Playing with Matches

So far in this season that is yet to begin, I am extremely excited to see Bargnani play inside the arc so much. It gives him a chance to rediscover his natural advantages. And those are the very things that he struggled with last season. I have loved to be able to hear the sound of his shots snapping the twine in some of these pre-season affairs, with the crowd noise hushed enough to allow for such audible wonders to stand out like whispers in heaven. Compare that sound with all of the horrible clangers off of rims last season. I’d say that those shots bore a resemblance to a Pinto crashing into the side of a dumpster. No more of that. I have too many fond boyhood memories of slumping down behind dumpsters and setting full rolls of caps on fire, smoking things for the first time, or seeing pictures of Cheryl Tiegs in that fishnet swimsuit. Sorry Andrea, but there’s just no place for a fiery Pinto in those memories.

And it’s not even about the shots. The shots are just the obvious difference. It all actually stems from just being comfortable inside the arc. Some of that has to come from the extra body mass. Il Mago no longer looks like he wants to make himself disappear as he approaches the paint. He’s got a real glide to his movements now, not that I want to compare him to Clyde Drexler, but he does float through the lane like an oil tanker upon the sea. He’s got weight behind his movement. He’s got a double-hull to guide him through to the rim with a bit of grace and certitude. And there’s a nice payoff at the end.

Now don’t forget that this kid was a guard not that long ago. It’s understandable that he wanted to make use of his natural talent to drive. It was something he did nicely in Italy. That quick first step and one dribble, and he went from that three-point threat behind the arc, to an easy lay-in. It’s what made him such a nice prospect as an all-around talent. But there was one thing that got lost in the translation once he got to the NBA. There was no problem adjusting his long-distance shot to the arc that spreads out a fair distance farther from the basket than it does in Europe. He could launch away and had his initial success doing just that. But that move that he likes to make from there was a different thing altogether.

He surely realised that his quick first step was a little less of an advantage over here where there is a little more athleticism. But the extra distance also meant that single dribble was not going to be enough unless he really lunged forward and then hopefully found the net while somewhat under control without a defender waiting to take the charge. The refs looked for him to start his move before that one dribble and constantly called him for the travel. And defenders looked for the spot in the lane where he was going to be fully committed too early. He became a turnover machine.

Now he tried playing more inside the arc and finding good shots for himself as last season wore on. But it was like he was playing naked. He rushed everything, and appeared at times to just want someone to wrap a blanket around him and give him a hot cocoa. When he did get a shot off, it was while he was avoiding the style of play that he knew and loved. And those shots – well they just sounded so awful. I’m sure his various ailments did not help. But those are now all gone, and his extra muscle has allowed him to play like a big with the awareness of a guard, instead of like a guard with the awkwardness of a big.

Andrea Bargnani appears to be comfortable again. He’s playing his all-around game without the need to over-compensate for the different court and the faster and stronger defenders. Inside the arc, he can use that one dribble to do so much more, and all under control. And he is learning to translate that into the ability to assert himself on both ends of the court. It is safe once again for young boys to hang out behind dumpsters, and feel like they own a little piece of the world. By the end of the season, that feeling might grow all the more inside of them, while watching Andrea find his game. Even old guys like myself are going to feel like they’re playing with matches all over again.

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