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Toronto Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani (Frank Gunn/CP)
Toronto Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani (Frank Gunn/CP)

NBA

Raptors need Bargnani to bang the boards Add to ...

The conversation went like this, reporter to Andrea Bargnani, the Toronto Raptors’ seven-foot centre: “How is your game going to change under new head coach Dwane Casey?

Bargnani: “I think we’re going to have to step up defensively. We’re going to have to do a better job because last year we were one of the worst teams in the league. So our defence needs to be much better.”

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Reporter: “How about your game personally, rebounding in particular?”

Bargnani: “Just like my teammates, we’ve got to get better. Everybody’s got to step up. I’ve got to be a better rebounder for my team as well.”

Reporter: “How can you accomplish that?”

Bargnani: “Getting more rebounds.”

Reporter: “Yeah?”

Bargnani: “You got another way to accomplish that, just let me know.”

Therein lies the conundrum that is Andrea Bargnani, the first pick overall from the 2006 draft who seems unwilling – or unable – to pluck loose balls off the backboard with any authority despite his obvious physical advantages.

Bargnani remains a superior offensive talent, a rare seven footer who can step back and drain the three-point shot. Last season, Bargnani led Toronto with a scoring average of 21.3 points, connecting on 34.5 per cent (77 of 223) of his attempts from beyond the arc.

But the men who run the NBA team have yet to figure out how to coax more from the Italian big man who concluded the 2010-11 season with a paltry average of 5.2 rebounds a game.

That actually represented a decrease of one a game from the season before and was likely the impetus behind general manager Bryan Colangelo’s stinging end-of-season critique when he described Bargnani as “the enigma of enigmas.”

Bargnani obviously never heard former NBA and Raptors power forward Charles Oakley once boast that bigger players should be able to grab at least 10 rebounds a game just by standing there.

The irascible Sam Mitchell, Bargnani’s first NBA coach in Toronto, was unable to get more rebounding out of Bargnani, and neither was his more laid-back successor, Jay Triano.

Now the task rests with Casey, the rookie coach who comes to town vowing to turn the Raptors into some sort of a credible defensive force that was far too often wanting during a 22-60 debacle of a season ago.

Casey comes armed with a pretty good résumé that was honed in Dallas as an assistant with the Mavericks. He managed to convince Dirk Nowitzki and others that there was also a defensive end to a basketball court.

Nowitzki, a seven footer like Bargnani, averaged 23 points while hauling down seven rebounds a game last season when the Mavericks enjoyed their championship romp.

And Casey does not mince words when he said that 5.2 from his seven footer will not cut it in his book this season. It has to go up, way up.

“And he’s done an excellent job so far in practice, as far as going to the boards,” Casey said this week as the Raptors continued training camp in preparation for the truncated 2011-12 season.

The Raptors will play their first of two exhibition contests on Sunday at the Air Canada Centre against the Boston Celtics before their 66-game regular season begins on Dec. 26 in Cleveland against the Cavaliers.

To hear Casey explain it, the task for Bargnani sounds relatively simple.

“I told him we need two [rebounds]a quarter,” Casey said. “Two a quarter, you’re up to eight, and you fall into a couple more. That’s our goal with him.

“He’s made a concentrated effort of doing that. We had dinner the other night, we talked about it extensively. And that’s one of his goals this year is to be a better rebounder.”

The Raptors have added a couple of free-agent centres in 6-foot-11 Jamaal Magloire and seven-foot, 270-pound Aaron Gray, whose presence will allow Bargnani to play more power forward, a spot he feels most comfortable at.

“We got more size now, it’s always good to have size,” Bargnani said.

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