Former Toronto Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell has next Friday, Dec. 17th circled on his calendar, and not just because it will mark his return to the Air Canada Centre for the first time since he was fired roughly two years ago last month.
Now an assistant coach with the New Jersey Nets, it’s Mitchell’s job to help figure how to defend the Raptors, who host the Nets a week Friday, and increasingly that means figuring out how to stop Andrea Bargnani.
The big Italian dropped a career-high 41 points Wednesday to go along with seven rebounds and six assist on the Knicks and had his game-tying three offset by the Knicks buzzer beater and just across the Hudson River, Mitchell noticed.
“You look at the numbers he’s putting up, he’s becoming a guy you have to game plan for,” said Mitchell when I called him. “The way he’s scoring the basketball, the way he’s shooting it, you got to game plan for him. He’s putting up some unbelievable numbers.”
Or at least some pretty good ones as Bargnani is averaging 22 points and 5.9 rebounds on 47.2 per cent shooting through 22 games.
But the most important number that can be attached to Bargnani right now is his contract, which runs for four more seasons at $42-million.
Much of the criticism directed at Bargnani through five uneven seasons has started with the notion that he was the No.1 pick in the 2006 draft.
Top picks should be LeBron or Shaq or even Derrick Rose: players who can change your franchise.
But 2006 is proving to be an atrocious draft class. All you need to know about it really, was that Adam Morrison was taken No.3, and he’s out of the NBA, and Sheldon Williams was taken fifth, and probably should be.
But still Bryan Colangelo was picking first overall, should he have at least got the best player? Up until now it was pretty clear he hadn’t
Brandon Roy of Portland is easily the best player of that class and Colangelo said earlier this season he would have taken him fifth if the Raptors hadn’t won the draft lottery.
He didn’t take him first because Bargnani was too enticing and in part because even then Roy’s medical history suggested knee problems to come. Interestingly that day has arrived, with the Portland guard playing with constant pain in his knees and his game adjusting accordingly.
LaMarcus Aldridge, taken No.2 overall, also by Portland, is proving to be a solid player, but his production – 16.5 points and 7.7 rebounds on 43.5 per cent shooting on a per 36 minutes – hardly jumps off the page.
Perhaps the most improved of the bunch is Rudy Gay of Memphis, who was taken No.8th and is starting to harness his exceptional talent, averaging 19 points and 5.6 rebounds a game while shooting 48.6 per cent from the floor and 41.6 per cent from deep.
Given the woeful state (documented in chilling detail here by Tom Liston) of the Raptors wing play of late (well, since Vince Carter left) Gay would look pretty nice in Toronto's lineup.
Regardless, the real No.1 out of that class was Rajon Rondo, who is putting together an MVP-type season for Boston and who somehow slipped to No.20, but there was no way he was going to be taken No.1, so it’s a moot point.
So was Bargnani the right guy to take No.1? Maybe, maybe not.
The good news is Bargnani still seems to be developing; his theoretical ceiling remains high enough he’ll probably disappoint people for years.
“I always felt like he was the closest thing to Dirk Nowitzki I’d seen,” says Mitchell. “A 7-footer who can put the ball on the floor and shoot with range, and he had a mid-range game and I always felt like he was as better athlete than Dirk, so at some point you thought he might have a chance to be an even better scorer than Dirk because he was a better athlete. He’s going to get better. He’s a young player, he’s a very intelligent player, and he can flat-out shoot the basketball.”
But perhaps the best way to rate Bargnani is not as the No.1 pick, but as the No.5 pick, because that’s where he stands on payday, compared to his peers.
The extension Colangelo signed him to in the summer of 2009 might have looked rich then, but now? The four years and $42-million Bargnani has remaining on his contract look like spectacular value.
Roy, with the creaky knees at age 26, is owed $70-million over the next four years as his Gay. Aldridge, equally as enigmatic as Bargnani and no one’s definition of a go-to scorer, is owed $54-million over the next four. Rondo is underpaid at $46-million for the next four, but it's still more than Bargnani is getting.
For a long time Bargnani going No.1 was a bit of albatross for Colangelo as his development stalled and sputtered. Failing to get more out of Bargnani was at least one reason Mitchell was fired, all the while swirled the unknown: what if they'd taken Roy; why not Gay?
No one saying that now, certainly not come pay day. Safe to say with Colangelo looking for his own contract extension and the NBA heading for a lockout that promises to restrict team spending even further, having Bargnani as the fifth-best paid player in his class can only bolster Colangelo's argument for a raise.
It might even make up for signing Hedo Turkoglu.
Anyway, feel free to follow me on Twitter: @michaelgrange