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Jonas Valanciunas, left, and Raptors teammate Amir Johnson battle with Andrea Bargnani, right, of the New York Knicks, during their exhibition game in Toronto on Friday night. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Jonas Valanciunas, left, and Raptors teammate Amir Johnson battle with Andrea Bargnani, right, of the New York Knicks, during their exhibition game in Toronto on Friday night. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NBA

Bargnani finds new life in New York, but old welcome in Toronto Add to ...

A large pack of reporters flooded into the visitors’ locker room before Friday’s practice at the Air Canada Centre, passing by NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Metta World Peace to crowd around former Toronto Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani.

There, the No. 1-overall draft pick in 2006 sat among his New York Knicks teammates during his first visit to the ACC since being traded in June.

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There, the Raptors’ 2006 first overall draft choice sat among his New York Knicks teammates during his first visit back to the ACC since being traded in June. His seven years in Toronto had been filled with exceptional play early on, followed by injuries, sinking production, disappointment under the weight of lofty expectations and the booing, which continued from Raptors fans Friday night. But Bargnani and his new team say his skills are a good fit for the Melo-led Knicks. Even the Raptors predict that the Italian big man could be set to rise again.

“I’m not 45 years old, so, if I’m healthy, I should be able to get in shape,” the 27-year-old seven-footer said of questions about whether he believes he can return to the kind of player that had once averaged 21.4 points per game (2010-11).

“This team plays up-tempo, a lot of running, everybody can play different positions – playing the three, the four, a lot of guys are interchangeable on the floor, and I like this way to play.”

Friday’s preseason game was the first of four times the Knicks will play at the ACC. Bargnani says he wished he had been healthier during his years in Toronto, but declined to speak ill of the team or its fans, who had booed him and called for a trade toward the end of his time in the city. Title-starved Raptors supporters had hungered to see the top pick become the next Dirk Nowitzki.

“I felt like he had been here for so long and he had to carry the organization on his shoulders. After [Chris Bosh] left, everybody was looking to him to do a lot more,” said Raptors forward Amir Johnson, who said it used to annoy the other players to hear fans booing Bargnani. “We were pissed. No matter if he was playing well or not, fans should be supportive.

“We were kind of upset about that, but we had to play through it. If you have a guy in the hole, and the fans are on your back, you can get down on yourself. Hopefully, he’s in a better situation now.”

Johnson says Bargnani was a likeable, funny teammate, and the guys used to rib him for the Primo brand pasta commercials he did.

But at the end, for Toronto, Bargnani became more of a high-priced specialist who could shoot but struggled to do other things the squad needed.

“Andrea gave seven good years to the organization, to me he’s a friend and a class act, but now he’s an opponent. There are no ill feelings from the team toward him,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “With the freshness, the new feeling, not having to be the man, being able to play off of Carmelo, and Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler – I think he might have a bust-out year.”

Knicks coach Mike Woodson says he’s not scared off by Bargnani’s last two seasons in Toronto, when his stats plummeted and he missed significant time because of injuries. Bargnani could be part of a big starting lineup in New York, playing on the perimeter or in the post, and giving Anthony the flexibility to play either spot, too, without having to battle big men.

“I like everything about him,” Woodson said. “I think he fits into the scheme of what we do in New York and how we play. We’re just trying to put him in the best position possible to be successful.”

Follow on Twitter: @RBradyGlobe

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