No Longer the Bargnigma
The definitive defense of Andrea Bargnani.
I made my case for Bargnani at the beginning of the year. I predicted big things. I wrote that I was shocked to see the newly-sculpted Italian show up for Raptors training camp at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He had obviously spent the summer weight-lifting. I said he would be great this season. Of course, I also thought the Raptors would be a great team. So I am one-for-two, which wouldn’t have served me well in Vegas.
I still feel proud of myself that I predicted big things for Bargnani. And I had hoped to draft him for my team in the Arvydas Sabonis fantasy basketball league, but apparently the team named Il Mago had even higher expectations for the guy and duly drafted him earlier than I thought the Italian should have gone. That is neither here nor there. What is of significance is that I went to the Raptors-Clippers game this past weekend to give the Roman a look-see. True to his enigmatic form, Bargnani did not suit up because of a foot problem. I should have done my research before showing up at the game.
In any case, I did get the chance to speak to the man who found Bargnani, Raptors Assistant General Manager Maurizio Gherardhini. It was he who took the young teen Bargnani from Rome to Treviso, Italy with plans of developing him into a star player in the Italian league. Of course, Gherardhini had been down this road before, investing time and money in NBA flame-outs such as Bostjan Nachbar and Nikoloz Tskitishzivili. That experience would have probably restrained him from predicting incredibly great things for Bargnani.
Jumping forward to the present day, anyone could make a reasonable argument that the kid named Il Mago deserved to be picked first overall. Before you jump on me and yell Brandon Roy, let’s go back to the 2006 Draft.
It wasn’t a great year for top-end talent or depth of talent. An interesting aside I heard later in that year was that very few 2006 second round picks received much guaranteed money and only a precious few received more than one-year deals. The Raptors were looking at Brandon Roy and his questionable knee, LaMarcus Aldridge and his non-existent physique, Adam Morrison and his non-existent physique, his non-existent athleticism and his general lightning-in-a-box personality, and perhaps the where-in-sam-hell-did-he-come-from Tyrus Thomas. You could throw Rudy Gay into that list but he was never going to be picked first overall. I remember vividly a top NBA scout telling me at the time that the word on the street was that Rudy Gay didn’t even really like basketball. That’s the kind of bad rap that kills a kid’s draft value more than even a drug habit. In fairness, I met Rudy before the draft and he came across as being a really nice human being. In fact, he seemed so nice that I remember thinking he mustn’t have a competitive bone in his body.
When you consider the time and place, Bargnani seemed like a decent gamble. He was some 20 years old, seven feet tall and 250 pounds. The scouting report said he was the next Dirk Nowitzki. That he had soft hands and good feet. That he ran the floor well, was a good shot blocker, had a quick release, could catch and shoot well, and had good one-on-one skills. In conclusion, he wasn’t too shabby of a prospect.
While attending the 2006 Reebok Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy, an NBA scout (with no association to the Raptors) remarked that Bargnani was a surefire prospect. He compared the Italian to Lamar Odom.
Today, Bargnani is good for 15 ppg, 5 rpg, 1 bpg and 1 apg. He shoots 41 percent from three, 82 percent from the free throw line and 45 percent from the floor. Those are solid numbers for a third-year player. He hasn’t crossed into the star player territory, but you can’t say that will never happen. He is a big man after all, and they peak later than guards.
After a slow start, Bargnani has had a great 2009, averaging 19.2 ppg and 44.5 percent from three. Those are great numbers. His rebounding isn’t great, but if you ever watch the Raptors, you see that his rebounds come on defense because he isn’t a post player on offense. As such, Bargnani loses rebounds to his great rebounding teammate Chris Bosh (and now Shawn Marion).
You can now add recent signing Pops Mensah-Bonsu to the list of Raptors that can rebound. He has got to be one of the best athletes among post players in the League. Every time he goes to rebound, he nearly decapitates his head on the rim. Every time. Against the Clippers on Sunday, a team which features rebounding king Marcus Camby, Pops could not be stopped. Why the league slept on him is anyone’s guess. There aren’t many tall athletes like him wandering the earth.
