As He Leaves, Understanding Andrea Bargnani

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You could be forgiven for thinking Andrea Bargnani’s real first name was “Former First Overall Choice….”

After an up and down seven seasons with the Raptors, the 27-year-old Bargnani has been sent to New York in a deal that netted 30-year-old three-point specialist Steve Novak, the rights to 39-year-old Marcus Camby a first and two second round draft choices and forward Quentin Richardson. The deal was confirmed today.

Andrea Bargnani

Andrea Bargnani

Novak will average $3.83 million for the next three years. Bargnani is owed $10 million, $11 million and $12 million. Camby is 39. Those are the numbers you need to know.

In the minds of critics, and they were legion toward the end, Andrea Bargnani was as mysterious as the sphinx. Former GM Bryan Colangelo called Bargnani “the enigma of all enigmas” and perhaps even that was an understatement.

Breathtakingly talented, Bargnani had a tremendous stroke and god-given length at seven feet. Early projections compared him to Dirk Nowitzky.

The numbers say he pieced together a solid career in Toronto: a career 15.2 points per game and 4.8 boards a night spread over seven seasons is far from unsubstantial.

Bargnani’s 6,581 points puts him third on the Raptors all-time list behind only Chris Bosh (10,275) and Vince Carter (9,420). Entering the prime years of his career, Bargnani’s roughly 1,000 points per year could have made him the top scoring player in franchise history around his 31st birthday.

His selection before LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy and Rudy Gay is is a talking point but in retrospect overblown.  I’m not sure everyone reflexively says “Former First Overall” in front of Elton Brand, a player whose offensive numbers are comparable with Bargnani’s. It’s not like Bargnani was Kwame Brown.

It’s just that Bargnani was measured not by how much he did but by how much more he could do, should do. He flashed real passing skills in his first years but that element of his game proved stillborn. Despite startling quickness for a big man he never mastered the low post or consistently drove the net.

His body didn’t seem much more developed than when he entered the NBA and his rebounding was suspect.

I once asked Chris Bosh if Bargnani could deliver 10 rebounds a night. Bosh looked at me with incredulity.

“Of course he can,” Bosh said. “He’s seven feet tall.”

There is no schematic to illustrate why some player capture the imagination of fans. If Matt Bonner had delivered 15 points a night for the Raptors there would be statues being built in his likeness as we speak.

In a league built on the chest thump and the rafter-shaking dunk, Bargnani seemed unemotional and, by association, unengaged. He arrived as a 20-year-old who spoke little. Seven years later his English has improved luxuriously but he doesn’t speak, publicly at least, a whole lot more than he did that first year.

That said, he never dissed the franchise, never demanded a better cast around him. He never packaged himself as a player who cared too much, a player frustrated by losing or the team’s inability to grab a playoff spot. He seemed distant and maybe, because of that, somehow untrustworthy to the same  fans who gobbled up his bobblehead during his rookie season. If they were right, or even fair,  I cannot say.

“We collectively decided that a fresh start for both parties was the best way to move forward,” said GM Masai Ujiri and there is no arguing with that.

The first European first overall pick, Bargnani was a franchise-defining selection but not a franchise-defining player. That is his legacy here.

It needn’t be his story in New York. If he plays well and the Knicks win, watch for what was seen as nonchalance here to be re-imagined as transcendent Italian cool.

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