TORONTO - More than wins and losses, Dwane Casey’s first season as head coach of the Toronto Raptors will be about developing the talent at hand.
One of Casey’s biggest challenges will be getting more out of the enigmatic Andrea Bargnani.
To that end, Bryan Colangelo, the general manager who has invested so much in Bargnani over the years, aided his new bench boss by gifting him with a couple of sizable veterans to ride shotgun.
Casey plans to play Bargnani and slight sophomore Ed Davis at power forward – which means they will spend a lot of time on the court with either Aaron Gray, Jamaal Magloire, or Amir Johnson, who doesn’t share their heft but can match up well with quick, athletic centres.
Aaron Gray, in particular, will aid greatly in Bargnani’s evolution.
“(Gray’s) going to give us that physical play in the paint ... he gives us screening, rebounding, just taking up space which frees up Andrea, frees up (Davis), frees up our smaller forwards to play their natural positions.”
Casey said Gray is “down” to a team-high 277 pounds from the 290 he carried during a solid playoff series against the Lakers last spring.
“We’ve got to protect the paint. Last year we allowed too many layups without knocking people on their butts and hopefully Aaron and Jamaal will correct that.”
Bargnani will no longer be the last line of defence, a role that never suited him. While a horrendous, often disinterested help defender, Bargnani is capable in most man-to-man situations.
Anything seems possible in the heady days of training camp, but Casey seems convinced that Bargnani will finally show some of the pieces that have been missing from his game over the years.
“(Bargnani’s) impressed me with his defensive approach, his rebounding. Now we have to transfer that into a game situation,” Casey said.
“That has been his criticism and the only way you can do away with that is come out and perform as he has.”
Casey believes Bargnani is also growing into more of a leadership role after years of being a low-key locker room presence.
“He’s speaking up, asking questions. He stepped up in the team meeting the other night, said what was on his mind, what we needed.”
Of course, Bargnani isn’t in the NBA for his defence, rebounding or leadership abilities. He was the No. 1 overall selection in 2006 because of his shooting ability and the quickness and mobility he provides which few 7-footers can match.
It is clear by now that Bargnani never will live up to the Dirk Nowitzki comparisons he has been saddled with, but Casey, the former Dallas assistant who knows the ins and outs of Nowitzki’s game like few others, still sees similarities and will run similar plays for Bargnani that Rick Carlisle drew up for Nowitzki.
“He’s one of the best shooters in the world and we want to make sure we utilize that,” said the coach.
“I know a lot of people don’t like that (Nowitzki) comparison, but I know how those sets turn out and how they work. We’ll have a lot of sets for him. Inside-outside, because he has that great skill-set.”
Casey said he will force Bargnani to improve offensively by doing things he has shied away from in the past.
“Andrea’s next step is accepting the contact inside. Initializing, (being a) physical, post up player and taking advantage of his size in the paint. We’re going to run a lot of sets for him to get the ball to him inside that’s what’s going to help keep the other teams off balance ... it’s going to help him as an all-around player because teams can’t key on (only his outside game).”
It all sounds logical. Doable, even.
But others have tried and failed to unlock Bargnani’s considerable potential.
There’s no doubt it will be one of Casey’s most difficult assignments.
GRAY FEELING WANTED
Aaron Gray had a bit of an NBA coming-out party during the playoffs last season and as a free agent, surely had a number of teams to choose from but settled on Toronto.
A chance to get ample playing time (Gray could well be new head coach Dwane Casey’s choice to start beside Andrea Bargnani) had a lot to do with it, but Gray says Toronto’s interest in him and the chance to be a part of something new in Toronto also were key factors.
“It’s great, to be where you’re wanted, it’s a great feeling,” Gray said at media day on Monday.
“We definitely want to change the culture around here and that’s the direction (we’re) going.
Gray helped New Orleans take the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the first round, particularly with a 12-point performance in Game 1 and with some gritty efforts later on, despite an ankle injury.
“I feel great, confidence is real high, obviously playing against a great Laker team, you don’t get much bigger than them,” the former second round pick said of his mentality coming off of that series.
When asked whether the rest of the league regarded Toronto as an easy mark in the past, Gray was blunt in his response.
“When you win 18, 20, 30 games, to be honest with you, I don’t think people are talking about us much at all,” he said.
“That’s something that we’ll use to our advantage. I think people are going to come in here and take us lightly and they won’t the following time.”