Andrea Bargnani has put up his fair share of points over his NBA career, but this is the first season that the former number one overall pick is living up to his lofty draft status...
"Ok, let's start with Darko."
"How about a more mobile guy like Derrick Williams."
"Perhaps a more experienced and gritty defender...Tolliver, you're up."
"I give up."
Minnesota Timberwolves' coach Rick Adelman's thought process regarding the defense of Andrea Bargnani may have gone something like that last night.
Because no matter who the Wolves threw at Bargs, they were powerless in terms of keeping the seven-footer in check.
Bargs of course scored 31 points, helping to propel the Dinos to a 97 to 87 win over Adelman's Wolves, but strictly highlighting the 31 though would be a disservice to his play last night. Even mentioning the nine rebounds, an anomaly for Andrea, or any other box score stat, isn't enough.
You really have to go back and watch the game.
You have to see how Bargs truly dictated the Wolves' defensive scheme, how he determined when double-teams came, and how he refused to defer to others in key moments.
This was the Andrea Bargnani I've been waiting five years for.
Sure, he hit on only 11 of his 25 shots, but a few of these misses were "beat the clock" attempts, and others were open looks that just didn't go down. Compare his shot selection last night to well, almost any game last season and there's a huge difference; Andrea wasn't taking contested 20-footers here, he was making the right decision with the ball on pretty much every single play.
A look at his shot chart last night backs this up.
Of his 25 shots, six were at the rim, five of which he made.
Historically, he's attempted about half of that number, with the bulk of his looks coming of course from a much longer range.
Some of this has to do with the presence of Chris Bosh earlier in Andrea's career of course, but even last season sans-Bosh, Bargnani was only attempting 3.6 shots near the cup, despite having mismatches on most nights.
And really, the shots at the rim last night as well as the team-high nine free-throw attempts (he leads the team in this category by a huge margin - DeMar DeRozan is second with only 3.3 attempts per game) are only part of the puzzle that is Andrea Bargnani.
There was never any doubting the skill level of the former number one overall pick. Very rarely have we seen a seven foot player who possessed Andrea's combination of quickness, shooting touch and ball-handling ability.
No, it was instead those consistent questions regarding effort, heart, desire, and those other adjectives basketball media and fans love to throw around when examining the contributions of supposed star players. You watched Andrea play, saw glimpses of the "talent" part of his game, but very rarely saw the consistent application of said adjectives, which is partly what made him such a frustrating figure for Raptors' fans.
Last night though you were left with no such questions as there was Bargs, fighting tooth and nail in the paint, attacking over and over again, and as the National Post's Eric Koreen noted this morning, at last playing at a level that out-paced his box score contribution, the opposite of what his career had indicated to this point.
That's why despite Amir Johnson's MVP show last night, Andrea Bargnani's performance was more important to me.
We've always known that Amir could be a key contributor to a winning team thanks to his rebounding, shot-blocking, defence and hustle. He reinforced this last night with an unreal 19 points and 11 rebounds in addition to holding Kevin Love to an atrocious 3 of 16 shooting from the field.
But I was convinced that Andrea Bargnani, unless used in some sixth man role, was not such an integral piece, let alone an effective one.
Every advanced stat and piece of anecdotal evidence backed this up, but Andrea's play so far this season has given me reason to think, no hope, that I was wrong.
Now, we're talking about a player that not only is putting points on the board, but doing it in an efficient manner, contributing at both ends of the court.
And the advanced statistics are suddenly pointing in his favour.
Bargnani's sporting a PER of 23.5 but also has the highest true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, rebounding percentage, assist percentage, and offensive and defensive ratings of his career.
Can he keep this up?
That's really the million dollar question and many folks during the game noted via Twitter that after five years of disappointment, they were going to give this a few more months before firmly entrenching themselves on the "il Mago bandwagon."
I can't blame them, but I'm a little more ready to make the leap.
His play last night and in most games this season reminded me a lot of the year that Chris Bosh finally "got it;" you could just see that he finally understood that the opposing team could do little to prevent his attack, and that he was the key player for his club.
The best example of this came on a somewhat broken play late in the third quarter. With the clock winding down, Andrea popped back up to the top of the key demanding the ball. Sensing the team in disarray, he took the rock and decisively drove past his defender into the gut of the Minnesota D, causing it to converge on him. He promptly then kicked it out to DeMar DeRozan for an open look, resulting in a Toronto score.
It was a simple play, but one that didn't require multiple jab steps and head fakes, and that in the end didn't result in a 20-foot contested jump shot.
It was to me a sign that perhaps the light had finally come on, and that Andrea Bargnani was finally ready to shed his beleaguered past.
I hope that's the case.
While I was never an advocate of the Chris Bosh-Andrea Bargnani combination, a pairing of THIS version of Bargs with the likes of Ed Davis, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas is admittedly intriguing.
I'm going to come back to consistency though, because to really convince myself and the rest of Raptors' nation that he's ready to be a key piece on a winning team, he needs to continue this current level of play for more than nine games.
Sure there will be off nights, that happens to even the Lebron's of the league.
But overall we should see commanding efforts like last night's if we're to believe in the rebirth of Andrea.
I'm not expecting the second-coming of Dirk Nowitzki here either. The bar for me will never be that high for Bargnani, and that's just fine. I'm talking about simply having a player who consistently makes positive contributions towards helping his team win, going so far as to be a dominant offensive force in games.
He's never going to be Dwight Howard or even the aforementioned Love.
But an efficient scorer who becomes a top option offensively for a very good basketball team?
That hardly looks out of the question right now, and it's up to Andrea Bargnani over these next 57 games to provide us with the proof in the proverbial pudding.