TORONTO - Sam Mitchell was an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks the first time he saw Chris Bosh play. The Bucks were in Toronto for a game late in the 2003-04 season and the Raptors were simply riding out the schedule, their playoff hopes long since dashed.

Yet Bosh, who was a 20-year-old rookie, all arms and legs, was battling hard under the basket against players several sizes larger.

It was in that moment Mitchell realized Bosh was something special.

"He had on two knee braces and you could obviously see he was beat up, and he went out there and played 38 minutes," said Mitchell, now head coach of the Raptors. "We were sitting there on the bench watching him play and we were impressed - season's over and he was playing with two knee braces on, but he was competing.

"That told me right there that this kid had a chance to be good because he was committed."

Three seasons later, Bosh is a bonafide star, earning a spot in the Eastern Conference starting lineup for Sunday's NBA all-star game in Las Vegas.

Behind his efforts, the Raptors have won 10 of their last 12 games and opened up a 4�-game lead over New Jersey atop the Atlantic Division.

Chants of "MVP" when he makes big plays at the Air Canada Centre are becoming increasingly common, something mocked by former Raptors star Vince Carter on Wednesday when his Nets fell 120-109 in Toronto.

Yet there's no doubting Bosh's place among the league's elite.

Bosh leads a trio of Raptors in this weekend's all-star festivities. Italian bigman Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, plus fellow rookie Jorge Garbajosa of Spain, will play in Friday night's rookie-sophomore matchup.

But this weekend is Bosh's time to shine. The six-foot-10 Georgia Tech product is averaging career and team highs of 23.3 points and 10.7 rebounds (for seventh in the league) a night for the surging Raptors (29-24), who lead the Atlantic Division heading into the all-star break.

After enduring a 93-153 record in his first three years in Toronto, Bosh and the Raptors have already won more games this campaign than they did all of last season.

Bosh is a big reason. With his studious demeanour, he's not an in-your-face type of motivator - he rarely raises his voice unless in the heat of the game. Yet he is the undisputed team leader. If the best player sets the tone for a team's work ethic, the Raptors couldn't ask for much better than Bosh.

"Great players, especially high character guys like C.B., tend to affect more than just the on-court performance of their teams," said Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo. "Chris has demonstrated leadership at all levels and has absolutely become the cornerstone of the franchise."

Colango has compared Bosh to Canadian Steve Nash - both are known for their huge capacity for hard work.

Bosh's long hours in the gym continue to pay off. He added a three-point shot to his arsenal this season after working on it over the summer, perfecting the position of his hands on the ball and his stance before releasing it.

"Everybody knows how talented he is, but as teammates, when your best player works just as hard as everybody else if not harder, it sets the bar high for everybody else," said Raptors shooting guard Anthony Parker. "They're looking at him like: if Chris Bosh has to put in extra work, then how much more do I have to do?"

Bosh is a versatile player who can play at both power forward and centre, shoot from outside or put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket.

"His length, athleticism, and quickness make him a matchup nightmare for opponents," said Colangelo.

Morris Peterson is the only current Raptor to have played with Bosh in his rookie season and marvels at the transformation the young player has made to budding NBA star.

"I'm a big believer that you get out what you put in and you get what you deserve," said Peterson. "Everything he's getting he deserves because he's put in every ounce of sweat he's needed to get it."

Bosh earned Eastern Conference player of the month honours in January and the "MVP" chants at home games are beginning to take on a life of their own.

While they may be premature, Bosh doesn't shy away from the challenge. He admits earning the league's highest individual honour has long been a goal, and he believes it's within his grasp.

"It's all on me," Bosh said. "I control my own destiny, it depends on how hard I work. If I continue to work and keep believing in myself, a lot of good things can happen."

Bargnani, meanwhile, continues to develop into the player Colangelo had envisioned when he selected him with the top pick in the NBA draft. The seven-footer is averaging 10.6 points and 3.5 rebounds a game, earned Eastern Conference rookie of month honours for January, and continues to display new facets of game virtually every time on the floor.

Garbajosa, a member of the Spanish team that won gold at last summer's world championships, was part of Colangelo's off-season overhaul that gave the team a distinctive European feel. The Spaniard is averaging 8.5 points and 5.2 rebounds a night.

The Raptors GM is proud of the team's presence at this year's all-star weekend.

"It is great for the Raptors organization to have this kind of representation at the NBA all-star weekend," said Colangelo. "Chris Bosh being voted by the public as an Eastern Conference starter speaks to his worldwide appeal as a bright young star of the NBA, where Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa were voted to the rookie game by the coaches indicating their impact has been felt. These are certainly positive signs for the organization."