Bargnani rings in

Italian head coach Carlo Recalcati said recently that he is counting on Toronto Raptors rookie...

Italian head coach Carlo Recalcati said recently that he is counting on Toronto Raptors rookie Andrea Bargnani to play for Italy in this summer in their quest to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. (Sun Media File/Michael Peake)

STEVE BUFFERY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

Italian basketball fans will be over La Luna to learn that Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani plans to play for his national team at this summer's Olympic qualifying tournament in Spain.

Bargnani said on Saturday night, prior to Toronto's game in Auburn Hills against the Detroit Pistons, he would play as long as he was healthy.

Raptors assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini, who was Bargnani's GM last year at Benetton Treviso, told the Toronto Sun last night from Bologna, where he was attending the Italian Cup, that the plan is for Bargnani to play for Italy this summer, if he is healthy and rested.

Bargnani, 21, did not play for Italy at last summer's world championship in Japan because his priority was preparing for his first NBA season with the Raptors, a decision that did not sit well with many Italian fans. The Italian team, winners of the silver medal at the 2004 Athens Games, finished a disappointing ninth at the 2006 worlds.

But expectations are high that the Italian team, with Bargnani and Fortitudo Bologna star Marco Belinelli leading a strong youth charge, will qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and perhaps win a medal.

Gherardini said it was virtually impossible for Bargnani to play for Italy last summer, as he played in the Italian championships until June and was expected to play in the Las Vegas Summer League for the Raptors, which he did.

This year's schedule, with the European Olympic qualifiers not until the first two weeks of September, afford Bargnani the chance to rest and recharge after the NBA season.

"There's no reason why he shouldn't be part of the team," Gherardini said. "I think it will be a great tournament for him and will give him a chance to establish himself at the international level. I would also say he will be one of the most-watched players at the tournament.

"Italy will have a good mix of young and veteran players," Gherardini added.

"And it has a good chance to be competitive."

Bargnani, who was drafted first overall by the Raptors last summer, is an early candidate for NBA rookie-of-the-year honours, averaging 10.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.

Italian head coach Carlo Recalcati said in a recent article that he is counting on Bargnani to play for Italy in this summer. The top two teams from the European qualifier (EuroBasket) automatically qualify for Beijing with the third to sixth place teams from the event moving on to a last-chance Olympic qualifier in the summer of 2008.

The Raptors, again, likely will have the most players competing for their respective countries this summer at the various Regional Olympic qualifying tournaments.

Jose Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa, despite already leading Spain to an Olympic berth by winning the world championships last summer, both plan to play in the EuroBasket, as do Slovenians Rasho Nesterovic and Uros Slokar.

All-star Chris Bosh also is expected to play for Team USA in Vegas.

Senegal native Pape Sow told the Sun he has not heard from his national federation as to whether they want him to play at the African qualifier.

Canada will compete at the Americas qualifying tournament in Las Vegas, but it's unlikely the two Canadians playing in the NBA, Steve Nash and Jamaal Magloire, will compete.


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