Kudos for the rookie

Raptors rookie Andrea Bargnani has made a lot of progress during the season. (Sun File/Stan Behal)

Raptors rookie Andrea Bargnani has made a lot of progress during the season. (Sun File/Stan Behal)

MIKE GANTER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:43 AM ET

Andrea Bargnani is in the home stretch of his rookie season.

The Raps No. 1 overall pick has 15 games left in his first NBA season and if any of it has overwhelmed him, he has done a masterful job of hiding it.

Bargnani has been a confident, unshakable force since just about

Day 1 and those qualities have only been further cemented as the season has progressed.

Head coach Sam Mitchell admitted yesterday even he has been surprised by some of the former Benetton star's progress.

"He has done a much better job than what I imagined coming into the season, defensively, but he's getting better and he works at it," Mitchell said.

At 7-foot, 250 pounds, Bargnani often is taking on men much heavier than himself, but Mitchell believes asking him to bulk up is not the way to address that.

"I'm not big on how much a guy weighs," Mitchell said. "How big do you want him to get before he starts having physical problems from putting on weight unnaturally.

"If they gain it naturally their body will adjust to it naturally," Mitchell said. "If we force it on them, that's when they start having problems."

Mitchell said the best thing Bargnani can do is let his body fill out naturally and then use his other abilities to overcome any weight or muscle disadvantage he might face.

"You can find other ways to defend the post," Mitchell said. "You can use quickness, you can front guys. They don't let you wrestle down there anymore. There are a lot of other ways to do it and he's never going to get big enough to wrestle Shaquille O'Neal or Eddy Curry anyway."

Bargnani said he may work at putting on a few pounds over the off-season but he certainly doesn't sound consumed by the idea.

"I will ask the strength coach what I have to do to improve to play more minutes next year. I will do the work necessary," he said. Bargnani believes understanding the opponents and their tendencies is much more important to defending them than putting on any amount of weight.

By not starting Bargnani the Raps likely have kept the level of abuse the young man has had to endure down to a minimum, but Mitchell said the main reason he's not starting is to keep him from getting in early foul trouble.

"We looked at that, but the problem is (guarding opposing centres), he can get in foul trouble early," Mitchell said. "Then it kind of negates what you can do with him. Andrea definitely gives us a weapon to come back at them with. He normally plays more minutes when we play those (big) guys but to start the game, we don't need him in foul trouble."

As for the tail end of the game, it depends on what the Raptors need. If it's a defensive rebounding presence they need, then Rasho Nesterovic gets the call. If the Raps need scoring, it's Bargnani.


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