by Gregory Dole

Here in Ottawa, Canada, the Toronto Raptors opened their training camp at Carleton University. It created quite a stir among the University students, many of whom can be seen jockeying for position to peer through the cracks in the doors into Carleton’s Alumni Hall in the hopes of catching some NBA basketball. It’s a bit difficult, as the crack staff at Carleton have covered up every possible sight line onto the court.
Jermaine O’Neal looked good during his catch and shoot drill from about 15 feet out. He seems to have good mobility. Just the thought of both him and Chris Bosh providing high percentage offense for the Raps has got me thinking big for this year’s edition. Those two are an easy 40 ppg combined, and that’s on an average night out. Gone are the days of Vince Carter and his low shooting percentages. If you believe in math–and by math I’m talking about having post players who can score near the rim–you’ve got to like the Raptors’ chances this year. Of course, there’s a reason they play the game, so I’ll leave math to the students.

If there is a story today, it’s got to be Bargnani. The kid looks totally different. He sounds the same, still seems very aloof, but he looks different. He is actually bordering on becoming one of those muscle-bound, stereotypical Rocky Balboa types you’d run into in Jersey (or Woodbridge, Ontario), yelling out “Adrian” and the like. You know, one of those “how much ya bench” types. If he keeps growing this way, he’ll be Andrea “the Beast” Bargnani. I wonder if he adopted some Rocky protocol for his training, running up the Spanish steps in Rome and chasing around chickens to improve footwork in the post.

He’s shown flashes of brilliance in the past, sometimes with his shooting and other times with strong cuts to the rim and authoritative dunks. Yes, I’m a Bargnani apologist. He’s young, he needed time to adjust to a different game, post players take years to come into their prime, Dirk Nowitzki took a few years as well, etc. etc. I’ve made all these excuses for a player who doesn’t even give a good interview. Why bother? Because Bargnani is going to make Colangelo look like a genius. Just like Steve Nash did. Just like Barbosa did. Just like Garbajosa did for a little while. And so on.

If the Raptors are to become a big time team in the NBA, Bargnani is going to have to play a significant role. He’ll probably be the first big off the bench and be called on to log decent minutes. If Bargnani becomes Dirk, everybody in the East will be playing for second place. And if I had done some other things right in life, I wouldn’t be a freelance writer.

Coach Sam didn’t have much to say but, mind you, I wasn’t asking many questions. Sam has a way about him that actually recalls those “real” Raptors in Jurassic Park. I half-imagined him lunging over and biting the head off the young guy who writes for the National Post newspaper. Just because. And just as that mental image passed through my brain, Sam threw out some gem about strangling a reporter and what the reporter’s wife would be saying. Good times.

Sam is done cussing for good, and he isn’t going to let the reporters get to him. That was how he opened up his chat with the assembled media. He seems in high spirits after the practice.

“Jermaine was good. He had a cramp, and that’s about it. We are going to need to hydrate him. I had to stop practice early because they were all going really hard. We have twelve guys. They are getting all the playing in they want. All that crying about playing, they are getting to play as much as they want. This is what it is.”

As far as pointing out players in particular, he first mentioned Bargnani, saying that his play has been noteworthy. Duly noted.

“Andrea was good, although it would be unfair to all the guys to say just him. After the first two days, I can’t ask any more of Bargnani. Attitude, effort, the way he has played, I can’t ask any more of him. Not one thing.”

When asked if Sam could see Andrea putting his height to good use in the low post, he replied: “We have four bigs and they all got to get down. He’s got to get down in that post and play and he’s been doin’ it.” Doin’ it. You have got to love the spin Sam puts on things. He’s the funky coach, straight out of some James Brown show. Sam Mitchell deserves more press. He should go into broadcasting when he’s finished coaching.

Sam went on to point out the play and character of new Raptor Will Solomon. “Just the simple fact that he was looking to take less money (to play for the Raptors as opposed to going back to Europe) told me everything. I asked him why he wanted to take less money. He said he wanted to play in the NBA.” We’ll see if that was a wise financial move on Will’s part. None of us are getting any younger. Somewhere David Stern is cackling.

Over to the side, stretching upside down, and oblivious to his coach’s words of praise, was Bargnani. I took the opportunity to speak with him.

Andrea Bargnani: I did a lot of practice by myself this summer. I lifted weights.

Gregory Dole: Are you motivated to show the basketball world who you really are? To change the impression of who you are as a player?

AB: It’s not really about the right impression. I am very motivated to play better this year.”

