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The X Factor Report - Andrea Bargnani

With DeRozan and Turkoglu accounted for, Franchise turns his attention to his third individual X-Factor report of the off-season; Andrea Bargnani.

12.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.8 blocks, 42 per cent from the field and 38 per cent from long range.

These are the career averages of Andrea Bargnani.

Do they sound like the averages of a former first overall pick with three years NBA experience?

Not exactly.

And yet this past off-season, the Toronto Raptors decided to re-sign Andrea to a five-year, $50 Million dollar extension, likely keeping him in TO for the next half a decade.

Does this make sense?

Well I won't drone on about my lack of comprehension behind the timing of this signing by Raptors' management, however it's obvious as to why the decision was eventually made.

It's all about upside.

As Raptor fans know, the previous statistics are only a glimpse into the world of "Il Mago."  After a "lost at sea" sophomore campaign, Andrea finally broke through in the second half of last season with new coach Jay Triano at the reigns.  He averaged 19.8, 17.9 and 20.3 points respectively from January through March and saw his rebounding and block numbers jump up as well.  The thinking of course was that this was finally a true glimpse of the player Bryan Colangelo had assumed he was drafting back in 2006, and that this coming season would finally be a chance for Andrea to show his All-Star potential.

But of course this is no guaranteed scenario.  With three quarters of last year's team replaced, and another adept ball-handler and multi-talented offensive force in the starting line-up with him, Raptors' fans could be in for another roller-coaster season from Andrea as he tries to get accustomed to yet another new role and of course new teammates.  (Luckily some of these he's had the pleasure of playing with before and some he's even shot commercials with.)

Also troublesome is his recent performance at the European Championships underway right now in Poland.  Even with three NBA players on the roster (including new Raptors' teammate Marco Belinelli), Bargnani's squad was quickly eliminated from medal contention after disappointing losses to teams like Finland - hardly basketball powerhouses.

The Italian press in fact placed much of the blame for the losses on Bargnani.  La Gazzetta Dello Sport even went so far as to say that Bargs justified his "Il Mago" nickname by being able to disappear in games right before the eyes of the crowd!

Unfortunately as Raptors' fans, we've seen this movie before too; the one where Andrea disappears in games for long stretches and in the process ends up being a walking-running basketball liability.

However at other times, there's no denying that Bargnani is simply unstoppable, able to score from inside and out, as demonstrated in this highlight package.

So the question for Raptors' fans, is which Andrea shows up this year, and if it's the unstoppable version, can this level of play be sustained for an entire season?  We've seen flashes of brilliance and even some sustainability over a period of a few months, but after three seasons, it's really hard to know just what you're going to get from Andrea night-in and night-out.

And really to me, that's what makes Bargs the club's biggest X Factor going into the season.  More than any other player on the roster, his level of play could determine how successful this team is, and more than any other player, it's extremely hard to know just what to expect from him in 2009-10.  However should he take the next step in his career as many predict, then suddenly the current version of the Toronto Raptors will be very tough to stop.

The player that Bargnani is most often compared to is Dirk Nowitzki.  Both have great mobility, quickness, and shooting touch for players their size, not to mention both are foreign stars.  Andrea may in fact be more mobile than Dirk, however he's yet to show that he's got the same all-around game, especially in the paint, nor have the same grit and mental toughness as Nowitzki.

Dirk is hardly Dwyane Wade, however he's shed his "soft" level over the past few seasons, and continues to be one of the most consistent players in the league.  He's averaged around 25 points a game his last five years to go with a shade under 9 boards, and is the unquestioned leader of his Dallas Mavericks ball club.  Bargnani on the other hand is hardly the leader of the Raptors, nor has he shown any degree of consistency through three seasons.

However there are major differences between Nowitzki and Bargnani in terms of their career development paths so I'm not sure it's fair to simply line them up side by side. 

For instance Dirk became his club's focal point pretty much by the end of season two and therefore in his third season, broke out upping his scoring from about 18 points a game to 22, and his rebounding from 6 to 9.

Bargnani really only became the second option offensively for Toronto late last year and in his first two seasons, found himself constantly in and out of the rotation, not to mention battling various injuries.

So perhaps Andrea is one year behind the curve then.

Perhaps this indeed is the year he makes good on the Nowitzki comparisons and maybe even surpasses his German doppelganger.

The opportunity is certainly there.  However he'll need to seize it from day one of training camp; another late-season surge won't do if this club has playoff aspirations. 

Luckily, Andrea will have lots of help in sharpening his teeth in practice.  No longer will he be be matched up with the likes of Patrick O'Bryant and Kris Humphries each day as players like Rasho Nesterovic, Amir Johnson and Reggie Evans promise to offer Bargs a variety of interesting match-ups outside of game play.  Fans saw giant strides in Andrea's one-on-one defense by the end of last year however he's still got lots of work to do on things like rebounding in traffic and help-side defense.

In fact it's Bargs' paltry rebounding numbers considering his size and position on the court that probably bring him the most heat.  Basketball analysts bemoan his terrible boardwork and while as mentioned, he did show signs of life in this area, there's no question that he needs to take another step this year.  While an improved offensive skill-set would be a big boost for the Raptors, an Andrea Bargnani who grabs at least seven or eight rebounds a game would be an even bigger asset.  With a starting line-up that appears to have "rebounding issues" written all over it, Bargs needs to at least be able to help Chris Bosh hold down the fort in this capacity.  If not, then Raptors' fans may find themselves pulling out their collective hair as opponents get second-chance opportunities time and time again.

In my books, Andrea really is the ultimate X Factor going into the season and Toronto's playoff fate this season may very well rest in his hands.

Should he increase his offensive prowess without doing so at his teammates' expense, this would make the Raptors a very tough team to defend.

And should he help the team get stops, and focus more on team rebounding and defence, then this adds a whole new dimension to the Raptors that many, myself included, do not expect.

As mentioned, this could indeed be the difference in the end between making the playoffs and watching from the sidelines.  Again, the ability is there, we've seen it on numerous occasions over his career so far.

However this is the season where Raptors' fans need to see it shine through for good.