Calm on the outside

The lack of emotion displayed by Toronto Raptors rookie Andrea Bargnani belies the focus and...

The lack of emotion displayed by Toronto Raptors rookie Andrea Bargnani belies the focus and intensity he brings to each game. (Toronto Sun File/Ernest Doroszuk)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

Hidden beneath the stoic face and that monotonous blank expression of Andrea Bargnani is a fiercely passionate and focused young basketball player.

It isn't what we see. It isn't about what he says.

"I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but he is not very Italian," said Maurizio Gherardini, the Raptors' vice-president and assistant general manager. "If you look at his face, he is very clever at not letting a lot of his emotions show. You look at him and you tend to think he doesn't have any feelings.

"Truly, it's the opposite. Sometimes you look at him and you wonder: Is he reacting? Anything? Then all of a sudden, he has those flashes. He lets his emotions out for a fraction of a second. I know him so well, so I see them."

It is only three months into the NBA education and development of Bargnani, but much has happened in that time. The doubters have all but disappeared. Bargnani smiles more often, speaks more often, seems more at ease, if only just slightly. Toronto is still trying to figure out who he is, what it has, what this kid is all about.

"When Andrea first came to Toronto, I picked him up at the airport and I don't think he spoke six words in the car," said Marc Eversley, the Raptors' director of basketball operations. "He just wasn't comfortable.

"The Andrea I know today is much more outgoing, on the court, off the court, very sociable in fact. Is he growing? Absolutely. Is he growing more comfortable within his environment? Absolutely.

"A lot of NBA players get caught up with everything but the playing. Not Andrea. He is focused on one thing and one thing only."

Sometimes it's easy to forget he is just a kid. He is 21, away from home in a foreign land, with a new language, and a new league. Sometimes it's easy to forget the adjustments are many, the language is ridiculously difficult, the athletic leap from Italy to the NBA is a high jump at any time.

But so far, so good for Bargnani. He has settled into his apartment on the lakefront, living with his mother, Luisella, who has taken a leave of absence from her teaching job. There is always somebody visiting -- father, brother, grandfather, relative, friends. And if there is any kind of problem, there's his old GM, Gherardini, to ask for help, or Eversley, who prepares kits for all the players on living in Toronto.

"He is not a guy (like Tracy McGrady) who is stuck in a hotel room playing video games," Gherardini said. "He knows his way around. He knows the Italian restaurants. He doesn't get bored.

"I'm not his agent, but I try and give him some suggestions. I think, at times, this year has been a little overwhelming by all the people going to him. It can be a lot of pressure when everybody wants you."

But there is something very personal about Bargnani that seems immune to pressure. He left home at 15 to live on a campus in Rome so he could develop his game. Then he came to Treviso and lived three years away from home. He has already been through some of this.

"Then he comes to Toronto, a multi-cultural city, and that helps too," Gherardini said. "Toronto is an easy town to adjust to. It's very easy to get settled in and get around. It also helped that two of his former teammates, (Jorge) Garbajosa and (Uros) Slokar are here, so he knows he has support at home and support with the team."

As Bargnani evolves, so evolves his game. In something called the T-Mobile Rookie Rankings, he is listed as the top rookie in the NBA. That wasn't supposed to happen. For a seven-footer, he was supposed to grow slowly. That was the public spin, anyhow.

"You watch, he'll end up smiling more," Gherardini said. "He'll be more comfortable when he has 100% control of the language. He understands everything. But he doesn't have 100% control of what he is saying. He wants to improve that.

"But we have to give him credit. I don't think we were planning on a double-figures rookie playing 25 minutes a game.

"Our summer dream has become a reality."


Photos