In short, there are only so many rebounds, and good teammates aren’t exactly going to fight each other for rebounds. Not that I am apologizing for Bargnani’s 5.4 rebs per in 2009. I just want to bring some perspective to blind analysis of his stats lines and the cliched “but he can’t rebound” criticism laid on the Italian.
On the other side of North America, Brandon Roy has become an NBA All-Star player. He has cemented himself as the best of the ’06 NBA Draft class. His numbers are great: 23 ppg, 4.7 rpg and 5.1 apg. Of course, Roy didn’t have to adjust much when he moved a few hours south to work in Portland. He also didn’t have the stigma of being the number one pick. He enjoyed some anonymity coming into the League as the sixth pick, playing in a city off the beaten trail, and on a team in rebuilding mode. It was a good situation. He could make mistakes, play big minutes and jack shots to his heart’s content. In essence, he got a ton of “reps” in to accelerate the learning process that new players have to go through. Point being, Brandon Roy is a great player in a great situation. Will he get much better? You could argue that he is as good as he will get.
When comparing Bargnani to Roy, it is obvious that Roy is better right now. Will he be an effective player in five years time? Will the knee problems that plagued him in the past rear their ugly head? When he loses a step, will he be effective? He is a guard after all. It has been difficult to watch Iverson’s game go south this year. Guards get old quickly.
On the other hand, big men with shooting skills can play until they just about drop dead. Come on down Robert Horry! More seriously, how sad is it to not see Horry in uniform this year? Bargnani is a year and a few months younger than Roy. He had to adjust to a new culture and language. He had to find his role alongside All-Star Chris Bosh. His first year was probably a wash. And yet Bargnani has always been a much better outside shooter than Roy.
The end-all argument is that the Italian could still turn into Dirk. By the numbers, Dirk wasn’t nearly as good from outside (he shot 38 percent from three in his third year for example) as our man in Toronto. The German just had way more shot attempts and ended up with a better scoring average. In any case, it’s no great jump to suggest that Bargnani could still become a Dirk clone. If that day comes, there will be no discussion about who is better. At that stage, a Roy versus Bargnani argument becomes a Cadillac versus a Lambo argument. Cadillacs are great but they don’t compare.
Now I am not saying that Bargnani is better than Roy. I am just saying there is a reasonable chance that when the two are in the twilight of their careers, Bargnani might just come out on top.
I should also add that Toronto needs to get international players. Chipper Jones’ most recent comments, following his stay in Toronto during the World Baseball Classic, show how Toronto teams have to be more careful than other teams when selecting personnel. It appears as though some American-bred athletes are still lukewarm in their feelings about playing in the city. Rather than debate the merits of this line of thinking, there are probably some people in the Raptors organization that would rather avoid the situation entirely. Instead, they might rather focus on drafting anyone but Americans. If the choice were between equally-talented players, one from Europe and the other from the USA, why run the risk of the American bemoaning the short supply of Yoo-hoo in Canada or the lack of American history on the curriculum at their kid’s school?
A friend of a friend of mine ran into Jose Calderon on the street in Toronto some weeks back. This friend of a friend, and I swear to God this story is true, said to Calderon, “I am a huge Raptors fan and I would be honored if you let me buy you a drink.” The Spaniard accepted the invite and they went into a nearby pub. As an aside, going for a pint with your team’s point guard that you bumped into on the street is exceptionally cool. From what Calderon told this friend of a friend, he is very happy in Toronto. Maybe it was the alcohol talking but I’d suggest that European, Asian and African players enjoy life in the cosmopolitan Toronto as much as or more than they would in Memphis, Sacramento or most other US cities. These cultural factors are yet more reasons for why Bargnani was a good pick for the Toronto Raptors. At the very least, I would suggest that if an Italian complained about the polenta or pasta in Toronto, it would be the same complaint he would make in Dallas or Miami.
Enough of my dime store analysis. I spoke with Assistant GM Gherardhini and he had some interesting comments on his Italian protege. If you think I am happy to see Bargnani play well, all because of some inconsequential predictions I made in October, then wait to you see how the Raptors management feels about the player’s development.
