With summer dragging on and on and on before the NBA tips off, we’ve decided to initiate a multipart series that will be the definitive look at the best players in the NBA today.

Over lunch at the Outback Steakhouse (word to Steve Irwin), your crack SLAMonline.com staff sat down and ranked the 50 best players in the NBA today. We realize that’s kind of ambiguous, but that’s how basketball is and that’s how we like it. Basically, though, we tried to list the 50 guys we think have the most value to their teams, right now, at this moment. This doesn’t mean they’ll never be traded, and it doesn’t mean they’re due tremendous contract extensions, but it does mean — since value is king in the NBA — that over the next month or so we’ll run down the 50 guys that we think are the 50 best players, right here, right now.

Before long it’ll be time for our annual NBA team previews. Right now it’s time for some law and order…

46. Andrea Bargnani
by J.E. Skeets, from The Basketball Jones

“Always do what you are afraid to do.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t shoot! Yeah, hold on! Look, just take a deep breathe. Count to ten. Find your chi. Do whatever you got to do, but let’s just settle down for a sec, all right?

OK, we cool? Yeah? Good. Now, go back up and read the slant. “We tried to list the 50 guys we think have the most value to their teams, right now, at this moment.” You follow? Okay then…

As Gnarls as this may sound, this year’s #1 draft pick is being slept on. Seriously, Raptors GM(essiah) Bryan Colangelo has made so many moves this summer (see TJ Ford, see Fred Jones, see the European FA invasion), that Andrea — and say it with me now — Barg-NAH-nee, has been sort of lost in the Briscola shuffle.

Now look, I’ll be the first to admit it; the Bargnani-Nowitzki comparisons are lofty. Dirk’s an Überstar, Bargnani’s an Unknown. We know that. But just because the comparisons sound crazy, doesn’t mean they’re unwarranted.

The truth looks obvious: Bargnani does have a lot of Dirk in him. He’s a mobile 7-footer; he can put the ball on the floor; and he’s got the deft — or is it Detlef? — outside touch. (And you thought Team USA had problems with the pick and roll? Just wait until you see Il Mago drain the open jumpers off that pick and fade he loves to run.)

And don’t even start up with that bust talk. Besides not having nearly as much pressure as your average no. 1 pick, how Bargnani really separates himself from the Olowokandis and Kwame Browns of the world is that he’s truly learned the fundamentals of the game. (From the outside in, I might add.) Throw in the fact that he’s played three years plus of competitive ball with fierce bearded men in the second best ball league on the planet, and well…”Bargnani, Top 50″ isn’t all that far-fetched. Deal with it.

(Side note: That Ralph Waldo Emerson … what a quote whore, eh?)