Fast forward a couple of weeks and all of a sudden the player with a reputation for doing magic tricks on the court is beginning to re-appear as a key contributor off the bench for the struggling Raptors. As part of a series of articles examining the progress of high profile rookies, DraftExpress is putting Bargnani under the spotlight to chart his development throughout the season.
The goal is to extend the prospect evaluation process into the NBA season. There is an added dimension of continuity made possible only through observing how the top prospects are performing once they actually make it to the big stage. Invariably, some prospects that were projected to do well struggle, and others that flew under the radar rise to the occasion. Too often we forget about the draft process as soon as the rookies hit the floor, and move on to the next crop of players coming down the pipeline.
The patterns underlying who excels, and who doesnt, end up forming the template for the coming draft. They lurk in the unconscious of even the most impartial NBA GMs, conditioning their evaluations of the new group of draftees indirectly. The NBA is essentially a copycat league. Like the stock market, if a certain type of player exceeds expectations as a rookie, then you can expect that players entering the draft the following year are going to see their stock affected accordingly.
Weve seen international bigs take a hit recently with Darko disappointing people in the context of the comparative success of his fellow draft mates. Will Bargnani confirm this shift in perception, and make it harder on European 7-footers in the near future? Or will he re-ignite the quest to draft the next Dirk or Pau?
What follows will be an accounting of Bargnanis progress after the first dozen games of the season. When framing Bargnanis game, its best to start with his offense. He is a player whose most significant gifts lie on the offensive side of the ball. Therefore, this is where well begin.
Part I: Offense
At this point, Bargnanis primary weapon offensively is his three point shot. He has the ability to get the shot off quickly, and shows close to unlimited range. Unlike his Raptor rookie counterpart Jorge Garbajosa, who has struggled to adjust to the deeper three point line of the NBA, Bargnani has shown that he can extend his range without exceeding his comfort zone shooting the basketball. Hes shooting just under 30% through the first twelve games. Granted, its not a stellar percentage, but as his minutes and comfort level increase, expect his accuracy to go up.
His mechanics are smooth, and although hed been criticized before the draft for shooting the ball a little flat, his shooting ability has been as good as advertised. He has, on a couple of occasions, shot the ball off of a jab step or after losing control in the early phase of his shooting stroke and still been able to re-establish his motion to get the ball up and hit the shot. This demonstrates the great plyometric strength in his shooting mechanics. There are not many shooters of any size that can retain accuracy if their shot mechanics is disrupted that far from the basket. He gets his legs into his shot and there is no wasted motion. His release is quick, and he needs very little time to set up his shot whether its off the dribble or just facing up.
His foul shooting has come around nicely since the beginning of the season. He has a smooth release and should be a tremendous free throw shooter during his career. He should have ample opportunity to get to the line with his ability to put the ball on the floor and generate mismatches against opposing bigs. When he eventually gets to the point where he learns how to initiate fouls its not hard to imagine him challenging the leaders in made free throws per game.
Most of Bargnanis three point attempts come off of screen and roll scenarios where Bargnani sets a pick for the Raptors point guard and rolls to the three point line to spot up. At Benetton Treviso, Bargnani struggled to set good picks, and this is an area of his game that has not improved yet as a Raptor. He often sets soft picks and has got himself into foul trouble setting moving screens. Its clear that hes thinking about setting himself up for the shot, and he cheats with his screens as a result by releasing too early. He doesnt plant his screens and often fails to make contact with the defender. Bargnani is gaining confidence in all aspects of his game, and his screening seems to be gradually headed in the right direction as his overall adjustment process starts to move into another phase.
The most unique weapon Bargnani has at his disposal is not his shooting ability. Its his ability to put the ball on the floor as a 7-footer combined with his shooting ability. This has been an element of Bargnanis offensive game that has gone through significant adjustment in adapting from the different style of play coming from the Euroleague to the NBA.
