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We Were North: Bargnani Back in Europe

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A new nostalgic feature on HQ welcomes fans to look back at some old Raptor friends and ask: where are they now?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Unfathomable as it may seem to seasoned fans, today it is likely that there are citizens of Raptorland who are unfamiliar with the Saga of il Mago; which, for half a decade, was the narrative of the now-hot Toronto Raptors. Andrea Barganani was, in his primo, capable of pouring in 20 points on any given night in the NBA. But that's it. And on the frequent nights when the Italian seven-footer's shots weren't falling, it was glaringly obvious that he wasn't rebounding, passing, or defending any better than a hat-stand placed at the top of the key. Add to this, a personality akin to a sulky teenager who has been banned from taking the car up to Wasaga Beach, and a level of intensity that made Patrick O'Bryant look like Charles Oakley.

Bargnani ultimately disappointed the fan-base so much that his last run of games in red and white were accompanied by collective groans, boos, and ironic applause. However, for many of his sins, MLSE and their Harry Rosen-clad capo Brian Colangelo should shoulder some blame. Raptor branding, on court philosophy, and — of course — team salary structure all conspired in an attempt to make Andrea Bargnani something he was not: a leader, a linchpin, a star.

Bargnani was born in Rome in 1985, and after playing with both Stella Azzura Roma and Benetton Treviso in his homeland, he declared his eligibility for the 2006 NBA draft. Colangelo, who had just been given the Raptor's front office, was gifted with the 1st pick in the draft, and he made Bargnani his man. Despite his underwhelming NBA career, calling Bargnani an epic draft flop would be unfair. In 2006 the draft pool was thought as shallow as a shot glass, and many 'experts' had forecast that Bargnani would go first overall, and few objected. LaMarcus Aldridge went second, and sure, many recognized he had the potential to be far more potent than the European picked above him, but the Raptors ignoring the current Spur was hardly scandalous. That draft did include Paul Millsap, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, and living legend Kyle Lowry, but none of these players were as highly heralded coming out of college.

Bargnani's first season on Front and Bay saw him struggle to adapt to the NBA game. He started just twice, but still posted respectable rookie numbers (11.6 ppg) in a season that saw the Chris Bosh-led Raps' make it to the play-offs, only to be dumped by New Jersey in the first round. Then, winter came. Colangelo's inability to build a roster worthy of Bosh's talents created a three year stretch of painfully tedious basketball which alienated the franchises' biggest star and all but forced him to take his talent's to South Beach in 2010. Bosh-less, Colangelo pinned his hopes on Bargs and refused to buckle. The 2010-11 season saw Bargnani put up career highs in points, but — now under a spotlight — his deficiencies grew even more noticeable. His production declined over the next two seasons and the fan-base-at-large began to resent him.

Colangelo was cut in 2013 and in came Messiah Ujiri [Ed. Note: have we used this name before?], dooming the Bargnani-era. Ujiri quickly traded Bargs to the New York Knicks on July 10th, 2013 for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, Quentin Richardson, a future first round pick (Jakob Poltl), and two future second round draft picks. See grand larceny. Bargnani's New York years, with the Knicks (2013-2015) and the Nets (2015-2016), were about as bad as his worst days in a Toronto uniform. On February 20th, 2016 the thirty-year-old Bargnani was waived by the Nets, probably ending to the Italian's NBA career.

So... where is he now?

On July 26th, 2016 Bargnani signed a two-year deal with European outfit Laboral Kutxa Baskonia. Baskonia, as they are known to European basketball fans, are based out of Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Basque country — which straddles the border of Spain and France. Though part of Spain, politically, the people of Basque have a highly distinct culture and language that separates them from their cousins in Madrid and Seville. The Basques also have a great fondness for basketball and a number of teams whose lineages trace back over 40 years. Baskonia has given its fans plenty to celebrate over the years, winning three Spanish Championships, six Spanish cups, four Spanish supercups, two Basque Cups, and earning two second place finishes in the continental wide Euroleague championships.

Baskonia also has a strong connection to the Toronto Raptors. In 1998, a 17 year old point guard from Badajoz, travelled north to Vitoria-Gasteiz to play on Baskonia's junior team. After winning a junior championship he was offered his first ever professional contract, which he happily signed, using the name Jose Manuel Calderon Borrallo. Raptor-fav Calderon played for Baskonia on-and-off for seven years before leaving Europe for Canada in 2005. During his tenure at Baskonia, Calderon often played alongside Jorge Garbajosa — who was with the team between 1994 and 2000, before moving to Benetton Treviso. Garbajosa played wonderfully for the Raps in 2006-07 before a vicious leg break spelled the end of his NBA career.

Today's Baskonia are suffering a mini-dry spell, having not won silverware since the 2009-10 season. Last year they finished as semi-finalists in both LIGA ACB and the Spanish cup (the Copa del Rey) and finished 4th in the Euroleague. Baskonia are looking to change things up and have aggressively made over their team with somewhat recognizable talent. Alongside Bargnani, the team also signed former Mav Rodrigue Beaubois, and 23-year-old PG Shane Larkin — who was drafted 18th overall in 2013 and played for Brooklyn last season.

"I chose what is most challenging," said Bargnani, of his switch to Baskonia, in an interview with the team's official website. He added that he was looking forward to a change of pace, switching the chaos of New York City for the Basque hillsides. At 30, Bargnani is likely a long way from the best player he would ever be, but against lesser competition, who knows, he may be primed to become a star of Spanish basketball. Baskonia's LIGA ACB season kicks off on October 1st with a road game versus Obradoiro CAB. The team's first Euroleague game is on October 14th. Euroleague includes teams from across Europe who qualify for the competition by being successful in their native leagues. The 2016/17 edition of the competition features big names such as Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel teams often play in European competitions), Barcelona, Real Madrid, Galatasary, CSKA Moscow, and Panathinaikos.

I'll keep my eye on Bargs in Spain and let you all know how he does.

Elsewhere In the World:

  • Sonny Weems (who I'll feature next month) signed for Maccabi Tel Aviv for the 2016/17 season.
  • Joey Dorsey decided to leave Istanbul's Galatasary and opted for a return to Barcelona this summer. Dorsey played for Barca in 2013/14.
  • Linas Kleiza is currently without a team and requires yet another surgery on his right knee. He hopes to return to a Euroleague team once fit and healthy.
  • Marcus Banks, who spent last season playing alongside Mickael Pietrus at SLUC Nancy Basket in France, has joined Al Gharafa Doha in Qatar.