Mitchell demands unity

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

LAS VEGAS -- Andrea Bargnani may not speak perfect English, but the big Italian does understand how to win friends and influence people.

Bargnani wore No. 11 for Benetton Treviso last season and was told that he could wear the same number for Toronto.

But when the Raptors traded for young point guard T.J. Ford last week, Bargnani, the first pick overall in this year's NBA draft, agreed to give up the No.11 jersey to Ford, who had the same number with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Not a big deal, but the type of gesture that helps build team unity, or so Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell believes.

The Raptors will be a more talented squad next season than they have been in recent years, but they still have a ways to go to challenge the NBA elite.

And so, Mitchell's game plan for the upcoming campaign is try to make up for any talent shortage with team unity. One thing that the coach took great pride in last season, despite all the frustrating losses and slumps, was the camaraderie in his locker room.

It's something he demands -- and will continue to demand.

"The thing I'm going to stress and preach to them is team work, that we're a family, we look out for each other," Mitchell said yesterday, during a break at the team's rookie and free agent camp. "Those are the things we've maintained since I've been here and we're not going to have any slippage on that."

There is a concern in Raptorland that the influx of as many as eight new faces on this year's team may, in fact, result in a locker room that is not as close. Mitchell admits that he has thought of that, but is confident it won't happen.

STRONG CHARACTER

"The good thing about our (new) guys is they've all got strong character. And you look at the guys we have returning, with Chris (Bosh) and Mo (Morris Peterson), those are good team guys," he said.

Often when NBA players are traded to Toronto, pouting and whining ensues, as was the case for a year and a half with Eric Williams, whom general manager Bryan Colangelo shipped to San Antonio last month, along with Matt Bonner, for centre Rasho Nesterovic. But Mitchell doesn't expect any of that from the newcomers. Indeed, the Slovenian Nesterovic was happy to come to Toronto because the city has more of a European feel than most American towns. Ford also seemed genuinely happy to be traded north of the border.

"Guys that are on our team want to be here," Mitchell said. "We didn't have to drag them to Toronto. They wanted to be here. And that's a good feeling. On paper we feel like we're slowly becoming a better basketball team."

Which brings us back to Bargnani. On paper, the 7-foot, 250-pound power forward is said to possess incredible offensive skills -- a big man with amazing perimetre talents. But, of course, no one will know for sure what the native of Rome -- who was able to watch Italy's victory over Germany in the World Cup semi-final yesterday between the morning and afternoon training sessions -- will be able to accomplish on the court against NBA talent. But when asked about Bargnani after two days of workouts against other rookies and a few second-year and third-year NBA players, Mitchell smiled.

And not one of those "Ask me a dumb question and I'll lock you a barrel and throw you over Niagara Falls" smiles.

"He's doing fine," said Mitchell, adding that his biggest challenge this season will be to get Bargnani to be aggressive under the basket. "But we're not worried about him. You're not going to teach him every move in his first two days of NBA Summer League. It's a process."

The fact that Bargnani, who will wear No.7 this season, will not start, at least early in the season, actually should help in his development, Mitchell said.

"With Bryan here, we're adding some veterans that are proven players, which will take some pressure off him," Mitchell said. "We're not relying on him to go out and get 20 points and 10 rebounds every night. We got a guy (Bosh) who can do that."


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