Raptors waiting on a sleeping giant

Bargnani will be having big games often throughout the season, and will likely emerge as one of the...

Bargnani will be having big games often throughout the season, and will likely emerge as one of the leading scorers. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

JONATHAN POPALIS, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 2:34 PM ET

TORONTO -- It was March 11, 2007. The Toronto Raptors were hosting the former Seattle Supersonics.

Twenty seconds left on the clock with the Raptors down by two. Fans who knew this team well enough at the time are already putting their jackets on. The ball gets into Chris Bosh's hands, he goes for the game winner - and gets blocked. Seems like game over - until the ball ends up in the hands of new big Italian rookie Andrea Bargnani. Ray Allen runs him down as he throws up a 3- pointer. Swish. Foul on Allen. And the big rookie brings the house down with a last second four-point play.

Flashes of brilliance like this weren't just contained to his rookie campaign. They've been dotted throughout Bargnani's entire career in Toronto. Moments that pull back the curtain on the kind of player he has the potential to be. Game-winning blocks. Reverse dunks in traffic. And enough clutch 3- pointers to fill a bucket. But seemingly every time fans get a peek at the marvelous player who exists within Andrea Bargnani, the blinds get snapped shut and they're left with but a shadow of that promising athlete they thought they knew.

Shaking their heads as he commits another foul, gets bullied out of position again for a rebound, or tries to pull off his signature frustrating "head-fake and drive" maneuver. He is, the definition of limitless promise with sluggish improvement.

Case in point: the team's first preseason game in Vancouver earlier this month. With Bosh now out of the picture, the expectation all summer had been that Bargnani would fill the superstar vacuum left in his wake.

However, this optimism was tempered with much trepidation since the city was no longer a stranger to the kind of player he could (and could not) be.

And what happened in his first game as team leader? Three points on 1-for-9 shooting and four measly rebounds. The only stat he led the Raptors in was minutes.

When your newly anointed go-to-guy is being severely outplayed by Joey Dorsey, then you have a big problem on your hands. Obviously, one preseason game doesn't tell an entire story, but perhaps it's an indication that fears about him could be coming true, that Bargnani may just never cross that line into stardom.

Excuses were abound after that game, a common one being that since Bargnani is now the focal point of the Raptors' offense, he was made the focal point of the Phoenix Suns' defense, and he'll just have to learn to deal with that kind of pressure.

It's entirely correct. Bargnani will be having big games often throughout the season, and will likely emerge as one of the leading scorers once he acclimates himself to the kind of double teams Bosh used to get. The problem isn't if he can do it, but more a matter of when.

It seems excuses like these are always being bandied about for Il Mago. From Sam Mitchell bullying him, to having to adjust his "European style of play," to not being used to playing as a real NBA center, it seems like fans enable his slow learning curve constantly by throwing out rationalizations for his poor play.

Every time a wall goes up in his career, he takes an excruciatingly long time to traverse it. And, despite every complaint, fans continue to give him the benefit of the doubt. They expect him to finally make that big breakthrough into the man whom the team can hand over the keys to the franchise.

Why do they do it? Maybe because of names like Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown. Maybe because the fear of a No. 1 overall draft pick not blossoming into an All-Star (or even worse, getting labeled a bust) could be keeping everyone from admitting that perhaps he's simply just a serviceable player with expectations way higher than he can deliver. That's definitely a part of it, but that's not the whole story.

The story is found in those magical moments he's shown Toronto over the years. Like when he iced a game against the Dallas Mavericks last January with a long distance 3-pointer right over the man he's compared to most, Dirk Nowitzki.

Or when he dropped 33 in Detroit back in April in the most effortless of fashions. Or that last second buzzer beater he hit against Portland as a rookie to win it in overtime.

He's capable of great things. Raptors fans saw it with their own eyes as far back as March 2007. But will this sleeping giant ever wake up? Or will Andrea Bargnani remain an unlit match - with the potential to light up, but nothing to ignite him.


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