In Europe, Bargnani was confident putting the ball on the floor because of the emphasis on spacing and team basketball, and the less athletic and physical individual defenders. He had more space to be able to maneuver. In the NBA, Bargs has had to adjust to collapsing defenses and the athleticism and speed of NBA players. As a result, hes been hesitant to go to his dribble. However, hes visibly putting things together quickly now, and the underlying skills are already there. When he has drove hes been successful, and theres no reason to believe that this facet of his arsenal wont come around in time.
That being said, he has looked out of control at points off the bounce. When he gets into the paint with his dribble, hes in the habit of using a scoop shot when he anticipates contact to contain his momentum so he doesnt pick up charges. Hes trying to make himself more vertical and responsive to the last line defense, but he uses an exaggerated finger roll to both come to a stop and get a shot off. It often appears out-of-control and is generally regarded as a bad habit in basketball, although it fits with his penchant for using his flexibility and reach to finish creatively around the basket. He still struggles to control his dribble at times, but his comfort level is increasing with each passing game.
Andrea Bargnani is big. Hes a legit 71 and he has a frame that is going to allow him to increase his strength significantly as he matures. His lower body is already pretty developed, thus giving him good strength out of his base, and his upper body looks as though it will catch up before long. Its not hard to imagine him reaching an ideal playing weight of 265lbs. This means that Bargnani will eventually have legit center size and strength.
It is of little benefit to be a 7-footer if you play exclusively on the perimeter. Bargnani understands this, and is working to develop a low-post game. He runs the floor and establishes early post position and creates a wide target for the post entry pass. At this point, his post game appears more instinctive rather than relying on any scripted post moves per se. He can use his dribble to attack the middle off the low block and he can face up and shoot over players along the baseline. Hes shown a baby hook that he uses going into the middle. His post moves are fluid and natural, if still relatively undeveloped. He posts up aggressively and is not shy of drawing or initiating contact. Hes still more comfortable facing up, but he has encouraged the Raptors coaching staff with what he has shown in practice. Hes shown excellent potential as a post passer. Bargnanis post game is a touchstone that we are going to pay careful attention to as a barometer of his development throughout the season.
His strength is underrated and he is not soft. The common conception of European big men always trying to avoid contact does not apply to Bargnani. He is scrappy and has had to work on dialing back his physicality on both sides of the ball, as hes run into early foul trouble trying to adjust to the different level of physical play that North American officials are willing to let go. He is a tough player with an obviously competitive attitude that manifests itself in his willingness to be physical with opposing big men.
In terms of weaknesses offensively, Bargs has to find ways to self-generate opportunities when he doesnt have the ball in his hands. He can become passive and drift on the perimeter when he isnt one of the primary options. He could improve by going to the offensive glass, and moving off the ball with cuts and backdoors to try to free himself.
His rebounding ability is clearly the weakest aspect of his game on either side of the ball, and he does not get on the offensive glass like a player of his size should. He can get caught watching things happen too often, and although he makes an effort to get down the floor and establish early post position, sometimes he is late joining the play out of transition and hangs out at the three point line waiting for kickouts when he should be going to the rim to make a play on the ball. His shot selection can be questionable, although its not out of selfishness or a lack of offensive awareness, as it is with many players. When he is out of rhythm or not playing relaxed, his dominant response is to shoot the ball.
When hes comfortable and playing in rhythm is when youll see Bargnanis underrated passing ability start to emerge. As hes become more comfortable with his role on the Raptors, fans have been surprised to see him thread some unexpected and difficult passes to teammates. He has shown great patience and decision making in giving up the ball at appropriate moments, evidence of his high basketball IQ offensively. Bargnani has excellent court awareness. Passing ability is often reflective of a players natural feel for the game and disposition, and in Bargnanis case, this is certainly true.
The fruits of developing in the European system are most evident in his maturity and willingness to stay within the team concept. He will pass up a good shot for a better one. He is still learning the Raptors offense and sometimes gets caught out of position. He has the persona of a player that is wise beyond his years, making some of the rookie adjustment issues less concerning when viewed from within this context. Every indication suggests that he is a very coachable player. Although his English is still a work in progress, hes communicating more on the court, and coach Mitchell has noted that hes asking more questions in practice. He is extremely confident.
