Hard to explain his turnaround.

Things couldn’t have looked worse for him in December when all he could do was make a constant fool of himself. His play during that month made the Bargnani of 2007-08 look like an All-Star and he was biggest disappointment of the season at the time. He could do no right, his jumper wasn’t falling, nobody was biting on his fakes, he wasn’t rebounding, wasn’t even boxing out and other than playing decent man-defense he was giving us nothing but migraines. It all changed for him as soon as O’Neal got traded – like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he began justifying his #1 pick status. Well, maybe not #1 but he’s shed himself of the ‘stiff’ label that was plastered all over him.

His summer had resulted in a bulkier 250 pound frame, 25 over the previous year. He had gone through the big man camps, worked with John Lucas and had impressed Jermaine O’Neal in Vegas workouts. It appeared that the Raptors organization had done their best to try and help him get out of his sophomore year funk. The season began with him playing reasonably well in a bench role. Although he suffered through a couple scoreless nights early on, he was making a concerted effort to move inside the three-point line and into the elbow area where he shot over shorter defenders. His game was still strictly perimeter oriented but at least he had moved closer to the rim which was all one could hope for given his disastrous second year.

The rebounding was still a huge concern, he didn’t grab more than five rebounds until November 21st and many were pointing to Nate Robinson and T.J Ford who were both averaging more than him. As November went and December came he started to move away from the paint, for a 16 game stretch he shot under 50% and finished December shooting 34.6%. Forget about driving, he couldn’t even get his three pointer straight, he shot 27.3% from downtown in December and took a lot of heat during the two five game losing streaks in December. Needless to say he wasn’t giving us anything and a couple 6-turnover games late in December completed a forgettable month, one in which the Raptors went 4-12.

Jermaine O’Neal’s acquisition was a vote of non-confidence for Bargnani. The Raptors had traded for someone who played his position and this had to have startled him, but he accepted the role and subscribed to the talk that this didn’t mean a reduced role but one where him, Bosh and O’Neal would split minutes with two of the three being on the court at the same time, something Triano had alluded to in the summer. While Bosh was ridden hard by Sam Mitchell and played 41+ minutes in November, O’Neal and Bargnani played exactly 28.7 minutes in the month. For December (our worst month) Bargnani was at 24.5 while O’Neal averaged 29.5. It’s not like the appointment of Triano was the solution, if anything, Bargnani’s poor play had forced Triano to reduce his minutes and test out whether Jermaine O’Neal could give them anything. Later on we found out that it was towards the end of December that Colangelo had decided to end the O’Neal experiment and perhaps the increase in his minutes could be attributed to showcasing.

If there was one silver lining to the O’Neal trade it is the effect he had on Bargnani. Bargnani spoke highly of the toughness and intensity O’Neal brought which he had taken a shining to. Even though he displayed none of those attributes in 2008 we later found out that the veteran big man had had an effect. Bargnani was temporarily promoted to the starting role after O’Neal went down in late December; this move later turned out to be a permanent transition.

The team’s 7-9 record in January which included a seven game losing streak took us out of the playoff picture but it did produce a new Andrea Bargnani, one which even better than his rookie year version. He averaged 19.8 points and 6.2 rebounds on 49% shooting while hitting 48% from downtown. It’s hard to explain a resurgence of this magnitude but in hindsight I’ll attempt an explanation.

First, his fight came back. Maybe he finally saw the opportunity to usurp O’Neal as the starting center and stepped up his game. Maybe he read too many papers and websites which kept mocking his play, his selection and his attitude and decided enough was enough. Maybe Triano took him aside and had a chat with him, I don’t know what it was but he decided to prove his worth. Second, when things started to go well for him his confidence came back and as we all know, that is a supreme factor in basketball. The fact that he lost his confidence for so long is still worrisome because what if he goes through another terrible 20 day stretch, is the old crappy Bargnani going to return? Judging by his interviews nothing seems to faze the man but results over the last two seasons have proven to be contrary of this belief.

