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Toronto Raptors Andrea Bargnani . REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)
Toronto Raptors Andrea Bargnani . REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)

Hayley Mick

Raptors waiting on Bargnani Add to ...

At halftime during the Toronto Raptors preseason home game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, Toronto's heir apparent turned to his coaches and asked, "What am I doing wrong?"

The immediate answer was obvious. Andrea Bargnani wasn't scoring; he was a dreadful 1-for-7 from the floor.

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More than that, though, he was failing in his new role as the team's top scorer, the guy expected to lead a young team full of new faces, and, in effect, be the franchise's new Chris Bosh.

None of the coaches are saying this. Raptors head coach Jay Triano has stressed that the 24-year-old Italian is not expected suddenly to be "the man" who takes 40 shots a game. General manager Bryan Colangelo has predicted his scoring average will rise (he averaged 17.2 points a game last season) without Bosh, but that his leadership status may, or may not, evolve. His struggles so far, Triano says, are the natural product of finding his groove in a new lineup (he has averaged eight points a game and is shooting 22 per cent).

The preseason isn't the time to pass judgment. But more than any other moment since he was drafted first overall by the Toronto Raptors, Bargnani must step up this season. Toronto will need all his weapons: His height for rebounds, his ability to score - both in three-point land and under the hoop, where he's less comfortable. All this, without Bosh to draw away defenders.

Those who've watched his career say Bargnani is up to the challenge. the Raptors senior vice-president of basketball operations, Maurizio Gherardini, says he's watched him thrive under pressure, whether leading the underdog Benetton to Italy's Lega A championship, or moving to a new continent as the NBA's No. 1 draft pick in 2006 at age 20, and consistently scoring in the double-digits.

"I have witnessed a guy that was always ready to face the challenge," he said.

Still, his shaky start this season, following a strong showing this summer playing for Italy at the world championships, suggests something might be off.

If Bargnani is feeling the pressure of suddenly being thrust into a leadership role, he wouldn't be the first.

"What happens with expectations, is if they start to overwhelm us, it is then we actually physiologically react to that. We breath faster, we sweat more, we tighten up. You can't get away with that in sport," said Penny Werthner, a University of Ottawa sports psychologist who has worked with numerous Olympic athletes, ranging from freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau to kayaker Adam van Koeverden.

Athletes are expected not only to fill the void in their performance, but also face greater scrutiny from fans, the media, and coaches, she said.

Some embrace it, others stumble.

When quarterback Brett Favre left the Green Bay Packers in 2008, Aaron Rodgers was expected to deliver the team to greatness. He didn't. The team won only six games that season.

Scottie Pippen was expected to take over the Chicago Bulls after Michael Jordan's first retirement, but the team struggled for a season and a half before Jordan finally decided to return. And while Pippen did assume a leadership role, the transition wasn't seamless. (During the 1994 NBA playoffs, with 1.8 seconds remaining on the clock and the score tied in a game against the New York Knicks, Pippen was so angered by coach Phil Jackson's decision to not let him take the potential game-winner that he refused to leave the bench and re-enter the game after a time-out. The Bulls eventually won, but television cameras caught Jackson storming off the court.)

When Wayne Gretzky left the Edmonton Oilers, everyone figured they'd never be a Stanley Cup contender again. Sure enough, Mark Messier stepped up and led the team to its first Gretzky-less Cup, proving they didn't need the Great One to be great.

It's not obvious that Bargnani has embraced his new role. Happy to slip past reporters quietly, he's not the spokesman that Bosh was, or a dominant presence on the court. At least not yet.

Gherardini says that's just Bargnani's way of controlling the expectations he knows are there.

"Being a noisy leader has never been in his character, but that doesn't mean he doesn't feel things, he doesn't see what people expect of him."

He responds with hard work, he said; by practising on his day off, as he did on Thursday, or asking for advice, as Gherardini watched him do on Wednesday.

"He kept going through his mistakes, but getting better," he said. "We still have to see how the team chemistry settles. What he needs to do is to become one of the primary references of the team. To demand more, just like he did this summer. To say, 'give me the ball.'

"He knows he can give a lot to this team."

 

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