Most rookies come into the league still needing to develop their overall skills. Tyrus Thomas is a good example of a player whose skill development is a work in progress, but whose style of game is well-suited for the NBA. Bargnani is the opposite; his skills are already there, but he is still working to adapt his game to the NBA style of play. His adjustment is more cognitive than anything else. He is progressing well learning English and adjusting to a new culture, but the factors involved in his adjustment to the league are much different than those affecting the average rookie.
Bargnanis mid-range game is what could make him unique in the history of 7-footers with perimeter skills. His ability to put the ball on the floor and his comfort in pulling up off the dribble for a mid-range shot are not characteristics typically associated with even the more adept of perimeter-oriented big men. Generally, you tend to see 7-footers who play on the perimeter shooting from three, or posting up, and not much in between. Even Dirk, to whom Bargnani is often compared, does most of his mid-range damage from posting out at the top of the key.
Bargnani has a unique fluidity in moving from his dribble into his shot that was alluded to earlier in the comments on his shooting mechanics. It is almost guard-like. There is little wasted motion and there is no seam in his rhythm, shifting from his dribble into his shot. Hell fake the three-point shot and use his dribble to get to the top of the key to take an 18 foot jumper. Again, this is something that Bargnani showed at Benetton that he hasnt been able to fully demonstrate yet at the NBA level, but we will be paying close attention to see if his mid-range game begins to emerge as the season wears on. Unfortunately, this fluidity is utterly lacking when it comes to Bargs ability to rebound the basketball.
Part II: Defense
Defensively, Bargnani is a work in progress. There are a number of positive things that he has shown. He is a good on-the-ball shot blocker. Most shot blockers come from the weakside off of a defensive rotation as part of their teams help defense. Bargnani is able to block the shot of the player he is guarding straight-up. Its a rare ability that makes him a potentially solid man-to-man defender. If hes guarding a smaller player on the perimeter and they go by him off the dribble, hes able to track the player and recover to block their shot using his length and mobility, provided he doesnt become upright when he initially closes. If hes guarding a big straight-up in the post, he can stay on his feet while they go through their post move and challenge the shot attempt. Again, he has a tendency to allow his defensive posture to become overly upright, and thats when he gets caught having to foul due to a loss of quickness and mobility.
His mobility is impressive for a player his size. This is especially evident when hes drawn away from the basket. Most players that are 7 feet tall naturally become uncomfortable when theyre drawn out, but Bargnani is in his element. This is a facet of his game that is a hold-over from his development as a forward in Europe. He is excellent at showing on screens and recovering back to protect the basket. His potential as a pick-and-roll defender is excellent. He is comfortable if he is caught in a mismatch against a smaller player off of a switch. His impressive wingspan and overall length make him a rangy big man on the perimeter. He is smart enough to give smaller players space, and then close on a potential shot to challenge with his length.
In the post, he struggles to avoid fouling. The upside to that problem is that he is not shy. His defensive disposition is intense and focused, which manifests itself through his physicality with whomever hes guarding. This singular focus can detract from his overall defensive awareness. He is still learning how to apply pressure on offensive players that are posting without getting whistled for pushing. He is clearly used to being able to use his hands more, coming from the Euroleague, but has been able to cut down on his grabbing fouls over the last five or so games. He has difficulty seeing both the ball and his man, and can get caught trying to battle his man for position, individually, thereby missing whats happening with the ball. As a result, he can get backdoored, and teams like Utah have exploited the high/low when he was the anchor defender underneath, exploiting his poor spatial awareness when hes keyed in on his individual match-up.
Team defensive awareness is Bargnanis biggest defensive weakness at this point, outside of his rebounding ability. He fails to rotate under the basket and he doesnt have an intuitive sense of when to drop down to give help or crash the boards. He often leaves his teammates out to dry when they steer the offensive player into his help position. His singular focus on containing and battling his man detracts from his broader attentional awareness of what is happening on the floor around him. The hope is that once he becomes accustomed to playing against NBA caliber big men, hell begin to become aware of what is happening in the broader sense through the process of accommodation. Its almost like watching someone have to learn how to ride a bike again.
