On a recent Toronto Raptors road trip, the cool kids had settled into the back of the bus when, to their surprise, a seven-foot interloper ambled into their midst.
"All of a sudden we look, and here comes Andrea [Bargnani] sitting at the back of the bus," said guard Sonny Weems after practice on Tuesday. "We're like, 'Where you going, to the bathroom or somethin'?' But he just sat right down."
The Raptors say there's something different about the big forward this season, and it's not just where he sits.
The old Bargnani was quiet, unassuming, a little bit of a mystery. The new Bargnani is a prolific texter; someone who might join in on a FIFA video-game session, or even weigh in on his team's weak performance.
"Dre's definitely growing," said Reggie Evans. "I can't say he was shy or whatever, but I think he feels more comfortable with this team here and I think he is a lot more relaxed with what we have here. It's really starting to show and he's really starting to open up a lot."
When the Celtics were burying the Raptors last week, Evans - a 30-year-old forward who doesn't shy away from making his feelings known - heard an unfamiliar voice pipe up.
"[Bargnani]said some stuff on the bench … about something he didn't like during the game, which was good. He voiced it. We were like, 'Yeah, you're right.' "
Chemistry is something this young Raptors squad will need this season, with so many new faces on the roster and a hole left behind by Chris Bosh, their old leader, spokesman, and top scorer. More sociable players such as Jarrett Jack, DeMar DeRozan, and Weems have already gelled, but one X-factor heading into the season would be how comfortable Bargnani would feel stepping into a leadership role.
Bargnani is probably closest to his brother, a university student who lives with him in his condo on the lake shore and attends games from time to time. His parents sometimes visit from Italy. But his social network may be expanding, even to include the affable, gregarious Weems.
"I was hanging out with Andrea a little bit yesterday. So, there's a first time for everything," Weems said. "He's a real humble dude. … Basically, he talks about the same things we talk about. His background's way different from ours, but when we have a conversation, he joins in."
(Weems is particularly happy to have another guy to rib his buddy, DeRozan said. "Say I'm joking about DeMar - he jumps right in.")
It's clear he's not going to become a team spokesman overnight. And the team is still waiting for the 24-year-old to find his comfort zone on the court (he's struggled miserably to find his shot in the preseason). But the bus situation has stuck, Weems said, and that bodes well for the future.
"You know, everybody's up front, the coaches and everything. Andrea's like the only European dude back there. The only one. It's like me, Reggie, DeMar, Jarrett, Joey [Dorsey] and there's Andrea. So that's a big difference," Weems said. "I'm enjoying every minute of it."
The Raptors, 3-3, face the Chicago Bulls, 2-4, on Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre in their second-to-last game of the preseason.
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