Even from the perspective of an eternal optimist such as myself when it comes to this team, it is safe to say that the Toronto Raptors are in the middle of perhaps their most disappointing season to date in their relatively short existence. They have had inferior records to be sure, but given the high expectations going into this 2008/09 season, this has to rank as the most frustrating start to a season for the boys in red. Remember Bryan Colangelo’s pre-season comments that this was the best Raptors team ever “on paper”? That prognostication has proved to be, well, paper-thin.
Despite all the doom and gloom, the blessing in disguise clearly has to be the improved play of former #1 NBA draft pick, Andrea Bargnani. Since his inception into the league 3 seasons ago, the Italian 7-footer has been frustratingly inconsistent, showing flashes of brilliance which were, unfortunately, always coupled with his fair share of defensive lapses, bad decisions, poor shooting, bad rebounding, and a sense of general confusion on the court.
The monumental expectations that always come with being selected number one, coupled with the need for instant gratification (patience does not seem to part of the lexicon of the average NBA fan), fans, coaches, players, and pundits were all starting to use, or at least think, the dreaded “B” word: bust. But us patient (and hopeful) ones realized that an Italian used to EuroLeague rules, saddled with ridiculous expectations plopped onto his wiry frame from the get-go, having to deal with not only a language barrier but a culture shock as well, and with the eyes of Italy and the world fixed on his every pump fake and missed shot, may take some time.
I can’t think of a better way to endear yourself to Raptors fans than to throw VC to the floor!
As they say, the proof is in the pudding and, well, this Italian pudding has been tasting pretty damn sweet the last 13 games. Here are the numbers:
December 31st – 26 points, 6 rebounds
January 2nd – 19, 6
January 4th – 18, 5
January 5th – 21, 8
January 7th – 25, 4
January 9th – 21, 8
January 11th – 17, 9
January 12th – 23, 8
January 14th – 31, 10
January 16th – 20, 5
January 18th – 15, 3
January 19th – 20, 10
January 21st – 16, 6
These gaudy numbers add up to averages of 21.1 points and 6.8 rebounds for his last 13 games. To put this into further perspective, Kevin Garnett and Yao Ming average 17 and 8 and 20 and 9, respectively. The youngster has been putting up numbers which are not far off from these perennial all-stars. We all know that numbers and stats don’t tell the whole story, but luckily for Bargnani, looking beyond the numbers only serves to further heightens one’s appreciation of his progress.
He has been showing a ton of confidence on the court in the last month. He has not been afraid to take big shots. He has been playing great defence against some of the best centres in the league, including Mr. Yao. He has been making good sound decisions on both ends of the court, and his level of comfort playing with this team has never been so pronounced. To put it briefly, he has become a legitimate game-changer.
So, halfway through this remarkably dissapointing season, the Raptors are struggling to remain relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff race. As a huge fan of this team, this is obviously dissapointing. But to finally cash in on a number 1 pick (our one and only by the way) who has been as frustrating as he has been dazzling since becoming a Raptor, gives all of us Raptors fans reason for hope.