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Final Training Camp Thoughts…Sampson, the Shooting Guard Spot, oh, and that guy Andrea…

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Bargani - There hasn't been this much PR about a player since VC was still here...

Bargani - There hasn't been this much PR about a player since VC was still here...

By now, Sam Mitchell has put the 2008-09 edition of the Raptors through four practices.

(That’s two days worth of "two-a-days" in Ottawa...good times.)

I’m guessing that Jermaine O’Neal blocked about 90 shots during this time span, that Roko Ukic and Will Solomon were playing some spirited one-on-one to contend for Jose’s back-up spot, and that Joey Graham had Sam Mitchell reneging on his promise to stop swearing.

Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

However with several new faces in tow, it would be interesting to peek into this week’s sessions to see just how heated some of the battles are wouldn’t it? Roko vs. Solomon… Graham vs. Adams…Humphries vs. Sampson?

(Sidebar – How the hell did the Raptors decide that Jamal Sampson was the missing piece for training camp? Perhaps he’s more serviceable than Hoffa, but wasn’t there anyone else out there with a BIT more upside, or was this move made strictly because Jamal is the cousin of former number one overall pick Ralph Sampson? And can they afford to keep him considering how worried BC stated he was about the Raptors’ proximity to the luxury tax mark? Was there a "Buy one former Cal grad, get a future Cal grad for free" deal on? Like The Sportsguy always says, "I feel like we need to know these things!")

Speaking of Solomon, apparently we shouldn’t be surprised if Solomon wins out the back-up point guard spot based on several comments from those around the team, and at Media Day others noted that Kris Humphries could very well be in line for a break-out season.

Hump did look to be in great shape, and when I talked to him about his off-season, he mentioned that the Raptors’ staff at the end of the season did a great job of giving him a list of specific things to work on over the summer. Not only did he work diligently on his list, but he also talked about feeling like he was just getting going in many respects. He elaborated by talking about the make-up of this year’s club, and perhaps having a better opportunity to really show what he can do.

Bryan Colangelo reiterated this later on and suggested that of all of last year’s team, Humphries was the one he felt that the Raptors didn’t make enough use of!

What, not Joey you say? Unbelievable!

(Speaking of which, Joey apparently has a strained hamstring and will be sitting out some of the Ottawa camp.)

More interesting though is Sam Mitchell’s first public statement about the team’s backcourt, in that he’s not sure who will start beside Jose at the 2 spot.

This is extremely interesting considering that many, myself included, assumed that the battle in the starting line-up would be between Moon and Kapono for the starting small forward position. Instead, it seems that Mitchell is looking at perhaps bringing Anthony Parker off the bench or having he and Kapono split time at the 2 spot.

From this morning’s Toronto Star article, it’s hard not to be frustrated with the following quote from Sam Mitchell regarding Kapono’s play during the post-season:

"It re-affirmed why we signed him," the coach said of Kapono's work in the five games against Orlando. "The guy can flat out score."
"It showed me he could do other things than just spot up and shoot. He may not be the quickest guy but he's kind of sneaky and crafty with the basketball. It gives me an opportunity to use him more, run more sets for him. Now we can put the ball in his hands and not only can he create a shot for himself, he can create a shot for his teammates."

Um…shouldn’t Mitchell have figured this out BEFORE the last four games of the season? Most of our readers had been saying this all year and yet the Raptors’ biggest free-agent acquisition languished on the bench or rarely touched the ball from January to basically May.

Regardless of who comes off the bench though, the fact of the matter though is that someone, or some combination of players, is going to have to take the next step if the Raptors wish to play with the other big boys in the conference. Already various "experts" are conveying concerns regarding Toronto’s bench and while as fans we tend to live by the expression "hope springs eternal," names such as Hassan Adams, Roko Ukic, Kris Humphries and Will Solomon admittedly do little to strike fear in the hearts of opponents.

So with that in mind, a 10th place ranking from Marc Stein in his first edition of ESPN.com’s "Power Rankings" is not so bad.

Neither is John Hollinger’s prediction of a fifth place finish in the East and a 47 and 35 record.

