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He's The 1
IAN THOMSEN
June 26, 2006
Seven-foot Andrea Bargnani, a.k.a. the Next Dirk, is the best player ever to come out of Italy-and the best player in this year's NBA draft
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June 26, 2006

He's The 1

Seven-foot Andrea Bargnani, a.k.a. the Next Dirk, is the best player ever to come out of Italy-and the best player in this year's NBA draft

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Even the blind can pick up a major difference between European basketball games and the NBA: Our background noise is pumped out of speakers while theirs is entirely natural. On a Wednesday night in late May, in an ancient town near Venice, the fanatics of the Italian club Benetton Treviso shook the Palaverde arena with drumbeats, shrill whistles and trumpet blasts-a cacophony not unlike a Roman traffic jam at rush hour. They were quiet only in the presence of their naturally endowed cheerleaders, dressed in white two-piece leotards, who performed routines that more closely resembled ballet than the silicone-shaking bump-and-grind acts of NBA dance teams. As they ran off the court, they brushed single-file past the Benetton general manager, Maurizio Gherardini, acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic as the top executive in European basketball. "You can see that Maurizio is very smart," said Enrico Castorino, the club's press officer. "He stands where the cheerleaders have to go by him as they leave the court." Gherardini has a different explanation for his courtside position, claiming that he is too fidgety to sit through his team's games. And with good reason: On this night, he watched Benetton squander most of a 27-point lead over Lottomatica Roma in Game 1 of their Italian Serie A semifinals, a best-of-five showdown. With less than three minutes remaining, a Roma guard broke free for an apparent layup that would've cut the lead to six. From the blindside, however, came Andrea Bargnani, the most promising discovery of Gherardini's 32-year career, to block the shot and start a fast break, which-after clambering back to his feet and sprinting upcourt-he capped off by draining a three-pointer. That key sequence in Benetton's 85-77 win displayed the myriad natural gifts that have made Bargnani basketball's equivalent of a five-tool player, the most intriguing prospect in this year's NBA draft.

Bargnani and his portly boss, who brings to mind a younger Tommy Lasorda, are the leaders of an Italian hoops renaissance from which the NBA will soon benefit. Once upon a time Italy was the capital of European roundball, a hoops haven for such players as Bill Bradley, who as a Rhodes scholar in the mid-1960s would fly down from Oxford on his off days to play for powerhouse Milan. But the country has produced few of its own international stars as other European countries- Germany ( Dirk Nowitzki), Spain ( Pau Gasol) and France (Tony Parker)-began exporting All-Stars to the U.S. That will change this month, as Italians celebrate not only the ascent of the 7-foot Bargnani, but also of Gherardini, who is about to become the first European executive to help manage an NBA team. In a delicious irony the Raptors, who have the first pick in next week's draft, will name Gherardini as their assistant G.M. before the draft. And a popular belief is that the Raptors will use that pick on Bargnani.

The 20-year-old Bargnani (bar-NYAH-nee) has been most often compared with Nowitzki for his length and long-range marksmanship. (He shot 38.1% from beyond the arc this season.) "He has that same slow, smooth release as Dirk," says a highly-regarded Eastern Conference executive who rates Bargnani as the top player in the draft. "And his lateral movement and overall athleticism is better than Dirk's."

Despite the imminent hiring of Gherardini, new Raptors president and G.M. Bryan Colangelo has been coy about his interest in Bargnani. In fact, according to several league executives, Colangelo has been entertaining offers for the pick in his quest to fill the team's biggest need: an experienced, up-tempo point guard. Few, though, are available. "If that doesn't happen, I think they'll use the pick on Tyrus Thomas," says a Western Conference exec. "Bargnani is the best player in the draft, but I think Bryan is looking to re-create what he had in Phoenix-and if he takes Thomas, then he'll have the closest thing to Shawn Marion playing small forward with a revved-up motor alongside [Chris] Bosh and [Charlie] Villanueva."

At the beginning of this season Bargnani was playing only 10 to 15 minutes off the bench, but he became a starter midway through the year and is averaging 11.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and an Italian-league-leading 1.3 blocks per game in just 22 minutes per game. He is, scouts say, well-prepared for the rigors of the long NBA schedule. In addition to adding 23 pounds to his seven-foot, 248-pound frame, Bargnani has played in close to 80 preseason, regular-season and tournament games this year. Being a marked man has further steeled him. At the end of a crucial game in March against powerhouse Climamio Bologna, ex- Chicago Bulls center Dalibor Bagaric clotheslined Bargnani on a drive to the basket. As his teammates surrounded Bagaric and threatened retaliation, Bargnani got to his feet, rubbed his sore jaw and made two clinching free throws. Opposing fans have also played rough with him. During a return trip home to Rome for Game 2 of the Italian semis, Bargnani was greeted by 10,000 fans singing:

Pezzo de merda

Bargnani pezzo de merda

Pezzo de merda....

Which translates, roughly, to: "Bargnani is a piece of s--." The crowd also had some unkind things to say about his mother, Luisella Balducci, a high school English teacher sitting courtside. Luisella just laughed at the attention being paid to her son, who lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Treviso and drives a sponsor-provided Volvo station wagon. This year he has grown a peach-fuzz beard in an ill-fated attempt to look older; more striking are his thick eyebrows and occasionally startled expression that give him more than a small resemblance to Charlie Chaplin.

Gherardini discovered Bargnani as a skinny 16-year-old playing for Stella Azzurra, a small club in Rome. Surprised to find a 6'9" teenager with the ball handling skills of a shooting guard, Gherardini spent six months winning over the player, his divorced parents and his Italian agent, Antonio Ricciotti, who will work in concert with Bargnani's U.S.-based agent, Leon Rose, the rep for LeBron James.

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