The spoon feeding of Andrea Bargnani has come to an end.
The career coddling has stopped and Bargnani, when healthy, is suddenly a different player in Year Six of the great experiment, with a newfound body language that speaks confidence and dominance. You can see him taking control when he didnít care or didnít know how to take control before. You can see his eyes so alive, so active ó the blank stare with mouth wide open, his personal deer in the headlights look from the early days, is gone. You could see his anger, almost pulling his own hair out late Thursday night, when the calf injury that had sat him down for eight games returned against the Utah Jazz.
And you could see something that was never evident before. Emotion. Bargnani is engaged in the game, passionate enough to make a difference: It makes you believe in Bargnani in a way that never seemed very believable before.
The player who was drafted to be a star and a difference maker finally, when healthy, is able to make a difference.
The change comes after years of consternation and doubt about who Bargnani would be and what he would eventually become. It was thought by some that he would be the next Dirk Nowitzki. But really, he is his own invention, and a mismatch for any team trying to figure out what to do with him. He scored 36 points in Phoenix the other night for an unusual Raptors road win and was on his way to another 30-plus game the following night in Salt Lake City had his calf injury not come back.
That would have been four 30-point games of his past eight: It isnít just a coincidence that the Raptors have a somewhat stunning, almost playoff-ready record of 6-7 in games in which Bargnani has started. When he hasnít played, they havenít won. That makes this his team in a way it has never been his team ó much as he wanted it to be last year ó before.
Why the change? Those around the team offer up all kinds of theories. Some look at coach Dwane Casey and his approach to pushing Bargnani in a way his previous coaches were unwilling or unable to push. Casey had no history with Bargnani. Yet there seemed an instant respect level upon their meeting. Casey set the bar high for him ó told him the offence was going to be built around him, demanded that he contribute something with his 7-foot frame other than his matador defence of days gone by. Knowing that Bargnani was never going to be Charles Oakley on the boards, he realistically set out a plan for Bargnani, making him responsible offensively and defensively, demanding standards that were never demanded before.
The more Casey gets from Bargnani, the more he benefits as a head coach. Previous coaches Jay Triano and Sam Mitchell may have tried similar approaches with Bargnani, but he may have been too young, too weak, too flippant, not mature enough, or not given the right kind of push and support from Raptors management.
Itís no secret that Bryan Colangelo and Maurizio Gherardini, the GM and longtime assistant GM who was one of the forces behind the drafting of Bargnani at No. 1, pampered him through his first Toronto seasons. They turned a blind eye to his faults the way a parent often turns a blind eye to their childrenís shortcomings. They let him be, thinking it was the right thing to do, defending him when necessary, usually giving him the easy way out: But the history of the Raptors babying players ó see Vince Carter ó hasnít exactly worked in their favour.
Whatís important now is that scouts and executives around the NBA have already noticed and noted the difference in Bargnani in this abbreviated season. It isnít just that heís scoring more ó itís how heís scoring, what heís doing on the court, what heís contributing. The scouts donít view him as a franchise player but as an important player who can be the second or third best player on a team of consequence.
Now all Bargnani has to do is heal ó and fast ó to continue with his newfound regard as an NBA player who truly matters.