Raptors forward Bargnani stronger and more confident heading into new season

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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OTTAWA Jermaine ONeal believes the truest measure of an athlete is in his heart.

So when the newest Toronto Raptor spent a couple of weeks in the off-season training with Andrea Bargnani in Las Vegas, he wanted to see what the big Italian was made of.

We played against each other, and I really just banged him to see what his reaction would be and he never backed down, the bruising six-foot-11 ONeal said Wednesday. I think he knows whats at stake here and the challenge that he has to accept and the things he has to do to be successful.

The Raptors have challenged Bargnani to step up his game this season after a disappointing sophomore year, and so far the reports are positive. The 22-year-old, a good 15 pounds heavier than he was last season, is turning heads in training camp in Ottawa and his Raptors teammates and coaching staff are cautiously optimistic hell approach his potential this season.

There was a lot of disappointment last year externally and perhaps even internally that he didnt take a major step forward in terms of improvement, Raptors GM and president Bryan Colangelo said.

Colangelo made Bargnani the No. 1 draft pick two years ago, and for the first few months of his NBA career, he lived up to the billing. But his play petered out in his second season with the team and his confidence and focus were called into question. He looked unsure on the floor and his jump shot disappeared.

But there were some significant developments on the way to this season. Bargnani had two surgeries to remove his adenoids and to repair a deviated septum after he was plagued by sinus infections last season that he said sapped his energy.

For sure, the surgery was a big help, I feel much different, I can breathe better, Bargnani said. I dont want to use that as an excuse, but it was a problem. I was always sick and taking antibiotics. I feel better physically.

And the Raptors acquired ONeal, a six-time all-star forward, in a trade with the Indiana Pacers. That immediately took some weight off Bargnanis shoulders.

I think theres a little bit of pressure off of Andrea now that youre not throwing him into the starting centre position as a rookie or sophomore player, Colangelo said.

The Raptors set up a strict off-season program for Bargnani, that included the training he did with ONeal in Las Vegas, and several weeks working out in Treviso, Italy, all under the careful watch of Torontos coaching staff.

He put a great summer in, didnt back down from any of the challenges that Sam (Mitchell, Torontos head coach) and I threw at him, and he responded well, and thats the best you can ask for from a situation from last year to where we are now, Colangelo said.

Bottom line. . . we said this is how were going to construct your summer, and he lived up to every aspect of it, and maybe even did a little more. Thats encouraging. Now hes got to do it on the floor, and the truth can be told when he starts playing.

Indeed its too early to tell, but Colangelo said hes seen marked improvement in Bargnanis confidence and his comfort level with his teammates. The normally solemn Italian is more talkative with teammates, and hes showing more poise on the floor. He was the last to leave the court during one practice at Carleton University, consistently beating assistant coach Jay Triano with spin moves and fadeaways.

Organizations: NBA, Indiana Pacers, Carleton University

Geographic location: OTTAWA, Las Vegas, Treviso Italy

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