In Toronto, Andrea Bargnani had become unpopular with the fan base and the management long before he was traded to New York. As usual, some of the fallout was fair and some was unfair, but the Knicks need to avoid creating the same problems the Raptors did by labeling him a franchise level player.
Bargnani has talent and the big seven foot forward/center can play hard at both ends of the court. However, the former first overall draft pick with the apparent potential to be a franchise guy didn’t get a maximum contract after his rookie deal in the summer of 2010. Bargnani signed the typical $10 million per season offer made to young players that are pretty good, but not great because that was who he was and by all accounts, still could be.
The knocks Bargnani took in Toronto will show up fast in New York. “Il Mago” is notoriously bad with the press and can have a terrible locker room image when the media is in the room postgame. Unfortunately, part of this negative image is actually on the media.
Bargnani’s first language is not English and the big guy will try to answer every question whether he actually understands it or not. From personal observation, this can make for some pretty unacceptable answers and in the push of a media scrum, there usually isn’t an opportunity to rephrase a question, if in fact anyone noticed he didn’t get it at the time. Bargnani’s spoken English sounds decent enough, but that only makes things more challenging.
Another issue sure to raise its ugly head in New York will come after Bargnani has a bad shooting game. As a shooter, this is guaranteed to happen at the worse time eventually and his seemingly aloof stock answer of, ‘sometimes it goes in and sometimes it doesn’t’ won’t resonate well for very long and comes off like he doesn’t care. Bargnani cares, it just isn’t easy to get a quote out of him that expresses his feelings. He comes across the same way after wins, losses, good games and bad games. It took years for Bargnani to get a comfort level with the media in Toronto, but eventually, he even started to crack a few jokes. Unfortunately, the press often didn’t get that he was trying to be funny right away, sort of like Bargnani didn’t always seem to get the questions.
The locker room image is another issue entirely. Bargnani is not a leader. He is not a leader on the court and he is not a leader in the room. In the locker room, interaction between Bargnani and his teammates always appeared to be at a minimum. It became a big story in Toronto a few seasons ago when his teammates expressed surprise that Bargnani had walked to the back of the team bus and sat with them. In some ways, on the court it was worse. As primarily an outside jump shooter, when Bargnani did establish position in the post with a smaller guy on him, his teammates often ignored his calls for the ball, in part because they were not expecting it. Bargnani filled a role on the Raptors and when he stepped even slightly outside of it, the chemistry with his teammates wasn’t there.
One concern that should be correctable, but might be missed in the confusion and excitement of a trade, is Bargnani didn’t always seem to arrive at training camp in the best shape after spending the summer with his National Team. It’s probably due to the very big differences in how players practice, train and play in Europe and there were years it didn’t look like Bargnani was ready for the NBA game when he came back in October. It is hard to tell if these lapses were more the result of resting his reoccurring injuries of the past several seasons during the summer or a less than acceptable rehab and workout routine, but Bargnani missed most of last season and wasn’t able to work out until June after his latest elbow injury. There should be some be some level of concern this year as well.
Also, when the Raptors went into ‘tank mode’ towards the end of the last few seasons, Bargnani went with them. Bargnani follows what is happening with the team. When the team isn’t trying, Bargnani can lead to way to even less effort. This isn’t a player who plays hard with nothing on the line but pride.
Bargnani is a scorer. He can hit the outside jump shot, but he’s no Steve Novak, Bargnani will go 0-6 from deep sometimes and he’ll keep shooting. Last season he had an inexplicable 2-19 shooting performance in a close game against the Spurs. He can put up the 30 point game and against the Knicks he scored a career high 41 points in 2010. That is who he is and who he isn’t, is a rebounder. Bargnani doesn’t rebound and no amount of coaching or media pressure is going to change that.
Bargnani doesn’t rebound despite his size, willingness to box out his man and apparent desire from time-to-time because of his absent court awareness. This gap in Bargnani’s ability shows up most glaringly at the defensive end of the court when he fails to see what anyone is doing except his own man. Where Bargnani is an effective man-on-man defender even when switched onto guards and wings, he has almost zero ability to provide help defense even in the most obvious of circumstances. Similarly, when a shot goes up, Bargnani rarely seems to have any idea about where to be to collect the rebound. If the Knicks use Bargnani incorrectly on defense or expect him to collect boards because he is seven feet tall, it’s going to be a long uncomfortable season in New York.
Despite his flaws, the Knicks are excited about acquiring Bargnani and they should be. If healthy, Il Mago can help the Knicks win games next season. Bargnani will try to do everything Head Coach Mike Woodson asks of him and hopefully, Woodson asks him to do the things he can do well. Bargnani can cover the pick-and-roll on defense, switch onto the guard and stay in front of the offensive player all the way to the rim. Just don’t expect him to see the cutter coming from the weak side and react or grab the rebound, that’s not going to happen. Bargnani can be a nightmare to cover on the perimeter when his shot is falling and he can drive by big men foolish enough to wander out to the three-point line to guard him, but when his shot isn’t falling, don’t give Bargnani the ball at the end of the shot clock and expect something good to happen.
Bargnani got a rough ride in Toronto over the past several years and has even had his detractors from day one. Some of that is on the Raptors organization and some of it comes from being the first overall draft pick in a poor draft year with no consensus top pick available. Bargnani is a seven-footer that doesn’t rebound well, isn’t a good help defender and doesn’t provide leadership. What he does well is listen to his coaches, play the role assigned to him, spread the floor for other players and can be a huge scoring threat. If used properly, Bargnani can help the Knicks win games next season. Hopefully the Knicks don’t see Il Mago as someone he isn’t and become disillusioned when he can’t do what he has never done.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.
You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors