It’s a slow day here in Dubai so I’ll continue with the Crosshair series by getting to Andrea Bargnani.

He was the key to our season and the linchpin that would determine continued success or regression, as his season would go so would the Raptors’. At the outset of the year we were relying on key production from two players: Bosh and Bargnani. Bosh delivered, Bargnani didn’t. The entire season went by with someone like Ford, Calderon or Moon trying to up their production to compensate for Bargnani’s regression. After every decent game by Bargnani (few and far between), we looked at it as ‘the sign’ of him coming out of his funk but it always turned out to be a mirage in the desert that was his season.

Bargnani declined in almost every major statistical category: minutes, points, rebounds, field goal percentage, three-point shooting percentage, steals and blocks. The two statistics that defined his seasons were his impotent rebounding (3.7/gm) and his horrid 38.6% field goal percentage. After rebounding at a 3.9 clip last season, one would’ve naturally expected him to improve that figure given his 7-foot frame and the years worth of experience he had gained. After shooting 42.7% in his rookie year, one would’ve expected that number to either improve or stay on par, but the significant 5% drop in that critical area proved to be the reason for his worthlessness. The one thing he was marketed to do well was shoot the three and shockingly he ended the season shooting 34.5% from downtown. If there ever was a case where the numbers reflected a player’s season, this was it.

The most disappointing aspect of Bargnani’s game is how he refuses to use the advantage given to him by God. He doesn’t take smaller players into the post and bails them out by shooting a jumper or that low-percentage fake-the-drive-pull-up-for-the-j move which is simply too fast and rushed to be as effective as it can be. Against slower players who have trouble moving laterally, Bargnani settles for the jumper instead of driving to the rim and using his quickness advantage. Once again, he bails the defense out by not taking advantage of his supposed strength and not exploiting their definite weakness. His basketball IQ when the ball is in his hands appears to be as low as Darius Miles and every decision he makes is unnatural and forced. It’s not a surprise that close to 80% of shots are jumpers, this might even be acceptable as long as you’re hitting them but when you’re shooting them at a low clip, why not work inside-out?

Explaining his regression is simple and can be summed up in one sentence: The scouts figured him out and he didn’t improve his game to counter them. This happens in every sport, a player has a good rookie season but struggles in his second year as coaches and scouts adapt to what they were doing. The ‘sophomore slump’ is common but avoidable if you work at your game over the off-season. Andrea was busy playing for Italy to focus on these things and team management didn’t do enough to bring him along over the summer. Bargnani thought that he could just camp out at the three-point line again and defenders would play him for the drive while he launched jumpers in their face. Instead, defenders crowded him and forced him to put it on the deck which he couldn’t, the end result was him desperately wanting to shoot the jumper but having no idea how to get open. Rushed shots, forced shots and plain old bad shots earmarked Bargnani’s season because he was never able to keep the defense honest and never proved that he could make them pay for playing him tight.

The decline in his three-point shooting was the result of him rushing his already questionable shots because of the fear of the defense catching up to him and taking this momentary clean look away. It was like a child trying to finish off the chocolate bar in one bite before his parents could find out that he was eating candy. When his shots did go in and he did get hot, you just knew that there was no way he could sustain this ridiculous shooting percentage for more than a game. So it happened that every good Bargnani game was followed by 6 or 7 sub-par performances where he had trouble staying in the game because of missed defensive assignments, failure to box out his man and early foul trouble.

In Europe with Benetton Treviso his rebounding average was 2.0, 5.4 and 7.1, not exactly great rebounding numbers for a center, so its almost unfair to expect him to improve on those in the NBA. He is by every account a finesse player that has shown that he can’t be counted on to bang the defensive boards. His pathetic (and that is the appropriate word) 3.7 rebounds are shocking but not surprising, they may be disappointing but not unexpected. The desire to rebound can’t be taught, it has to come from within, a player has to want to get in to the paint, use elbows, box-out, be physical and snatch one away from the would-be offensive rebounder. In addition to lacking the technique to rebound, Bargnani also lacks the desire which makes him a complete non-factor on the boards. When your starting center is that soft on the boards, the production from everybody else on the frontline and the team has to be outstanding to make up for his deficiency. Although Bosh did his best to pick up the slack, we don’t have nearly enough physical down-and-dirty type players that can compensate for the rebounding hole left by Bargnani.