GD: You are obviously very young. You came into the League at a young age. When do you think you will hit your stride as a player?

AB: That’s a nice question. I can’t predict the future. I have to do my best today and tomorrow and after we will see what happens.

GD: Where are you looking to improve?

AB: To be more physical. Help my team to win more games. Develop my low post game. Rebounding.

There you have it. The big Bargnigma. If he was trying to keep his cards close to his chest, he did a good job. I may have to reevaluate my high hopes for the guy.

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I made my way over to Jermaine O’Neal, who, for the time being, all is happy-happy in Raptorland. Jermaine O’Neal gives us the scoop.

GD: What is your first impression of your new team?

Jermaine O’Neal: I love it man. I love it. It’s great. Everything about it is great. Sometimes you think the transition is going to be tougher than usual, but it’s been sweet. The organization has done a great job in extending their hand to me and my family. The guys in the locker room have made me feel right at home. I have not felt at any point since I arrived in town have I felt like I was the new guy.

GD: What do you think this team is capable of now that you are in the fold?

JO: Well, as long as we continue to work and believe that we can be one of the best teams in the League, then, being one of the best teams in the conference doesn’t say much to me. Being one of the best teams in the League says a lot because this is a tough league and we know what the western conference can do. But if we continue to work, continue to create that swagger that we are going to outplay every team every time we step on the court, I think we can be a great team. I think with the leadership we have on this team, with myself, Bosh and Jose and in general, everyone on this team seems to be accountable. I think the sky is the limit for this team.

GD: How is the practice going with some of the coaches getting involved now because of a smaller group at training camp?

JO: Coach Alex was breathing real hard during practice banging against the younger guys. It is great working with Alex because, I don’t know if you guys know it, but I worked as his camps when I was younger, and I have always looked up to him and admired him. To get an opportunity to work with him now is just great.

GD: As far as frontcourt tandems, you and Bosh stack up among the best in the NBA. How is it to be in a situation where you play alongside another great post player?

JO: That was one of the key reasons why I came here. I know what Chris can do. He can score inside and outside. He’s very quick. He’s a lefty and I am a righty, which is very, very important. He can play on both sides of the box just as I can so we are very interchangeable. It’s not like you have to stick one guy on one side of the box and the other on the other side of the box. We can move around and the plays have been scripted that way to take advantage of that. It’s been very impressive and very, very exciting to practice and to watch, to watch it all. All the guys are excited. I don’t know how it has been in the past but these guys expect to be good this year. And when you expect to be good, you are going to be good.

GD: What do you and Bosh need to work on as a tandem in the post?

JO: The biggest thing with me and Chris is to not overpass. We need to find each other and get each other involved. We are trying to learn how to play with each other and that will come with time. I can guarantee we will be ready to roll as far as regular season games are concerned.

GD: How important is confidence? The power of positive thinking and that sort of thing.

JO: Confidence is everything. Those are the perfect ingredients to being a successful team. And it’s like I told the team in the meeting, I have been on a couple conference finals teams, I have been on the best record team in the NBA so I have seen it happen. We in Toronto have the talent to do it. But a lot of teams have a lot of talent. The question is do we have the dedication and the commitment to do the preparation to take this team to the next level. I think we are capable of dedicating ourselves. We have had five great practices so far. Guys are very focused and very vocal, really into it, really pushing each other, supporting each other. When guys get tired, we are all cheering each other on. So that is all really important but it’s early. We have got to continue to do that and we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot to do to compete with the Bostons, Detroits and LA Lakers of the league. We just have to keep working with it.

GD: Who in this crew of Raptors has surprised you?

JO: There are quite a few guys. Will Solomon has been surprising; his quickness has been off the meter. I’ve worked out with Andrea, so I know what he can do. We all know what Chris can do. Kris Humphries has been a very physical presence. Jose is very quick. All the guys have been great. I am new to the team so I have only ever played against them, but actually playing with them has made me impressed by the basketball knowledge of these guys.

GD: So is it fair to say you see great possibilities for this team this year?

JO: Oh absolutely. I saw it before I even got here. Now to get an opportunity to actually play with these guys, workout with these guys and now getting into camp and getting to understand the basketball knowledge these guys have, it’s been great. I feel very, very excited and very, very positive that this is going to be a great year.

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The Raps went back to Europe to look for solid rotation players this past off-season, having found great success in signing guys like Jorge Garbajosa and Anthony Parker. This time around, Colangelo and company signed Will Solomon, an American who had been lighting up the Greek, Israeli and Turkish years over the past six years. Three days into Raptors training camp, the reviews have come in. Solomon is proving that he belongs in the League and will provide some much-needed depth at guard for the team.