Bosh and O’Neal proved to be too similar to be successful. Both were black holes that couldn’t create good shot opportunities for others and having them on the court alternating post-ups wasn’t working out. Once Bargnani replaced O’Neal in the lineup it meant that another shooter with excellent range was positioned on the perimeter thus spacing the floor. When O’Neal, Bargnani and Bosh were on the court they rarely were able to take advantage of their size to dominate an opponent on the glass or in the paint, instead the ball got stuck and never moved. When Bargnani did get the ball on the perimeter, Bosh and O’Neal were congesting the lane which meant his drive was that much harder. That’s when you saw the hard-dribble and a forced jumper.

Once Bargnani had confidence and floor space to drive, he let his talent take over and played the game in a natural way where he took what the defense gave him. He stopped letting defenders off the hook by forcing him into bad perimeter shots and he punished any switches that saw him covering a shorter man. He didn’t settle for the jumper in 18-foot live-dribble situations and instead drove straight into the paint and got better and better at finishing. He played a lot like Dirk. Let’s compare their third year numbers:

		MIN	FG%	3P%	FT%	STL	BLK	TO	PF	REB	AST	PTS
Bargnani 3rd yr	31.4	.450	.409	.831	0.4	1.2	1.7	3.1	5.3	1.2	15.4
Nowitzki 2nd yr	35.8	.461	.379	.830	0.8	0.8	1.7	3.1	6.4	2.5	17.5
Nowitzki 3rd yr	38.1	.474	.387	.838	1.0	1.2	1.9	3.0	9.2	2.1	21.8

His third year number’s are closer to Nowitzki’s second year more than his third. These numbers make more sense when you consider how the Raptors organization wasted the summer after his rookie year by not giving him any specialized training or coaching. The Raptors expected him to ride his rookie form into next year but the scouts had other things to say. They came back with a book on Bargnani who was still trying to use his rookie year moves to beat them (shooting threes against a defense that didn’t know he could shoot).

The most consistently part of his game has been his individual man-defense. His defensive play against Yao, Howard and even Shaq was solid and you could always count on Bargnani to do a fundamentally solid defensive job on his check. This part of his game deserves an A. Both the fans and Colangelo know that he’s not going to be a great rebounder so we’ve decided to live with it as long as he’s diligent about boxing his man out. There’s no point hammering him for his rebounding as long as he brings the other parts of his game. However, we can hammer him on his help defense, rotations and close-outs. He’s terrible and I don’t know how much to blame that on him or the lack of a system and/or the lack of familiarity with a system. All I know is that his recognition of who to rotate to after the dribble penetration deserves a D. His ability to close-out gets an F. Now this might sound harsh given that he’s 7-foot and not exactly agile when it comes to perimeter defense, but if he’s going to make a living on the perimeter on the offensive end, his perimeter defensive game needs to stay up to task.

What’s next for Bargnani? Simply put, another summer of refining what he learned in the second half of this season so he can make the statistical jump Dirk made in his third year. He has the skill and intelligence to create shots for others and I would like to see his assist numbers improve. He might not be as refined a scorer as Dirk but he’s a much better passer and his stats need to reflect that. As he sees more diverse NBA defenses he’ll have to recognize them and change his attack plan accordingly, he has the intelligence and skill to do that and whether he’ll be able to put it together while not losing his confidence is the only hindering factor towards him and future All-Star.

Andrea, sorry if we were a little rough on you early but frankly, you deserved it. Let’s put the past behind us and make an effort not to regress but to improve. Make us feel that if we lose Bosh it’s totally okay because we have you. You’re the most talented guy on the roster, let’s see it flow through.

This is likely my last post for a week or so as I’m off to Jamaica. I’d tweet from there but the roaming costs would bankrupt a sheikh. Enjoy spring. @raptorsrepublic.

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