“There’s never a band of people pushing and inspiring you. Most will never believe your potential until you literally prove it to them.” – Shelby Lohr
I am, and will forever be, an Andrea Bargnani apologist. I acknowledge this candidly and wholly, as it surely skews my arguments that follow. I do not present this fact reluctantly. It is not a confession of wrongdoing or an error in judgment. I simply concede it as the open truth.
I admit this because it influences how I understand the factors around Bargnani’s development and the Raptors in general. One always aims to remain completely objective and free from bias, but the idea that I could remove my partiality when discussing for the third-year forward is overly idealistic. My beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. They influence my understanding of everything around me, including the NBA.
That clarified, allow me to present my point: Bargnani has arrived. This arrival was certainly stalled, delayed, and at times awkward, but it has come.
When the adjective “potential” is used in relation to professional athletes, it has a number of interesting, and conflicting, connotations. It is at once both a blessing and a curse. On the surface, it suggests merely that the player might become great, but beneath its surface, the term implies something more subjective about how that greatness may never be reached.
At times, the label provides the player a safety net to make mistakes in the name of growing their talent in a safe, controlled environment. Yet paradoxically, it also creates extreme pressure. Being assessed as a potential future standout infinitely increases others expectations. Should those great expectations not be met soon, all the potential is the world will not save them from the wrath of scorn sports writers and casual fans.
Andrea Bargnani has dealt his entire life with the complexity that having “potential” brings. Nothing has ever been simple when it concerns the No. 1 pick from 2006 NBA Draft.
A good deal of this has been his own doing: for the last season and a half his play has been maddeningly inconsistent and he has at times appeared aloof.
Yet there have been other factors at play that made his progress a complex subject. These include life tribulations (ex. the language barrier and cultural divide between Canada and Italy) and basketball specific harms (ex. two coaching staffs that have never defined his role or provided consistent playing time at one position).
The argument about his potential seemed to reach a tipping point in December; Bargnani was playing some of the worst basketball of his career after Jay Triano took control of the team. Many declared that if he would he ever realize his would-be greatness and that the “Bargnani Experiment” needed to end.
The last two weeks has seen the pendulum swing completely: he is now playing his best basketball ever. Since taking over for the injured Jermaine O’Neal, he has started every game and is putting up numbers that point to his ability, not his capability, numbers that point to his game now and not to possibility.
Seven Games. 21 points a night. 6.57 rebounds a game. 1.71 blocks. 52 per cent shooting.
He has been given an opportunity and has responded by performing. He has long deserved this chance for serious, consistent minutes in the rotation and he has thrived since receiving them. His development is critical to the Raptors future, not just this season, but as a franchise.
In his typical stoic, minimalist way he has dismissed any suggestions that something larger has clicked, that pieces have now fallen into place. He has instead said that playing more minutes is what has allowed for this level of play. He may not be wrong. For any player (and specifically for a 23-year old) it is easier to gain confidence in your game and abilities if you remain on the court.
Over the last seven games he is playing 33 minutes a night. His career average hovers just above 25 minutes a contest. Given this increase, it is understandable why results have begun to flow in so steadily.
Under Sam Mitchell, Bargnani made an abundance of mistakes. Due to his tough-love attitude to coaching and the pressure he had to win immediately, Mitchell never allowed Bargnani to play through those mistakes. Recently, Triano has allowed that to happen (even if it is only a result of their depleted depth) and the results speak for themselves.
His detractors always point to the other players Toronto might have drafted in 2006 over the Italian standout. The most obvious example thanks to hindsight is Brandon Roy, who has already been an All-Star and presently scores 25 points a game along with over 5 assists. Roy is unquestionably already a star however he also plays 37.1 minutes a night. For his career, Roy has played 36.8 a contest compared to Bargnani’s 25. I am not suggesting Andrea would be an All-Star were he to play 10 more minutes a game, I am merely highlighting that the number six pick from 2006 came into a very different situation and had very different opportunities compared to his counterpart in Toronto.
The same argument can be made against comparing Bargnani to LaMarcus Aldridge. While Aldridge’s numbers are slightly better for his career than Andrea’s, he also plays over 35 minutes a night (over 30 for his entire career) and has started every game he has played in this year. Even with that extra court time, Aldridge’s averages do not greatly trump Bargani’s.
As for the rest of the lottery picks from 2006, Bargnani’s development is leaps and bounds ahead of his contemporaries such as Mouhamed Sene, Shelden Williams, Tyrus Thomas, Adam Morrison or Randy Foye. Admittedly, Rajon Rondo was also in the 2006 Draft, but was taken 21st overall and therefore was not an option ever considered by Toronto or others in the lottery.
Behind the man dubbed “Il Mago”, Toronto has won four of their last six games. The team is winning thanks to its young star rolling in all elements of his game. Once a defensive liability, Bargnani has become grasping the team’s most complex defensive concepts. His foot speed has improved when drawn out to defend on the wing, while as his post positioning in the paint has also leaped forward. This season his blocks per game have increased to 1.33 a contest compared to .77 for his career, and he recently had a five block performance. While he will never be mistaken for Bruce Bowen or make the All-Defensive team, he has shored up what was previously his greatest weakness.
The other complaint has been of his rebounding. This too has shot up this season, from 3.9 for his career to 4.5 a night. While protesters would point to his seven-foot frame and ask for more, the fact remains that he is playing fewer than 28 minutes a night and has two double-digit rebounders (O’Neal and Chris Bosh) on his own team to contend for boards with.
The Italian’s greatest asset has long been his considerable shooting touch and range. Few, if any, seven-footers possess the sort of long-range shooting capability Bargnani does, which is why it is so convenient to unfairly compare his development to that experienced by Dirk Nowitzki.
While he will not convert 62 per-cent of his three-pointers for the rest of the season, as he has since becoming a starter, he is still shooting 41 per-cent on threes for the year compared to his career average of just 36 per-cent. That improvement is seen elsewhere too: he is hitting 87 per-cent of his free-throws (up from 84 per-cent) and 44 per-cent from the floor in general (compared to 41 per-cent).
The boost in his shooting is not a result of changed mechanics. It is merely a by-product of confidence. He has always demonstrated this kind of ability; he is just now receiving a showcase to present it without feat of being pulled or rejected when he struggles. When his potential did not translate into immediate production, he sat. Now he starts, and flourishes.
This brings up the final point about Bargnani’s sudden ascension: his consistency. I concede that seven games does not a career make. This level of excellence must (and I believe will) continue going forward if we are to say definitively that he has turned the proverbial corner and finally arrived. The only way to discern if that is really the case though is to continue to play him.
He must continue to receive the same looks in the offense, the same responsibilities defensively, and the same amount of playing time, once O’Neal returns. That is the only way to know for certain that he has shook off the dreaded tag of having “potential”.
He can rebound, he can defend, he can score.
Now he needs to play.
That is how his confidence will grow and, incidentally, that is how Toronto will win.
As I already remarked, I am an Andrea Bargnani apologist. Only now I have a clearer certainly that I have nothing to apologize for. Instead, I merely have complete support for a developing young star. I was not always sure that it would reach that point, and depending on how the team handles his progress and playing time once O’Neal returns, it still may not.
But I believe the forward’s progress, not his inconsistency. I believe in what he represents about how a player can mature and grow into their game.
I believe in Andrea Bargnani.
Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media