The next Nowitzki?

Adrian Wojnarowski
The Vertical

Bryan Colangelo could see the NBA No. 1 pick's confidence crumbling, the frustration flushing his mind and body. Andrea Bargnani had been the executive's European target for years, an object of obsession that the Toronto Raptors president had long believed could become a cornerstone for a contender.

So, he let his coach make the call for a couple of sluggish weeks to start the season, but finally Colangelo could not let Sam Mitchell bury Bargnani on the bench anymore.

Along the way, most NBA executives deliver these sorts of directives to coaches, but few ever confess to them. Absolutely, Colangelo would say on the telephone this week, he made it clear to Mitchell that the Italian prodigy, the future of the franchise, had to get in the game.

The terms were unconditional: Play Bargnani now.

"I just felt it was important to point out that we were (2-7), struggling to win games and we were doing so with a very frustrated young player put in position to appear as a failure because of the under-utilization of his talents," Colangelo said.

"I reminded Sam that (in the preseason) he put a number out there that he'd be playing 20 to 25 minutes this season, and somehow that had gotten lost in the shuffle at the start of the season. We appeared to be losing Andrea. We were trying to help someone who was feeling like his career was slipping away at such an early stage. It sounds overdramatic, but it can happen fast."

As the minutes rose for Bargnani, so did the Raptors' victories and the rookie's production and precision. After nine minutes a night over the first nine games, the 21-year-old is shooting 45 percent across 25 minutes a night over the past nine games, including 13 points per game over the last six. He needs to get stronger, but he's rebounding a little and a few of his touch passes have stolen away breaths. For what constitutes progress in the pitiful Atlantic Division, the Raptors actually played themselves into a first-place tie with New Jersey at 7-11.

The harsh judgments of the opening weeks – the breathless rush that always seems desperate to cast hyped non-Americans as busts – have ended, replaced with the flashes of athleticism and versatility at 7-foot that inspired comparisons to a young Dirk Nowitzki.

After watching a telling NBA TV profile that detailed the trials and tribulations of Nowitzki's flustered entrance into the NBA, Colangelo called for a copy and passed it on to Bargnani. Colangelo had researched mounds of rookie statistics on everyone from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant, searching to ease Bargnani's initial exasperation with minutes and performance with some sobering context about the pedestrian starts of the game's biggest stars.

Most palpable, though, was footage of Nowitzki looking lost in his rookie season of 1998, along with his own audio angst from remembering back. Colangelo said he's had a lot of basketball people tell him that Bargnani was further developed at 18 years old than Nowitzki, to which he says: "When he's 25, I hope he's as good as Dirk."

As difficult a transition as Bargnani still must make, Nowitzki is responsible for clearing a path of credibility. The other night, Nowitzki remembered how "they laughed at me, laughed at my game – a 7-footer who shot three-pointers." Still, slowly, surely, Nowitzki willed his way into a template for Bargnani and a generation of European players on the make. If nothing else, Nowitzki allows himself a level of self-satisfaction with how he's shaped a changing face in the game, how no one laughs at but rather emulates him now.

"From what I've seen of him, he's got a lot of skills and ultimately that's what prevails in this league," Nowitzki said of Bargnani. "It's a great feeling to know that all the big guys now can shoot and put the ball on the floor and are fundamentally sound. And that's where this league is really going ultimately. It goes away from all the power down low, the centers …"

If Nowitzki doesn't dominate with so many dimensions inside and out now, does Colangelo still have the stomach to draft Bargnani No. 1 overall? Maybe so, but there's no mistaking that Bargnani is the most direct descendent to the way Nowitzki changed the power forward spot.

"Dirk was too big to be Drazen Petrovic, and we didn't get to see (Arvydas) Sabonis when he was Sabonis," Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. "So Dirk really defined the model of the successful international player who had multiple skills, who was able to do more than just stand outside and shoot the ball. He showed a lot of toughness, showed a lot of grit. And he showed how to battle through all the transitional issues of learning to live in another country.

"I don't know Bargnani, except he looked good against us and on tape, but the real question is this: 'Can you work as hard as Dirk?'

"Few people can."

Before the Raptors president and coach's chat prior to Thanksgiving, Colangelo could see that Bargnani was "trying to prove he was the No. 1 pick on every possession," a natural reaction to his limited minutes. Now, he's stopped forcing shots and started delivering on the all-around game promised of him.

As an Eastern Conference scout said, "You can tell that he's not looking over his shoulder anymore, afraid to get pulled when he makes a mistake or misses a shot. He gets better and better. He has a tremendous feel for the game."

For Bargnani, the struggle to make the social transition will be made easier because of the infrastructure Colangelo had created in his 10 months since arriving in Toronto. So far, Colangelo has created a fascinating framework there for a mini-European model of an NBA franchise. He hired Benetton Trevesio general manager Maurizio Gherardini as his assistant G.M., a Bargnani mentor with that storied Italian franchise. In the end, Colangelo knows Europeans can make a faster assimilation to Toronto than most NBA cities, an opportunity ultimately for the Raptors to recruit and retain their talent. Looking back, Nowitzki never had it so good in Dallas as a rookie.

For now, though, Colangelo will find himself judged with the Raptors on the development of Andrea Bargnani, the first European to ever go No. 1 in the NBA draft. So far, Colangelo's faith has been rewarded. All the Raptors president could do was make sure the kid got on the floor and got his shot. The rest is on him now.