GD: Coach Mitchell praised you for your agreeing to take a big pay cut to come back to the NBA after having made a big name for yourself in Europe. Why did you leave all that money in Europe for the NBA?

Will Solomon: One of my goals was to come back to the NBA and fulfill the goals I have had in the NBA. I have been overseas for the past six years making great money to support my family and myself. So money really isn’t the issue right now. It’s about being the best basketball player I can be at the highest level and the NBA in my mind is the best level of basketball in the world.

GD: Why the Raptors?

WS: I met with Coach Mitchell. We had a lunch and talked about my goals and his goals and a lot of things. We were really on the same page. As a player with the road I have taken, I really appreciate the road that Coach Mitchell took in his career both overseas and making it in the NBA. I think he really respects the game and the players. He came out working hard and proved that it is all about hard work. That is something I have to do and that is something that I have been doing.

Coming back to the NBA, I wanted to be on a team with a bunch of guys who have the target of winning an NBA championship. So that is where this organization was a good fit for me. They have good success of bringing over overseas players, such as AP, Calderon, Garbajosa so I think I can continue in that line of having success like those before me here in Toronto.

GD: Did you have a lot of teams coming to talk to me after your success over the past several years in Europe?

WS: Yeah, I had a few. The Wizards and a few other teams expressed their interest in me but they weren’t situations that I was fond of, where I didn’t think that I fit. Making the money I was making overseas, why leave that on the table to go do something that you don’t know if it is going to work out in your favour.

GD: It has been a busy summer of established NBA players going to Europe. With your experience over in Europe, were you surprised by this development?

WS: I wasn’t surprised. You know I saw how much European basketball has grown just in the past six years that I was over there. It has grown at a really high level. It really isn’t too far behind the NBA. And with the financial aspects of the game in Europe, you know players are making good money and they aren’t buried on the bench in the NBA. They are playing some thirty minutes a game; they are one of the starters, the stars and faces of the teams over in Europe. You know, most players in the NBA don’t play in their hometown anyway, so they can only go home in the off-season anyways. With that in mind, going over to Europe is similar and it is really hard to beat what Europe has to offer.

GD: Is it a gratifying thing to be validated as a starter in Europe, that maybe you missed when you were on the bench for the Grizzlies in your first stint in the NBA and maybe you will miss in your new role with the Raptors?

WS: Well, that is something you are always going to miss in leaving Europe. You might not be a starter and you won’t be playing 35 minutes a game, and in my case, making the money that I was making in Europe. For sure you are going to miss it but playing basketball, especially at this level, you are going to have to take different approaches to the game. My approach here is not the same approach that I took in Europe. I had to prepare myself in Europe as that guy, that player that all eyes were all focused on. I have to now prepare myself in a different way, doing different things to help the basketball team to be better.

GD: You were over in Europe for six years. You are a bit of an expert on the current state of basketball in Europe. Where would you recommend playing in Europe? Where would you recommend not playing in Europe?

WS: Really, I don’t even follow the not-so-great places. The places I have been to include Greece, Turkey and Israel. So they were all excellent for me. I had a great career over there and I just enjoyed basketball.

GD: What stuck out as something you won’t forget from your experience in Europe?

WS: Just the communication barrier. It was a constant. That tells you a lot about yourself when you can go to another country and adjust to whatever situation it is. Adjusting to their way of living and growing with it is something that I had to do. Communicating and getting by takes on a whole new significance, even on the basketball court. That as well takes a lot of getting used to. Not all my teammates always spoke English and yet we had to learn how to play together and co-exist on and off the court.

GD: What was your favorite place?

WS: Istanbul, Turkey. That was definitely it. I played there three years and I really enjoyed. I also enjoyed playing in Israel.

GD: Where were the fans crazier? Israel is known for its fans.

WS: Israeli fans love Maccabi Tel Aviv. That’s their team. It’s like the Lakers in the US or even the Raptors in Canada. Maccabi is a wonderful place to play, they are very professional. That is one of the main clubs in Europe and I enjoyed it. The Turkish fans are a little wilder than the Israeli fans. They are diehard fans in Turkey. They have three guys in Turkey and they just basketball in Turkey. We had some 15,000 fans every game. We had them screaming and yelling every game. Our team colors were yellow and blue and the crowd was just a sea of yellow and blue during the games. You have to enjoy that atmosphere. Every game you have to enjoy it. Europe was just a great experience for me.