistant coaches and teammates. And that work and focus has had obvious results in Araujo's game.

"I have more confidence in myself — I know what I'm doing," he said. "And the team gives me a lot of confidence, too."

Basketball is a vehicle that Araujo has ridden on the road from Brazil to BYU — with stopovers in Yuma, Ariz., and Indianapolis. And it's a road that he hopes ends at the destination of his dreams — a professional career, perhaps even in the NBA.

Not only tall for his age but baby-faced and admittedly chubby through his late teens, Araujo started playing basketball in soccer-crazed Sao Paulo at the age of 6, reaching 6-foot-3 by time he turned 14. Recalling that he was the target of ridicule when others found out he was a basketball player, Araujo played as much soccer as he could on the side and even took a couple of years off at one point to try his hand at volleyball.

However, he found his niche on the hardwood, playing on pro-aligned youth club teams as a teenager and making Brazil's under-21 national team. Araujo figured the United States held his best option for development and a potential professional career in basketball, and he opted to accept a scholarship from Yuma's Arizona Western College just as Brazilian professional teams started to express interest.

With his family unable to help him much financially, he sold his car to scrape up enough money for an airline ticket from Sao Paulo and a few extra dollars as pocket change as he made his way to Arizona's western desert.

The first year in Yuma was the hardest — to class, to the gym and back to the dorm, with the loneliness of weekends particular hard on a teary Araujo. Outgoing at home in Brazil, Araujo recalled becoming an introvert of sorts that first year because of his limited communications.

BYU made early inroads — Araujo remembers meeting assistant coach Dave Rose at a Phoenix tournament his freshman year, with a handshake having to suffice for the Brazilian's inability to speak much English.

Also early in his Yuma days, he met his future wife, Cheyenne, who for the first few days knew little of his basketball background or desires. Growing up in San Diego and speaking some Spanish, she was able to help bridge Araujo's communication gap.

By his sophomore season at AWC, Araujo became a highly sought prospect, averaging 17.9 points and 10.7 rebounds and earning second-team NJCAA All-America honors while leading the Matadors to a 28-3 record and No. 6 national ranking. BYU beat out the others courting Araujo's services — the Cougars had an obvious need for immediate inside help, he had appreciated BYU's early attention, and his wife's LDS Church membership was a big plus as well.

Even before he played his first minute at the Marriott Center, Araujo got a taste of a higher level of basketball as a member of the Brazilian National Team that played in the 2002 World Basketball Championships last summer in Indianapolis.

A late injury opened up a roster spot, with Araujo earning a last-minute invite. And while he didn't play in close games against the likes of Turkey, Puerto Rico, Angola, Spain and Argentina, he did end up with limited garbage time in lopsided affairs against Lebanon and Yugoslavia and follow-up games against Puerto Rico and Spain.

It was the latter game he remembers best, facing NBA starter Pau Gasol and finishing with decent numbers: 4-of-7 shooting, 3-of-6 free throws, five offensive rebounds, seven total boards, four personals, an assist and 11 total points. What makes those numbers even more notable is that he played all of 14 minutes.

Just as important for Araujo as the practicing and playing with Team Brazil in the fierce physicality of international basketball was rubbing shoulders with international standouts and NBA stars. Mention the 2002 Worlds, and he's more apt to talk about his Kodak moments with China's Yao Ming and Germany's Dirk Nowitzki — two of the NBA's hottest international stars — than talk about his own game.

The Cougars now are reaping the result of Araujo's summer internship on the international level as well as the extensive focus of the BYU coaching staff in preseason practice. They have enhanced the Brazilian's nucleus of existing skills as an aggressive rebounder and a decent defender with good, quick feet.

He's shown a deft shooting touch and a rare propensity as a post player who can pass the ball. He's also demonstrated a tendency to pick up the personal fouls — often away from the basket — and a need to improve his free-throw shooting.

"If he can continue to consistently be a scorer and a rebounder and have that presence offensively, it makes us a better team," said Cleveland, adding that "when you get a consistent post presence that you can count on, it makes us a more complete team."

E-MAIL: taylor@desnews.com