Bargnani starting to warm up

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

From an outsider's perspective, it's difficult to say what makes Andrea Bargnani a happy paisan.

The big kid from Rome hasn't exactly dazzled anyone with his pearly whites since arriving in Toronto last summer.

Interviews with the Raptors rookie this season have generally been short and not sweet. Mr. Happy, as some wags have taken to calling him, usually answers each question with one or two words and then ends the proceedings by saying "Okay?" and then walking away.

Of course his English is not perfect. But still, it seems he'd rather have his teeth pulled than sit through an interview.

The Raptors did not draft Bargnani No. 1 overall last summer for his bubbly personality. But there have been times this fall when he has seemed about as happy in Toronto as a major league ballplayer during the SARS epidemic.

That, however, is changing.

Bargnani is smiling more often and has been spotted, particularly on the road, joking with his teammates.

And while many of the guys in the locker room, such as fellow rookie Jorge Garbajosa, insist that the tall glass of acqua has enjoyed himself in Toronto from day one, Bargnani's statistics of late suggest that he is happier and more content.

When those eight guys from Woodbridge (a little bit of an assumption here) stood up at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night with his name spelled on their T-shirts, a grin spread across Bargnani's face.

"He's a little bit of a shy guy and maybe now he is getting more confidence with everybody, with his teammates and the media," Garbajosa said. "You can see it on the court. He is playing relaxed, and he is becoming the player that everybody thought he would be."

It's likely no coincidence that Bargnani is smiling more because he is playing well.

The 21-year-old rookie is near the top in most NBA rookie offensive categories (along with the 29-year-old Garbajosa), including points per game (9.2, fourth), total blocked shots (26, second) and points+rebounds+assists (14.3, fourth).

But his statistics in the month of December have been even more impressive. During that time, he has averaged 11.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 28.4 minutes. In the first game of January, the 100-98 loss to the Phoenix Suns, Bargnani came off the bench to score 17 points, including 4-for-4 from beyond the arc.

The one person in the Raptors organization who knows Bargnani best is his former boss at Benetton Treviso, Maurizio Gherardini, the Raptors assistant general manager.

Gherardini said perhaps the biggest difference in Bargnani's comfort level, and ultimately his rising stats, is the fact his teammates have accepted him unconditionally.

You can be the greatest guy in the world, but until you prove yourself in battle, as Bargnani did when he nailed that game-winning 20-footer to beat the Trail Blazers in Portland on Dec. 22, you'll never be totally accepted. Gherardini said if that was a problem before, it certainly isn't now.

"At the beginning, you got this 20-year-old guy from Italy, you might be wondering, 'Hey, is this (draft choice) just a marketing issue?' But no, it's not. We've said since the very first day, his passport had very little to do with the decision (to draft him first overall)."

Gherardini winced a little when asked about Bargnani's reputation as being a bit of a sourpuss during his first couple of months in Toronto. He may not be a natural in front of the cameras, but Gherardini said the contentment and goodwill has always been there, though it is improving every day.

"As we said at the beginning, he's a very mature young guy who knows how to keep things in perspective, who does not let a lot of emotions out," Gherardini said. "But that doesn't mean that he doesn't feel the emotions. He has an unusual Italian way to express emotions."

What he does not do, said Gherardini, a native of Forli in northeast Italy, is kiss reporters on each cheek or wave his arms in the air when he speaks.

"But he's not cold. He's not cold at all."

Apparently not. And on the court, he's getting hotter all the time.


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