Bargnani: The Raps' new go-to guy?

Toronto Raptors' Andrea Bargnani speaks to reporters during the NBA team's annual media day. ...

Toronto Raptors' Andrea Bargnani speaks to reporters during the NBA team's annual media day. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

VANCOUVER ó Big things are expected from Andrea Bargnani, the Raptorsí big man who doesnít always play big.

Bargnani likes to put the ball on the floor and is a threat to knock down shots from beyond the three-point arc, skills that arenít usually found with basketballís bigs.

As the Raptors enter the second week of training camp, itís hard not to notice how much bigger Bargnani has evolved from a physical makeup.

For the past eight years, Bargnani has worked with Francesco Cuzzolin, the teamís strength and conditioning coach, bulking up, while at the same time trying to add a new dimension to his game.

This summer, Bargnani and Cuzzolin renewed their association in Italy, running a youth camp and later as members of their national team.

How everything gets translated onto the court when games begin to count canít be measured now, but Bargnani comes across as a new man, more determined and more comfortable in his surroundings.

ďItís normal in anything you do in life to feel more comfortable,íí Bargnani began on Monday following the teamís workout here at the University of British Columbia. ďYou just know how itís going to be.Ē

His English has improved, Bargnani is much more accommodating and a lot more willing to offer insights, where in the past he expressed reluctance and abhorrence when an inquisitor approached.

Bargnani enters his fifth season in the NBA, a focal point on a team that needs him to score, be it on the block or on the perimeter, distribute the basketball when opponents force the ball out of his hands and a defender, especially when it comes to weak-side help.

Bargnani will always be dependent on his perimeter game, which forces opposing bigs to extend their defence.

Heíll spread the floor and when heís able to take defenders off the dribble, Bargnani becomes a very lethal weapon.

Bargnani is trying to incorporate more of a post presence into his game; he wants to be able to play with his back to the basket.

For the Raptors to be relevant this season, Bargnani has to play like heís the teamís best player because no player on the roster has his unique skill set and no player is going to draw double teams.

Heís no Chris Bosh and itís not likely Bargnani will average 20 points and 10 rebounds.

But the Raptors donít need Bargnani to be a Bosh ó what is required is for Bargnani to be consistent, less inclined to settle for outside jumpers and more polished as a weak-side defender.

ďI see a more confident player,íí head coach Jay Triano said of Bargnani. ďHeís more vocal than he has been in the past and heís very dedicated. Watching Andrea is like watching a kid grow and before you know it theyíre big.Ē

Later this month, Bargnani will turn 25 at a time when it appears heís turned a corner.

Whatever off-season strides heís made, whatever amount of beef heís added to his upper body, the true test will arrive when Bargnani goes up against opponents in real-game competition.

Only then will we see just how much better Bargnani has evolved.

At first glance, the improvement, especially in his demeanor, is very noticeable and welcome.

Almost by default, Bargnani will be the teamís first option on offence, but thereís also plenty of merit in wanting to run an offence through him, given Bargnaniís ability.

Whether he can average 20 points is something that will play itself out as the season unfolds, but for Bargnani the key will be in shot selection, establishing a presence in the paint and being able to find teammates when the inevitable second defender is sent his way.

Defensively, itís all about recognition, an awareness in knowing where teammates are on the floor and not being fixated only on his man.

ďAt this point, itís hard to say how much better a rebounder heís become,íí Triano added. ďBut you can see how much better an off-the-ball defender he is now as opposed to last year.Ē

Itís impossible for Bargnani to live up to the billing as a first overall pick and itís equally impossible to fill the void left by Bosh.

But more than anything, Bargnani embodies a new era with the Raptors, a new beginning which is hard to tell the end.

It all makes for a lot of intrigue and anticipation.


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