Andrea Bargnani

This is one of the few times that Andrea Bargnani has been photographed willingly offering the ball to someone else. (Getty Images)

With seven days to go until the start of the Toronto Raptors 2010-11 season, I’m profiling each of the guys I expect to make up the Raptors’ primary 10-man rotation on opening night. Today, we look at Andrea Bargnani.

Andrea Bargnani, C/PF, 7’0″, 250 lbs.
2009-10 stats:
80 games, 35.0 MPG, 17.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.4 BPG, 0.3 SPG, .470 FG%, .372 3P%, .774 FT%, 15.5 PER

As one of the charter members of the “Andrea Bargnani Hateration Collective” (est. 2007), this is probably where you might expect to read my annual airing of grievances regarding his rebounding and defensive deficiencies. But you know what? I’m not going to do that — partially because I’m tired of it (and so are most of you) but mostly because I want to come to terms with who Andrea Bargnani is and how the Raptors can make the best use of his unusual skillset.

If there’s one thing most of us can probably agree on when it comes to Bargnani, it’s that we wouldn’t have had such high expectations of his ceiling if he wasn’t a first overall draft pick — and the only first overall pick in Raptors franchise history. Fairly or unfairly, for years he was compared to Dirk Nowitzki because of his height, shooting range and skin color. There’s an “Andrea Bargnani is Better Than Dirk Nowitzki” Facebook group with 97 members (many of them Italian, unsurprisingly). While I can’t find the exact quote, I remember Nowitzki himself said that Bargnani was better than he was at that age after they faced each other a couple of seasons ago.

So what happened? Well, it wouldn’t be nearly as hard as it is to be a general manager in professional sports if everybody lived up to their supposed potential. Rather than comparing him to Nowitzki, it seems like a more reasonable comparison for Bargnani is Tom Chambers — a tall guy who was deceivingly athletic for his size, had good shooting range, and averaged 18.1 points and 6.1 rebounds over his career. Don’t those look like Bargnani numbers? For what it’s worth, Chambers averaged over 20 points per game in five seasons (topping out at 27.2 PPG at the age of 30) and played in four All-Star Games. Who would be unhappy with a career arc like that for Bargnani?

What remains to be seen is how well Bargnani can handle facing the opposing teams’ best defensive big men now that Chris Bosh has left the building. If the Raptors go forward with their plan to start Reggie Evans next to him in the frontcourt, it’s safe to say that their opponents will only concern themselves with one of Toronto’s big men on the offensive end. Along with the obvious improvements we’d like to see Bargnani make on help defense and on the boards, he needs to continue to expand his offensive repertoire so he’s less predictable and therefore more difficult to cover. His patented pump-fake dribble drive from the top of the arc is probably going to decrease in effectiveness once players like Kevin Garnett and Al Horford are keying in on him.

One thing I won’t ask Bargnani to do is take fewer three-pointers. A lot of Raptors fans seem to want to convert him into more of a low-post player, but that’s just not his strength and it likely never will be. If Bargnani is able to continue to make around 38 percent of his three-pointers as a more featured part of the Raptors offense, I’d want him to jack up more treys rather than less. If the Raptors continue their preseason trend of playing at a fast pace, I’d like to see Bargnani fire a couple of long bombs per game as the trailer on fast breaks. Let a shooter shoot, y’all!

The way I see it, the best thing we can do in terms of Bargnani’s continued development and ongoing mental well-being is to stop expecting him to become somebody he’s not and instead focus on getting the most out of who he is. Just like we don’t expect or want Reggie Evans to start showcasing his mid-range game, it’s time we stop expecting Bargnani to average 10 rebounds or two blocks per game. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but my goal in following Bargnani this season will be to look for encouraging signs of improvement and maturity rather than continuing to harp on the same old things he’ll probably always suck at.

I figure I should be able to keep up that positive attitude for about 10 games, max.