Raptors fans haven’t been kind to Andrea Bargnani over the past year as they have begun to lose patience due to a perceived regression during his second season in the NBA. After a promising rookie season which saw the former top pick average a modest 11.6 points and 3.9 rebounds while finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting, Bargnani’s stats dipped in his sophomore season to 10.2 points and 3.7 rebounds.
Was last season a case of Bargnani taking a step back in his development or regressing? If you ask Sam Mitchell the answer is a resounding no.
“He’s a young player,” Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell lamented to the media last April when having to defend his young player yet again to the local media. “You all have no idea how hard it is to play in this league. You’ve got to understand something – Andrea (Bargnani) hasn’t been in the league long enough to understand how this league is. The ups and downs. The ebbs and flow of the league. He doesn’t understand he’ll have bad stretches because he hasn’t experienced it before.”
According to Mitchell, the struggles Bargnani endured last season are nothing different than the growing pains any young player goes through when adjusting to playing in the NBA. The former Coach of the Year feels confident that Bargnani just needs to figure out a way to snap out of prolonged shooting slumps and regain the confidence and swagger he seems to have lost last season.
“Andrea’s toughest thing is he puts more pressure on the next shot where as a veteran player understands ‘Okay, I’m missing some shots let’s get an easy one.’ He finds other ways to do things. Right now with Andrea his strength has always been his shooting so that’s what he goes back to. But when you’ve been in the league for a while you figure out let me go get a couple lay-ups. Let me get some loose balls. I’ll get to the free throw line. I’ll do other things. I’ll get out and run. Let me do some things like that. Andrea’s whole thing has been ‘I can shoot the basketball.’ And so it’s almost like he’s trying to prove to himself and everybody else that he can hit that shot. We encourage him to shoot the ball if he’s open and we feel like he’ll hit that shot but it’s a growing process.”
Despite the numbers not backing up the comparison, Mitchell insists when talking with the media that Nowitzki’s first few years in the NBA closely resemble what Bargnani’s facing so far in his. When Nowitzki broke into the NBA he averaged 8.2 points his rookie season while he was able to boost that to 17.5 in his second year.
Even though Nowitzki enjoyed a substantial increase in scoring during his second season, Mitchell insists there are a lot of comparisons to be drawn between the struggles both players faced early in their respective NBA careers.
“I’m telling you, we used to sit in the locker room and beg to guard Dirk Nowitzki because he was seven feet and he couldn’t post you up. He wasn’t shooting eyes out of the ball with that fadeaway jump shot. He wasn’t doing it. We felt like that was an easy night, that we would beat him up. Now, ain’t nobody drawing straws to guard him. Last time I guarded him I was like, ‘Help. Can I get some help over here? I can’t guard this seven-footer.’”
Does this mean Mitchell views Bargnani as the next Nowitzki? Not a chance. But Mitchell does feel there are some comparisons between the two seven-footer and how they adapted from playing in Europe to playing in the NBA.
“I’m not trying to compare Andrea (Bargnani) to Dirk (Nowitzki) , I’m just trying to say the most difficult thing to do in the NBA is to play with size because most of the time you aren’t playing against people your size. I think I told you all the story of being the MVP of my conference but this little 6’3″ guy they used to put on me in college gave me fits my first two years. He was strong and I couldn’t post him up because he would get up under me and wouldn’t let me get him deep. He was an incredible athlete and it took me two years to learn how to figure out how to score against this guy. And so it takes time to develop and round your game out.”
One of the main things that slows Bargnani’s development is that he doesn’t always have the ball in his hands to create off the dribble. Unlike some players from his draft class like Brandon Roy or Randy Foye, he doesn’t have the luxury of bringing the ball up the court of initiating the Raptors offense. Instead, he needs to be patient in the post or on the perimeter and wait for a teammate to swing the ball to him.
“If you can dribble the basketball and you’re 6’5″ or 6’6″ you can get a shot, you can get to the basket, you can get to the free throw line,” Mitchell explained. “When you’re seven feet tall, it’s different. It took Rik Smits two or three years to figure out how to play in the league. I played with Rik and I remember when we wouldn’t throw Rik the basketball. And then all of a sudden everybody wanted a Rik Smits type of center.”
What caused Smits to become successful in the NBA? According to Mitchell, it was nothing more than the ability to feeling comfortable.
“It just took him awhile to get comfortable. I remember Rasho (Nesterovic) telling me it took two years to realize what the NBA is all about. This league is more than what you see at seven o’clock.”
It’s tempting for Raptors fans to throw up their hands in dismay and write off the Italian, but doing so would be the wrong idea. Raptors fans need to have some patience because once he becomes comfortable playing in the NBA Bargnani’s shown he has the tools to be a marquee player in this league.
Bargnani hasn’t even played 150 regular season games in the NBA and it’s a well known fact that big men take a while to develop. How many of you were comfortable in your new careers less than 150 days in? Not many I bet. Throw into the fact that Bargnani has to adapt to a new culture while playing against some of the best players in the world and it’s no wonder it’s taken him awhile to get acclimated to playing in the NBA.
“Jack Ramsey and I were talking about this,” Mitchell confided to the media. “When I came into the league rookies didn’t play. Now they’ve got to play. Do you know how many rookies have probably been ruined because of the pressure when they face out there? Now, some are ready, but rookies didn’t play. They weren’t expected to play, they were expected to learn. They were given time to figure things out. Malik Sealy’s job his rookie year was to let us know where the party was after the game. Malik wasn’t going to play, he learned how to be a pro.”
With Bargnani finishing his second season with a renewed sense of confidence and improving stats does this mean he’s now ready to play and things will be smooth sailing this season? Not necessarily, according Mitchell.
“It’s a lot of technical things with Andrea. It’s the weirdest thing, someone told me they teach players to jump off the wrong foot when they drive to the basket in Europe. I’m right-handed and I’m trying to jump off my left leg, every time. Andrea’s right-handed and a lot of times he plants with his right leg. Jay Triano was telling me they teach them that over in Europe because a lot of times if they take that extra step they call them for traveling. So we’ve been trying to break Andrea of something he’s been doing for how many years? We’re trying to get him comfortable jumping off the left leg when he shoots with the right hand. The right leg when he shoots with the left. Now I know it sounds simple, but if you haven’t done it… you watch him. Most of the time when he gets stuck going to the basket he’s thinking ‘I need to be jumping off the other leg’ and he gets caught jumping off the wrong leg.”
While this might sound drastic, coaching staffs are always working with players on their mechanics and tweaking aspects of their games. After attending almost all of the Raptors home games last season, something I never tired of watching was coaches from around the league working with players before games. Players were constantly learning, adding new tweaks to their games and growing as players. While most fans file into arenas anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes before the opening tip, it’s amazing to see the kind of work players put in nearly two hours before the game starts.
While Mitchell’s assessment of the work that Bargnani needs to do might sound drastic, the reality is players are constantly evolving their games after working with assistant coaches.
“One thing I’ve learned in this league is sometimes you don’t get better until you take a step back when you’re a young player.”
Just like the Raptors who took one step back this summer by dealing away some of their depth to bolster their front court with the addition of Jermaine O’Neal, Raptors fans can be confident the reduced pressure and minutes combined with his increased experience will result in Bargnani taking at least a couple steps forward this season.
In fact, with lowered expectations combined with another year of experience, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bargnani to regain the form that made him the top overall pick in the 2007 draft and the cornerstone of the Raptors future.
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