Free-agent big man Andrea Bargnani will return to Europe, signing a two-year deal with Saski Baskonia of Spain’s ACB — widely acknowledged as the second-best professional hoops league in the world — that, more than likely, spells the end of the NBA road for the former No. 1 overall draft pick.
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The 7-footer entered the NBA in 2006 after spending the first four years of his professional career in his native Italy, showcasing a sharpshooting touch from beyond the 3-point arc that helped Benetton Treviso win the 2006 Serie A title and earned him designation as the Euroleague’s 2005-06 Rising Star, an honor given to the top 22-and-under performer in the continental competition. Bargnani’s combination of size, shooting skill, perimeter-oriented game and comfort with the ball in his hands led some to compare him to Dallas Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki; those comparisons, and the weight of the Toronto Raptors taking him with the No. 1 overall selection in the ’06 draft, would wind up being just too much for Bargnani to bear over the years.
Not right away, though. Bargnani acquitted himself pretty admirably in his first few years in Toronto, offering scoring punch and an outside shooting threat on teams led by Chris Bosh and the T.J. Ford/Jose Calderon point guard combination that hung around the middle of the Eastern Conference pack. He moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore, and by his fourth season was averaging 17.2 points per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from the 3-point arc as the Raps’ No. 2 offensive option.
After Bosh headed south in free agency to join the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010, Bargnani found himself elevated to main-man status in Toronto. While he never quite seemed a sound fit for that alpha-dog role, “Il Mago” produced, averaging a career-high 21.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 35.7 minutes per game … albeit while topping out at slightly-above-average efficiency and grading as a persistent defensive negative for an awful Raptors team that, despite the presence of quality future contributors like DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis, finished 22-60, the third-worst record in the NBA.
Bargnani started the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season on a hot streak, averaging 22.3 points per game on 48.9 percent shooting through the first 11 contests before suffering a calf injury that knocked him out of the lineup for the better part of two months. He struggled upon his late-season return before getting shut down for good; struggled to start the following season; suffered injuries to his shooting elbow and wrist that kept him out of the lineup for another couple of months; and got booed by Raptors fans when he returned to the floor in a mostly underwhelming turn ending with a second elbow ailment that seemed to spell the end of Bargnani’s line north of the border.
All that newly installed Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri — who’d taken over for Bryan Colangelo, the GM who’d both drafted Bargnani and given him a five-year, $50 million contract extension — had to do was find a team willing to take on two years and $22.3 million worth of salary and give up some assets in exchange for a perimeter-shooting big man who didn’t rebound, defend or pass, and who also could no longer really shoot from the perimeter.
Knicks fans were sour on Bargnani from nearly the second he arrived, which seemed a bit cruel. Bargnani did seem to try his level best to resurrect his career after landing in New York. His best just wasn’t all that good.
The combination of Bargnani’s on-court failings, the fact that the Knicks were 4.5 points per 100 possessions worse with Bargnani on the floor than off it prior to his season-ending elbow injury, and the off-court damage done by New York giving up three draft picks (a 2016 first-rounder, plus second-round selections in 2014 and 2017) to get him made him an awfully tough player for many Knicks fans to get behind. He averaged 13.9 points and 4.9 rebounds in 28.8 minutes per game over the course of 71 games in two injury-plagued seasons with the Knicks; when they let him go at the end of the 2014-15 campaign, many observers wondered if we’d seen the last of Bargnani — now a major minus defensively and on the boards as well as just a 30 percent 3-point shooter over the preceding four years — in an NBA uniform.
So, naturally, enter the Brooklyn Nets.
Bargnani reportedly turned down an offer from the Sacramento Kings to join the even-more-woebegone Nets on a two-year, veteran’s minimum deal. He hoped to find significant minutes on a rebuilding team; Brooklyn hoped he’d rediscover what spark he once had and put up some points along the way. Neither side got what it was looking for, and after Bargnani averaged 6.6 points and 2.1 rebounds in 13.8 minutes over 46 games this season, new Nets GM Sean Marks made buying Bargnani out his first order of business.
Bargnani agreed to the February buyout, saying it made “no sense” for him to stick around with a team that didn’t seem to have use for him. With no team seeking out his services ahead of the 2016 playoffs or during the summer free agency period, Bargs decided to head back across the pond to continue his playing career, catching on with a Spanish club that once employed his NBA teammates Calderon, Jose Garbajosa and Jose Garbajosa, as well as NBA veterans Fabricio Oberto, Andres Nocioni, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic, Tiago Splitter, Mirza Teletovic, Zoran Planinic and Nemanja Bjelica. Saski Baskonia finished fourth in the ACB and fourth in the Euroleague last season, and with 6-foot-10 Latvian shooter Davis Bertans leaving the club to join the San Antonio Spurs, Bargnani could have an opportunity to step into a significant role on the team.
It’s possible, of course, that Bargnani could light it up in Spain and, after completing his two-year deal, find himself in the market for an NBA return at age 32. Should things continue as they’ve been going, though, this likely closes the book on a stateside career that never lived up to its promise, but that didn’t sink to the level of some of the NBA’s great failures. No, Bargnani didn’t turn into the next Dirk, but he survived 10 years in the league, banked more than $70 million, played at a near-All-Star-level for a couple of years, and enjoyed some Primo Pasta.
All things considered, it could’ve turned out worse.
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