The Eternal City
Andrea Bargnani is exactly what the Raptors need.
by Greg Dole
February 16th, 2011: It is billed as the biggest sports night of the year in Toronto, which is somewhat of a sad commentary for the fourth largest city in North America.
The Toronto Raptors are playing host to the Miami Heat. Chris Bosh is back in the building he called home for seven seasons. He enjoyed great personal success but never much in the way of team success. Fact is, the Raptors were a forgettable team with Bosh as the leader.
Taking the mantle as the face on the front page of the Raptors media guide is the Roman Andrea Bargnani. Wow. While Bosh may indeed be overrated, the Eternal City’s finest is a far cry from the Texan who does a mean impression of a redneck car salesman. The Eternal City is Rome, by the way.
Perhaps feeding off the spurned Toronto sporting faithful, the Raptors come out strong and put up a nice lead on the Heat. Each time the ball comes to Bargnani, he shows great confidence by not hesitating to shoot or put the ball on the floor. By the end of the first quarter, the Italian is 4 of 9 from the field for 10 points. Bosh has 6.
While one quarter does not make a player, Bargnani stands up nicely to Bosh. And in the larger sample size that is the regular season, “Il Mago” has shown that he can lose just as effectively as Bosh did during his years in Toronto.
I think Bosh’s great weakness in Toronto was his inability to hit big shots. While I freely admit this is a lazily drawn conclusion with no real evidence to support it other than an ever-expanding gut feeling, I just remember Bosh missing on game-winning shots. Bosh has always struck me as being too cerebral a player. Instead of surrendering himself on the court to basketball instinct, Bosh seems to always be thinking.
And on this last point, Bosh confirms my opinion when he says in the post-game press conference that he was affected by the boos of Toronto crowd. Are you kidding me? Your man The Bron has been practically demonized since The Decision and you let yourself get affected by the idiot boo-birds in Toronto who feign surprise that you took your talents to the pleasures of South Beach to ride caboose on the LeBron-Wade Train? Focus, man.
Bargnani, on the other hand, seems to possess the blind confidence that wins games. Or rather may someday win games. He is oblivious – the triumph of the unfettered mind. Without muchoutside noise affecting him, he is unrestricted in his play. He has no basketball conscious. It’s like he lacks a personal gauge to remind himself when his shooting if off. And so there is nothing stopping him. I predict a 50 point game from him before the year is done. Maybe two.
By the looks of the Raptors’ record, Bargnani will need more of that blind confidence to start wracking up double u’s. Yet I find myself constantly defending Bargnani and I am not about to stop.
Last weekend, before the Raptors game against the Los Angeles Clippers, I found myself listening to a panel of sports pundits who were critiquing the Italian’s game. The comments were justified: the critics said that he needs to improve his defense and his rebounding.
The game starts and Bargnani shows some polished skills on the offensive end, passing from the high post to a baseline cutter for an easy layup. He then proceeds to score at will against the Clips.
On defense, it appears as though Bargnani has a bounce in his step. On this night, he seems motivated to help his team get stops but it is to no avail. He has a hard time stopping anyone. On rebounds, even when he looks set to pounce on the ball careening from the rim, Bargnani hardly clears the ground.
Instantly I am reminded of all the tall and un-athletic white guys that I have seen play in my life. And I remember how they could neither jump nor move laterally. And how I felt athletic in comparison, which says everything.
Technically, Bargnani is an athlete. But on the spectrum of athleticism, he is much closer to the typical tall white guy who plays lunch buckets than he is to the average NBA player. So I don’t think we can ever expect him to play defense like a pro. There is too much empirical evidence showing how un-athletic white guys have failed as defenders.
As Chuck Daly (may peace be upon him) sagely noted, give me the best five athletes and I’ll win the game. It should not be amazing how great athletes can be just that much better at defending and rebounding than guys like me.
I am not sure that it is sane to even expect Bargnani to ever become a reasonable defender.
On the rebounding front, Bargnani could obviously be better. But do the Raptors want him on the baseline positioning himself for the inevitable rebounds that will come from letting Sonny Weems and company let it fly from long distance? Or would the Raptors be better served with Bargnani picking and popping from beyond the arc? Does anyone even care?
Following the Raptors victory over the Clippers, I wait to speak with Bargnani. I tell him that last year I wrote a piece justifying his first overall draft position. I say I wrote that Brandon Roy’s knees would obviously blowout in short order. The Italian seems oddly pleased and instantly gets the reason I have pulled him aside for a few minutes.
This season, he is becoming an offensive force.
“So it’s sort of like in your face for you,” concludes a smiling Bargnani. “That’s nice.”
He gets it. And he seems like a reasonably intelligent guy, which would lead one to believe that he has long sensed some need to justify his first pick designation.
Back to the game against the Heat. The big Italian is playing like a scoring champion. He takes Bosh inside and then outside and schools him soundly. He later hits a long three with Bosh all over him. And then he takes Erick Dampier into the post and casually flips a hook shot over him. And before you know it, the Raptors are in the game with two minutes to go.
At that moment, I look around the press box and say to no one in particular, “I can’t believe I’m saying this but the Raptors have gotta get the ball to Bargnani. He’s unstoppable.” No one disagrees.