SLAM: What do you attribute Andrea’s success to this year?
Maurizio Gherardhini: I think Andrea, the way he has been playing of the last three months, it was the way we dreamed of him playing. It is a somehow different way of playing compared to the way he started to the season this year. I think it all has to do with more confidence. He plays with more ease on the court. As he grows as a player, he grows in his knowledge of opponents and what works and what doesn’t work against a particular player. His personal scouting of opponents has gotten much better. He also feels the confidence that the team is giving him to play his game. He now has the green light from his teammates to do certain things. The game becomes much easier in this situation.
Coach Jay Triano has been very good with him as well. Andrea has had the chance to work over the past summer with Gordon Hebert and his strength coach. He has put on muscle and will continue to put on muscle and gain strength so that he can become a better post player and battle for rebounds in the post. Clearly that is the part of his game that he needs to work on. If you look at the way he plays facing the rim, shooting and putting the ball on the floor, we are talking about one of the best young players in the League. He has also shown that he is a consistent shot blocker and the more he gains in strength, the more he will be able to maintain his position and get his hand up to alter and block shooters.
SLAM: Will he become a decent defensive player?
MG: Andrea has a nose for shot blocking. He has always had good timing, even when he was much younger. He just needs to get stronger physically to be able to stop an opponent in the post. He has areas where he needs more time but he is still just 23 years old. He is getting older, more mature. He has a better knowledge of everything and that is when a player improves his game. He will get better defensively as he gets stronger and more knowledgeable about the game and the League.
SLAM: It seemed as though he had developed a following of people in the media and among the fans who doubted his ability. Did that doubt creep into his own opinion of himself?
MG: I think it is good for him to get the feeling that the fans and the media are no longer doubting his abilities. Those doubts are no longer there. He is showing that he could have been the number one in the draft or one of the top young players in the game today. So that is a good feeling for him as well.
SLAM: Does his success vindicate the gamble that the organization took when they drafted him, because you and your colleagues have received criticism for your decision to draft him first overall.
MG: Well it shows that what all of us at the Raptors were thinking made sense. That Bryan Colangelo’s unexpected decision to go with an Italian seven-footer made a lot of sense. And now Andrea is proving Bryan right and obviously we are happy that this has happened.
SLAM: How much of this experience with Andrea shows how difficult it is to evaluate a young player with a significant amount of time?
MG: It will always be like this. There is always risk. There are areas that are unknown when you select a player. You hope that everything clicks in the way you have been studying the player. But sometimes it doesn’t always work that way. It takes time. It takes time for a big man to mature and develop into a player. It is something that we need to be patient with young players and let them grow into the type of player they can be. You need to understand the way they are. You need to accept their mistakes. If you adopt that approach, the maturation process is much quicker and much more rewarding and that is what has happened with Andrea.
Even as the Raptors wrap up a sorry season that had been filled with expectation, it is safe to say that things are looking up. My fearless prediction? Next year the Raptors will be a force!
As for Bargnani, perhaps the Nowitzki comparisons are too extreme. Recalling my time in Treviso, that NBA scout said Bargnani was Lamar Odom. He was quite confident of the comparison. Both players have been called enigmatic and aloof. Both are big guys who can shoot the ball and put the ball on the floor. Both seem to possess a tonne of talent and yet both succeed in underwhelming.
I came across a Lamar Odom quote the other day that struck me as oddly familiar. After he scored 28 points and grabbed 17 rebounds to lead the Lakers to a road win against the Cavs on February 8th, 2009, Odom said “I never play the game for stats. It’s all about winning.”
At the Raptors training camp in October, I asked Bargnani what sort of stats he wanted to put up this season. He couldn’t answer the question. All he could say was, “I want to win games by playing my best. I just want to help my team win.” It didn’t seem forced. Try as I might to rephrase the question, Bargnani just couldn’t talk about individual statistics.
My 2010 prediction for Bargnani? He will fulfill that NBA scout’s prediction and become the Italian Lamar Odom.
The bar is set. I am already looking forward to bragging about my prediction again next season.