Interestingly, Hollinger argues that last year’s version of the Raptors, despite winning only 41 games, actually had the stats of a 51 win squad. While I’ve never been completely in sync with all of Hollinger’s logic and metrics, you’ve got to hand it to him for a very thorough job on breaking down the Dinos. (Most years it’s blatantly obvious to us fans that the "expert" doing the preview failed to watch the team play even once.) Perhaps most telling, was his assessment of Andrea Bargnani.

"Bargnani shot 38.6 percent from the floor with a 10.68 player efficiency rating; given his defensive shortcomings, he was one of the worst players in the league to see regular minutes.

Compare him to the Raptors' other big men and you can see how costly his playing time was. Rasho Nesterovic shot 55 percent with a 16.23 PER; Kris Humphries shot 48.3 percent and had a 15.72 PER; and little-used Maceo Baston also shot well and posted a strong PER. Had the Raptors simply benched Bargnani and played the other three guys more, they would have projected to win 3-to-5 more games, depending on your playing time assumptions for the others. That, in turn, might have been enough for them to finish fourth in the East and host a first-round playoff series."

I’m not sure replacing Bargnani last year with Baston would have helped out much but the point is that Andrea was bad like Michael Jackson. In fact the newest member of the Raptors, Jamal Sampson, hasn’t had a PER under 11.47 since his rookie season!

So looking at Bargs going into this season, you’d have to say that he has almost nowhere to go but up and I truly believe we’ll see a much better season from him this year. It has nothing to do with Andrea putting on weight in the off-season either, or even his health really. I just think that with him out of the starting line-up, and able to get comfortable again in the offense, it will make all the difference.

That’s one thing I wished that I had asked BC actually; if going back in time, Bryan would have handled the whole "Bargs in the starting lineup, Bargs on the bench" yo-yo thing differently. I do believe that Andrea had some health and adjustment issues as Colangelo alluded to, but I was hoping to also hear a bit more in terms of the technicalities of why "Il Mago" was hardly a magician last season. Was he indeed shooting and making his moves off the wrong foot? Had he changed his shot? Was he using too much styling product in his hair thus preventing him from staying balanced through his follow-through?

Unfortunately these types of things were never discussed and at times it seemed like everyone was in full "protect the former top pick" mode. I’m by no means ready to write Andrea off yet, but I have to admit that I found myself wondering if this is what it felt like to be a journalist at a Washington Wizards’ Media Day circa 2003.

I did ask BC however if making the JO trade meant a fundamental change in his philosophy from how he first envisioned the team’s construction upon his arrival in Toronto.

His response was that no, he wanted to build a winning team from day one and that while some felt he had abandoned plan (at this point he gazed straight at a certain "usually negative Star reporter"), it was simply a matter of constantly changing up pieces to address the team’s weaknesses. (Usually negative Star reporter’s response: "but you DID abandon the plan!")

Perhaps BC has always been a bit too ready to make excuses for his number one overall pick, but one thing we’ve always liked is that he’s not afraid to go and fix things quickly if they’re not working. That’s why as much as BC wants to say that Andrea will be fine, the fact that he traded for someone to take his spot in the starting lineup speaks volumes.

However BC wasn’t the only one putting a positive spin on the Bargnani situation.

JO was singing Il Mago's praises at Media Day...

JO was singing Il Mago's praises at Media Day...

Jermaine O’Neal spoke a length about Andrea saying that he was "quicker than almost every player that size that he’d ever had to guard."

He also went on to say that Bargs worked very hard during their time together in Vegas, and that he was very excited to see just how dynamic a presence he, Bosh and Andrea could be on the court.

I’ve posted some video clips of this to our RaptorsHQ channel on Youtube and you can see them by clicking here. Unfortunately the sound quality isn’t great so you may have to crank it up. (I’ll be sporting a mic next time around.)

While it’s exciting to hear O’Neal speak so highly of Andrea, the proof will be in the proverbial pudding.

With the pre-season about to tip off in only days, it will soon be time to see if season number 3 will showcase Andrea as a player in the mould of Chris Bosh - a young star with lots of upside, or of Joey Graham – vast potential that will probably never be realized.

FRANCHISE