Consider this, one of the biggest problems the Raptors had this year was giving up too many second chance points through offensive rebounds. We averaged 40.07 rebounds a game which was third worst in the league only better than Sacramento and Miami – both lottery teams. If Bargnani had averaged 3 more rebounds a game taking his tally up to 6.7 (something in-line with Dirk Nowtizki), we’d average 43.07 rebounds a game which would’ve been good for 8th in the league!

A word needs to be said about Bargnani’s man-defense: It’s OK and passable. People often define it as being “great” which it is far from. He has a propensity to pick up two quick fouls early in the game in one-on-one situations relegating him to the bench which automatically means he’s not a great man-defender. Bargnani’s gotten better at keeping his arms straight in the air and using his size to bother offensive players but that does not come close to meaning he’s a lock-down defender. He’s gotten better at using his feet but it only works well when he’s mentally in to the game and playing with a fiery attitude, something which is often not there.

In my humble opinion playing him at center isn’t asking much from him. Yes, technically speaking its not the position he played in Europe but is it really that much different than a power forward? In the NBA the job description for a PF and a C is practically the same, there’s not nearly enough differences to say that Bargnani would’ve been more effective at the PF. I find that excuse for his play to be very lame and a sign of clutching on to straws to justify his performance. If he wants to play in the NBA, it’ll have to be at the 4/5 spots, doesn’t matter which one. The one position he can’t play is the small forward as Sam Mitchell’s ill-timed and failed experiment in the playoffs showed. Bargnani just doesn’t have the lateral quickness to keep up with the athletic NBA SFs who can expoit him at will.

So what do we do with Bargnani? Bryan Colangelo says to judge him after 5 years, Chuck Swirsky once replied to my email and told me to give him 3 years. I’ll go with Chuck. Bargnani has a busy off-season planned where he’ll work on the fundamentals of the game, if we see a meaningful improvement next year in his point production and defensive game, we should hang on to him. If the improvement is negligible and if he has regressed, there isn’t enough time for us to wait on him and we should ship him off as soon as his trade value reaches a point where we can get a warm-blooded body for him. He’s only 22 and might be a late-bloomer but will Colangelo actually wait till the end of the 2010-11 season before deciding Bargnani’s fate? I highly doubt it.

We have seen glimpses of what he might be able to do if he uses all his tools to full effect, plays with a high level of intensity and decides to be a factor on the glass. You might be able to see signs of greatness in him mainly because of his versatility but similar signs could also be seen in Kwame Brown. It might be too early to group Bargnani with Brown but unless he shows the Raptors that he’s more than an average three-point shooter, he’s going to end up being a bust like Brown. Bryan Colangelo jumping the gun and picking him #1 in the draft didn’t help Bargnani and it was unfair to him. There is a zero chance that he’ll be the best player coming out of the ’06 draft and we should all accept that and move on. Hating on Bargnani for being the #1 pick never made sense to me, its not like he chose to go #1, it was Colangelo that incorrectly deemed him worthy of being a top selection. Colangelo went out of his way to draft Bargnani and against conventional wisdom so if Bargnani ends up being a disappointment, blame the GM well before you point to the player.

Personally, I’d settle for Bargnani being a Mehmet Okur type player.

Back to regular blogging starting on Tuesday, will continue with the Crosshair series as time permits. Here’s another crazy fact about Dubai: 80% of the population consists of foreign workers. Yes, that’s right, foreign nationals outnumber local residents 4:1. The locals are filthy rich and are well protected by the government which has written every single law in their favor.

Later!