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Blair: Boo birds more than ready for Bargnani’s return to ACC

Step right up, Andrea Bargnani. Toronto's been waiting.

It may only be the NBA preseason, but Friday night, it's your turn to walk down the well-worn path blazed by the likes of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh, even though the truth is it's all a little unfair.

The three preceding Bargnani were great players who jilted the city. Bargnani, on the other hand, was never as good as then-general manager Bryan Colangelo said he'd be when he was drafted first overall by the Raptors in 2006. And to make matters worse, he was often benign: just sort of there, never tough or nasty enough.

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Bargnani was The Incredible Shrinking Seven-Footer, whose Toronto Raptors career was summed up last season, when he was fouled in the open going up for a jump shot with two seconds and change left in a game against the woeful Charlotte Bobcats.

Bargnani had 25 points that night; the whole world knew he was getting the ball, yet when Bobcats defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hacked him, the referees missed it. It was so obvious the NBA issued a formal apology, but the message was indelible in a league where there is a direct correlation between reputation and officials calls. Bad as the Bobcats were, the folks who whistle while they work had more respect for them than for the Raptors seven-foot, go-to guy.

Bargnani is now with the New York Knicks, who will be at the Air Canada Centre for the first of two preseason games against the Raptors, and there isn't a fan in this title-starved, mean-spirited city who doesn't expect him to be eaten alive by the pressures of playing in New York. Yet, Il Mago has opened up a world of possibilities for Knicks head coach Mike Woodson, who sees his outside skills drawing defenders away from Carmelo Anthony.

Woodson envisions a big lineup, with Tyson Chandler, Bargnani at power forward and Anthony, who had a stellar 2012-13 as power forward, moved back to small forward. It adds a different look to an offence whose predictability was exposed in the playoffs.

It will also, for the Raptors, drive home just how much transition they are experiencing with their own bigs. Jonas Valanciunas, Tyler Hansbrough and Amir Johnson are going to be moved around during the preseason, as head coach Dwane Casey attempts to finalize a rotation for the regular season.

Hansbrough, of course, brings a brutish edge the Raptors have lacked and is being counted on to remove some of the reputation for softness that has dogged the franchise. The 2013-14 Raptors are all about getting back to the core defensive principles Casey had so much success with in his first season, before, in his words, the team "let the pendulum swing too far" toward offence.

Getting a read on how the bigs will co-exist defensively is difficult – as Casey noted after Wednesday's 101-89 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, "You don't do anything tricky [in the preseason] … we're still learning the basics of our defensive gameplan," – and Valanciunas freely admits most of his on-court relationship building with Hansbrough has come as opponents in scrimmage.

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"Right now, it seems as if we're just going at each other in practice," Hansbrough said. "The more the preseason goes on, the more comfortable we'll become with how each other likes to move on the court."

When Bargnani was with the Raptors, Casey seemed perilously close to convincing him he could be a kind of Dirk Nowitzki Lite. In fact, Bargnani looked like an all-star in the early stages of Casey's tenure before injuries and dopiness took over.

Now he's back, in a different uniform, at a time when a certain segment of the Raptors fan base dreams of tanking for one more shot at the first overall pick.

Bargnani might need to wait for the Knicks' first regular-season visit (Dec. 28) to feel the full fury of Toronto fans, but given his brittleness, many might want to take advantage Friday.

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