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THE FAVORITES for the Rookie of the Year award are Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy (the top rookie scorer at 15.2 points per game) and Bobcats forward Adam Morrison (13.3), but the first-year man for the long term is undoubtedly the Raptors' Andrea Bargnani. Silencing skeptics, the 7-foot Italian is proving that he was worthy of being a No. 1 overall pick. At week's end Bargnani was averaging 10.1 points in only 23.1 minutes as a reserve—but stats merely hint at his enormous upside. In every game Bargnani does something that shows off his immense talent, be it delivering a pass that reveals his nascent court vision, blocking a shot to remind everyone that he led the Italian league in rejections as a 20-year-old, or driving past defenders in a display of prodigious athleticism. "He's got the makings of a star," says Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo. "But I'd like to think beyond that: How special can he be?"
Bargnani's play in his first three months suggests an answer: a next-generation Dirk Nowitzki, a gigantic three-point shooter with a pure stroke who is capable of exploiting mismatches all over the floor. That notion was endorsed by Nowitzki himself. After a 97--96 Mavericks victory in Toronto last month, Dallas's 28-year-old All-Star forward admitted that he wasn't as good at 21 as Bargnani is. Says Colangelo, "[A veteran NBA coach] told me, 'It took Dirk a good three years before he really believed that he belonged.' There's no self-doubt with Andrea at all. He feels he belongs [now]."
While Bargnani has been serving mainly as a perimeter-based small forward, the organization sees him morphing into a center to complement 22-year-old All-Star power forward Chris Bosh. If Bargnani can establish himself on the block, he'll have a chance to be even more versatile than Nowitzki, who only recently has grown comfortable playing with his back to the basket. "I'm not so good in the low post," admits Bargnani. "I like it very much; it's just that I never played there."
To his delight, Bosh has also discovered that Bargnani responds positively to criticism. When Bargnani yielded three consecutive offensive rebounds to Andris Biedrins in a November defeat at Golden State, Bosh lost his temper and let the rookie have it. "I wasn't trying to embarrass him; it was in the heat of the game," says Bosh. "Ever since that time he's been playing very well—he's been rebounding the ball, he's been playing with toughness." Colangelo adds, "We heard people evaluate him and say he's a little bit soft. But he's not soft at all, mentally or physically."
Bargnani's development has been aided by coach Sam Mitchell's feeding him only as many minutes as he can handle—and by living in Toronto, home to one of the world's largest Italian population outside Italy. Around town, Bargnani is routinely greeted with exclamations of, "Come sta, Andrea?" Moreover, while Roy and Morrison are suffering with losing teams, Bargnani should benefit from being part of the second-half run put on by the Atlantic-leading Raptors. With a 25--23 record at week's end, Toronto held a three-game edge over New Jersey. Accordingly, when asked if he sees himself as a future All-Star, as his G.M. does, Bargnani refuses the bait. "It's something too far to see; I just came in the league," he says. "I would like to make the playoffs. That's the first thing I want to do now."
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