He is still learning how to challenge shots without fouling. There has been a marked improvement in his ability to avoid fouls over the course of the first dozen games, although he often does so at the expense of his the overall team defense, so the net effect is not as positive as it might initially seem. He gets caught out of position, but lets the guy go instead of picking up the foul- so its an improvement, but the core problem of being out of position in the first place remains. Its this type of slanted advancement that is characteristic of all rookies.
It takes him a long time to recover his bearings after a shot, rebound or a change of position of the ball. Its this adjustment to the speed of the NBA game that a lot of European players struggle to adapt to, initially. He has periods where it seems as though the game is happening around him. At times he struggles to find his place amongst players that are making things happen with their athleticism and speed. This is something that is to be expected with a player coming from such a different style of league. However, he has shown that he is a quick learner and all signs suggest he will be able to adapt. As he becomes stronger physically and generally more aware, there is great reason to be optimistic for his potential as an NBA defender.
His rebounding is by far the most concerning aspect of his game. He is a poor rebounder. To what degree he can improve is a subject for future debate, and will be a major focal point of future progress reports. He rarely ever gets off the floor for a rebound. He shows excellent hands on the offensive side of the ball, but when rebounding he shows poor ability to control the ball when it is in his space. He often attempts to tap the ball to a teammate when he should be grabbing it with both hands.
He boxes out pretty well, but he often applies the box too early, and holds the box-out too long, and often he is boxing his man 15 feet from the basket when he should be releasing to make a play for the ball. The upside to his efforts to box his man is that he often makes it possible for a teammate to come in and pick up the board, but the whole process is much more deliberate and mechanical for him than you would like to see. He can get his back turned to the play trying to battle underneath for potential position for a board. This negatively impacts on his defensive awareness and responsiveness.
The concern for his future development as a rebounder is that he displays poor instincts for intuiting where the ball will go. He hypothetically has the tools to be a good rebounder, with his mobility and size- but rebounding is often less quantifiable in terms of physical qualities, and more a function of intangible qualities like having a nose for the ball, and a lot of drive to go after it. Its hard to see either of those qualities being strengths for Bargnani. He seems to display his pedigree as a past small forward, as he doesnt always crash from the perimeter, and sometimes leaks out early to try to get a jump start on a possible transition opportunity the other way.
The quality of fluidity that was used to describe his offensive ability with the ball is the very quality that is lacking in his rebounding instincts. He needs to be able to combine elements, such as finding a body while tracking a shot in the air, and at the same time anticipating the trajectory of the board and releasing the contact at the appropriate point, all without having to deliberately and consciously parse the actions into steps. The hope is that this will come through repetition and increased strength over time. The Raptors are giving consideration to bringing in a big man coach for exactly this type of work.
Bargnani is unique in that he developed largely as a small forward, and as a result, some of these rudimentary post skills are unrefined, while he has retained some remarkable abilities on the perimeter for a player his size. While most North American big men extend their game outward towards the perimeter as they develop, Bargnani is doing the opposite. As a result, certain elements of a post game are emerging before others. For example, his potential as a post defender is ahead of his development as a rebounder.
The direction of this outside-in development process for a big man is foreign to most North American fans, and as a result, his potential to gain typical North American big man skills is placed into question. However, when looking purely at the underlying abilities- the aggression, the willingness to be physical, the athletic tools and the overall high level of awareness- one has to feel optimistic that, with the right coaching, a hybrid skill-base can be developed.
There is a lot to be encouraged about if you are a Raptors fan. Bargnani is for real, and the degree of improvement that he has shown over the first dozen games has been impressive. If he can continue to improve at his current pace, the next evaluation in this series should be glowing. Stay tuned for future progress reports on Andrea Bargnanis development throughout the course of the NBA season.