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Toronto Raptors centre Andrea Bargnani, left, drives to the basket around Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett in the first quarter of their NBA preseason basketball game in Hartford, Connecticut, October 14, 2009. (BRIAN SNYDER)
Toronto Raptors centre Andrea Bargnani, left, drives to the basket around Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett in the first quarter of their NBA preseason basketball game in Hartford, Connecticut, October 14, 2009. (BRIAN SNYDER)

Andrea's inside job Add to ...

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is: It was just one game.

Certainly, Andrea Bargnani was eager to remind everyone about that the day after his 28-point opening-night performance in the Toronto Raptors' 101-91 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"We already have to think about Memphis," he said, referring to Toronto's opponent tonight in their first road game. "We have a very tough schedule. We have 81 games to go."

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But certain aspects of Bargnani's game have particular relevance for the 81 games left, and for tonight again.

The Memphis Grizzlies, like most NBA teams, use a big, slow centre - Marc Gasol in their case - who is most comfortable remaining close to the paint on the defensive end.

Bargnani is a seven-footer most comfortable, until recently, facing the basket, the farther away from the paint the better.

Which is fine, as long as Bargnani is making jump shots. Opposing big men have to come out of their comfort zone; the lane opens up for Toronto forward Chris Bosh and Bargnani can draw fouls as he drives by his opponent.

But the scouting report on him through three NBA seasons has been to solve the riddle by guarding him with a smaller, quicker player - sometimes even a shooting guard - because even at seven feet, he wasn't confident enough with his back-to-the-basket in the post to make teams pay for the mismatch.

This is why two sequences in Wednesday's game against the Cavaliers stand out: With Bargnani off to a hot start running past the Cavaliers big men in transition or raining threes when they backed off him on the perimeter, Cleveland went to a smaller lineup and put LeBron James on Bargnani.

The first time Bargnani walked the 6-foot-8 James to the block and wheeled into the middle for the score; the second he turned to the baseline, up-faked and dropped a soft finger roll into the basket when James bit hard. On another occasion, he slashed through the paint to catch a pass for a dunk, and on one more drove baseline to beat his man for another.

The moves were decisive, polished and correct.

If Bargnani can prove a consistently dangerous interior scorer, scouting reports will have to be rewritten. Bargnani is most often compared to Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki; Bargnani himself has spent more time studying the expert post technique of San Antonio Spurs big man Tim Duncan.

"[Post play]was something I had to improve because it was something I wasn't able to do at all," he said, acknowledging what most Raptors fans noticed in his first two seasons. "[In Europe,]I always played in the two or three position when I was 13, 14, 15, so it was something I had to improve."

In his first two seasons 80 and 79 per cent of his shots were jumpers from outside the lane, according to 82games.com. Last season the ratio was 75-25.

Bosh, a good shooting big man himself, shot 36 per cent of his shots from inside the lane; doubtless the Raptors would be pleased if Bargnani could move toward a 70-30 split.

Bargnani's coaches say his growth as a post player has come, in part, because he's added strength as he's got older, making it easier to establish good position down low and defend other bigs without fouling.

Bargnani says another key has been a new-found patience that comes from experience.

"The first thing is to take your time, don't rush," he says of his mindset now. "Wait to see the situation, do everything slow. You learn that from experience. I still have to improve a lot, I'm not very good."

He doesn't need to be great down there, just good enough to allow the rest of his skills to flourish.

"His game has evolved," Raptors head coach Jay Triano said. "First year, teams would switch and he wouldn't go inside; then he'd go inside with a point guard on him. Now, he's not afraid to go inside with bigger guys on him. That's just a confidence factor and a strength factor. He's not only standing on the three-point."

It's also an example of the on-going skill development that happens in the NBA. Bargnani said part of his struggles in picking up the nuances of post play was that because of the wider lane and zone defence rules in Europe, NBA-style post play is almost non-existent. In the summers spent with the Italian national team, time is devoted to working on team concepts, not individual work.

Bargnani's growth has come from working with NBA-style workout gurus in Las Vegas and with Raptors' assistant coaches, including Marc Iavoroni, Alex English and Eric Hughes and former Raptors coach Gord Herbert last year.

"With the national team we don't do a lot of individual practice," he said. "In four days in the NBA I get more shots than in one month there."

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NOTES Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano didn't need to be reminded that last season, the Raptors started 3-0 on their way to a disappointing 33-win campaign. Well, actually he did. "I thought we were 2-0," he said yesterday. The point is: starting with a win at home is nice, but guarantees nothing. "I don't think anyone remembers the start of the season. … We need to focus on one game at a time and the game against Memphis [today]is the only one in front of us." … The Raptors picked up their option on shooting guard Marco Belinelli, meaning he'll be under contract until the end of the 2010-11 season. "He's an outside threat, he can stretch the defence for us, he can handle the ball and create for others. I like a lot of his game and I'm more than excited that we've picked up his option," Triano said.

NEXT GAME Friday night, at Memphis Grizzlies, 8 p.m., ET

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