Rave reviews for Il Mago

MIKE GANTER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:54 AM ET

For the better part of a full week this summer in Las Vegas, Jermaine O'Neal, a 6-foot-11, bruising mass of muscle, beat on Andrea Bargnani as hard as he could.

The Raptors' third-year forward didn't back down once.

That, in a nutshell, is all you need to know about the new and improved Andrea Bargnani.

Bigger, breathing easier and completely healthy, the 2008 Bargnani model, at least at first glance, has been through a metamorphosis.

It's not quite caterpillar to butterfly, but the changes are significant.

Yes, the English still is halting, although he seems to be making a bigger effort, but the changes are apparent even from a distance.

Most striking are Bargnani's arms, which now are noticably bigger having added 12-14 pounds to his frame, the vast majority of it bulk muscle.

General manager Bryan Colangelo jokes there are rumours going around that Bargnani was seen roaming the streets of Treviso in one of those tank tops Dwight Howard wears to show off the pipes.

"No, we don't wear muscle shirts to walk on the street," Bargnani said quite seriously. "Maybe a tight shirt but that would be it."

But on just about every other topic concerning Bargnani's development over this past summer, the GM and his first-overall pick are on the same page.

Just the mention of it leaves Colangelo, the guy who went out on a limb and drafted Bargnani in 2006, almost giddy. Talk to Bargnani about it and there is a quiet pride.

Even before he started working on his frame, there was a date with the surgeon, two in fact. The first removed Bargnani's adenoids. The second fixed a deviated septum.

The language barrier kept Bargnani from expressing exactly how much better he felt post surgery but his one line -- "it feels like the nose is empty now" -- paints a pretty vivid picture of what he went through last year.

Colangelo filled in a few other details.

"He had a sinus infection for the better part of two months last year at the beginning of the season and it sapped him of all his energy," Colangelo revealed.

"It's hard to get your engine started when you're going through that. Last year you always saw him bundled up with a scarf on and a hat. It was all part of him trying to stay healthy and it was tough. Now all those problems are removed and he seems to be on a much better platform."

Bargnani points out the two-month sinus infection was just the start. His nasal problems kept recurring, about once a month and he spent the better part of the season popping antibiotics to combat the problem.

The issue was as soon as he started to feel better and get into a rhythm, the infection would return and he wouldn't be able to work as hard as he had been. The whole season became a vicious cycle of one step forward, one step back.

O'Neal had heard about Bargnani, even played against him a bit last season, but was not prepared for the Bargnani he spent two weeks with this summer in Vegas working out.

"Man, it was good," O'Neal said. "I had heard a lot about him. But he came in and he worked hard. He beat me to the gym every single day and he left when I left and that's a lot. We put in some five-hour days in the gym.

"When you watch a person work out you learn a lot about him," O'Neal said. "Some guys are naturally gifted and don't like to work real hard. They just breeze through.

"This guy was working hard and he really wanted it. I don't know what has gone on with him before here, but he really accepted the challenge. We played together for the first week and the next week we played against each other. He didn't shy away and I was trying to beat him to death."

But what amazed O'Neal the most was the quickness Bargnani possesses and while it might not go over well with his new bosses, O'Neal came right out and said playing Bargnani at small forward would be a mistake.

"Now, I have heard about them playing him at the three, and this is just me, the team is going to do what they're going to do, but I believe there is no (power forward or centre) in the league who can guard him. You put a three on him and he'll keep up with him, but fours and fives will be dead in the water."

And how long has it been since you read that many positives about Andrea Bargnani?


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