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Raptors hopes for turnaround run through Bargnani

Toronto Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani puts up a shot against Boston Celtics forward Jermaine O'Neal (R) during the first half of their pre-season NBA basketball game in Toronto December 18, 2011. The Raptors face the Indiana Pacers in their regular season-opener on Wednesday.


It took him a year, but Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey has finally figured out Andrea Bargnani. The Raptors' big man is never going to be the rebounding machine that everybody automatically assumes he should be just because he is an imposing seven-footer.

Before Casey took over as Toronto head coach for the start of last season, he was an assistant for three years with the Dallas Mavericks, who have a seven-footer of their own in Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki can score, but his lack of rebounding caused consternation among the Mavericks' coaching staff at the start of each season. Those concerns quickly evaporated, however, when Nowitzki began belting down three-pointers once the year began.

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Casey said he has come to learn the same lesson with Bargnani.

"One thing I've come to understand [with Bargnani], and we did the same thing with Dirk, is he's never going to be a great rebounder," Casey said Tuesday. "To turn him into a rebounder is like turning [journeyman] Reggie Evans into a three-point shooter. And that's not going to happen.

"But the one thing he has to do [on defence] is box his man out, not let his guy get the ball. So that's the deal we have, that's the rebounding he's got to give us."

Casey said Bargnani's forte is scoring, and that will have to be his primary focus if the Raptors hope to turn some heads this year in the NBA. It will begin Wednesday night for the revamped Raptors, who will unveil three new faces in the starting lineup at the Air Canada Centre when they open the regular season against the Indiana Pacers.

It will be a game-time decision whether Bargnani will be in the starting lineup at power forward. He missed his second straight day of practice Tuesday after coming down with the flu, and Casey is uncertain if he'll be ready to go.

The Pacers will be without star forward Danny Granger, who has been sidelined with a sore left knee.

If Bargnani plays, he can expect to be the primary option on offence, which is nothing new. Last season, he had a great start and was playing at an all-star level through the first couple of weeks, averaging 22.3 points and 6.5 rebounds, before he injured his left calf muscle. The injury hampered him the rest of the lockout-shortened season, in which he was limited to 31 of Toronto's 66 games.

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The Raptors had a scare when Bargnani complained of a sore left calf muscle during a preseason game against Washington on Oct. 17. But that injury occurred at a different spot in the calf and Bargnani played in all seven of Toronto's preseason games, in which they went 6-1.

"We're going to go as far offensively as he takes us," Casey said. "He's such a three-point threat on the court. He spaces the floor for us, he's one of our most respected three-point shooters on the team. That's what he means to us."

Seven-foot rookie Jonas Valanciunas will make his long-awaited NBA debut at centre, one of the three new faces in the lineup along with point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard Landry Fields.

Valanciunas is only 20 and has played the last three years professionally in Europe. Casey said it is time for him to learn first-hand what the NBA is all about.

With veterans Aaron Gray and Amir Johnson ready to come off the bench, Casey said he can afford to live with some of the inevitable growing pains that Valanciunas will experience.

"The fans of Toronto will love him just because he hits first and asks questions later, maybe too much so," Casey said. "He's the kind of kid where we're saying, whoa, slow it down.

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"But I love him as a player because he comes out ready to go. You don't have to say giddy-up to him."

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