Bargnani makes 'good first impression' in Vegas debut

Updated: July 10, 2006, 11:32 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Andrea Bargnani could not claim to be No. 1 on opening day in the Vegas Summer League. The best player in the gym was Portland's Martell Webster.

Bargnani probably wasn't even the best rookie in the gym. Four games into the schedule on the UNLV campus, that status belongs to Houston Rockets rookie Steve Novak.

Andrea Bargnani
AP Photo/Kathy WillensAndrea Bargnani has drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki.

That said ...

Bargnani was pretty impressive Thursday night.

The top pick in last week's NBA draft was confident, aggressive and ready to hoist from the minute he lined up for his first Canadian national anthem. The first time he touched the ball for the Toronto Raptors, set up by a high pick-and-roll, Bargnani put the ball on the deck and went right to the rim, earning a quick trip to the foul line.

He also drained his first triple from NBA distance soon after and wound up totaling a solid 20 points for the Raptors, helping to secure a 93-85 victory over the Washington Wizards and looking loose more than anything.

"He's not shy," Raptors president Bryan Colangelo said proudly, clearly pleased that the 20-year-old was so attack-minded, good for 16 points by halftime alone.

It's obviously silly to get too excited or discouraged by anything that happens in the modern summer-league environment, with so much inexperience coming out of the draft and such limited quantities of legit NBA talent and practice time. Remembering all that is especially handy on Day 1.

Yet there was no ignoring how unfazed Bargnani appeared by whatever pressure he's carrying as the NBA's first-ever No. 1 overall pick from Europe, probably because he's played in far bigger games than this one for Italian club power Benetton Treviso.

Bargnani wasn't a factor on the boards (four rebounds), spent most of his time on the perimeter and had almost as many turnovers (three) as points (four) after halftime, but the 7-footer -- often matched against Washington's Andray Blatche -- also showed plenty of the shooting touch (7-for-11 shooting) and dribbling ability that have drawn comparisons to Dallas Mavericks cornerstone Dirk Nowitzki.

"I definitely see some similarities," said Samaki Walker, a free-agent forward trying to hook on with the Raptors who was playing in Dallas when Nowitzki arrived in 1999.

"But Bargnani puts the ball on the ground more than Dirk did [at the beginning]. He goes right and left already."

The Raptors, not surprisingly, have tried to discourage Nowitzki comparisons, knowing they'll be fortunate if the Italian merely comes close. You can also be sure that, when the season starts and teams start switching smaller and quicker athletes on Bargnani on those pick-and-rolls, he's going to have a tough time initially, whether it's getting to the rim or simply getting his shot off.

If Raptors fans insist on comparisons, though, they'll be pleased to know that Bargnani's summer-league debut blows Nowitzki's away. That's because Nowitzki didn't get the chance to play any summer league before his rookie season, joining the Mavericks just days before the lockout that eventually sliced his rookie season to 50 games. It wasn't until a strong summer performance after the 1999 season that the big German made his breakthrough.

Bargnani, in other words, will be a bit more ready for his rookie season after four more games like these.

"Good first impression," Colangelo said. "A lot of NBA types [in the stands] came up to me during the game and said a lot of nice things."

Ron Artest
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesRon Artest gets a thumbs up for his good behavior in Sacto.
• The first (non-casino) letdown for summer-league goers in Sin City?

Ron Artest didn't play for the Sacramento Kings, after saying he would, in their 90-83 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Artest is still vowing to be a summer-leaguer, though. The Kings' latest expectation is that their mercurial swingman, who was scheduled to fly into Vegas Thursday night, is likely to join them for Friday's game against New Orleans/Oklahoma City. If not Friday, said Kings coach Eric Musselman, then Sunday's meeting with Bargnani's Raptors at the latest.

Kings co-owner Joe Maloof, one of the league's staunchest backers of Las Vegas as the future home for an NBA franchise, was thrilled to hear that Artest wants to play with Sacramento's rookies and free agents to stay sharp, scoffing at the notion Artest will be taking an unnecessary injury risk whenever he does make his debut here.

"Any time I get a chance to watch Ron play, I'm excited," Maloof said. "I remember going to watch him at Rucker Park [in New York] a couple years ago. He was playing with his brother and it was one of the most fun nights I've ever had watching basketball. When he's on the court, you can just sense the electricity.

"He's going to play basketball this summer no matter what. If he's not playing here, he's going to be playing in a playground-type situation, so I'd rather see him playing here."

Maloof also acknowledged that he closely followed events in Indianapolis, where Kings-ex Peja Stojakovic left the Pacers without compensation Saturday after verbally agreeing to sign a five-year deal with the Hornets worth more than $60 million. Fear of losing Stojakovic in the summer -- and getting nothing in return -- was one of the factors that prompted Sacramento to gamble on an Artest deal in January.

"We haven't had a single problem with him," Maloof said. "He's at the practice facility almost every day. He came to [the Maloof brothers'] basketball camp in Sacramento on the first day and spent three hours with the kids. I never knew he was this good. Everything he's done [since joining the Kings] has been fabulous.

"He's the face of our franchise. Before, when you said 'Sacramento Kings,' you would have thought of Chris Webber or Vlade Divac. Now it's Ron Artest."

• There was action in the stands as well as on the floor at UNLV's Cox Pavilion, where Toronto's Mike James -- one of the top three unrestricted free agents left on the market along with Al Harrington and Bonzi Wells -- was conducting face-to-face negotiations with the three teams chasing him: Houston, Dallas and Minnesota.

After a meeting with Rockets officials, James could be seen in a far corner of the gym, engaged in an animated discussion with Mavericks owner (and fellow Pittsburgh native) Mark Cuban.

"We're a lot alike," Cuban said with a smile, declining to reveal any more about the conversation.

James eventually made his way to the opposite baseline for a meeting to set up dinner with Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale.

"That's really the three right now," James said of the Rockets, Mavs and Wolves. "Those are the three teams that have shown the most interest in me. But everything, it's basically just talk right now."

James, 31, is seeking a five-year deal after a breakout season for the Raptors in which he averaged 20.3 points and 5.8 assists. The Mavs and Rockets are offering three-year deals starting at the $5 million mid-level exception. Minnesota, which also has its exception available, has been trying to land James via sign-and-trade but the Wolves, according to NBA front-office sources, haven't been able to tempt the Raptors with a package featuring swingman Trenton Hassell.

The Rockets, meanwhile, are trying to bring James back to Houston after dealing him to the Raptors for Rafer Alston last October on the first day of training camp.

Asked if he feels redeemed by Houston's interest now, which included Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy on the doorstep of his Houston home at the first permissible minute of free agency, James said: "I understand people have to make business decisions. [But] I think they realize now that you really don't know what you have sometimes until it's gone. I think the Rockets have a better understanding of me as a person, and I think Jeff has a better understanding of me as a player and a person."

James is staying in Las Vegas through the weekend to continue talks with his suitors and insists that none of the three teams has emerged as a favorite. But he admits that he's getting antsy.

"I'm just ready to get this over with and get with my new team," he said.


• If there's a leader in the sign-and-trade chase for Atlanta's Harrington, according to various sources in the building surveyed Thursday, it's definitely Indiana. Still to be determined, though, is the third team likely needed to complete the deal that would send Harrington back to the team that drafted him.

• The other veteran surprise scheduled to play in the summer league -- Amare Stoudemire -- makes his debut Friday afternoon when the Phoenix Suns meet Minnesota in their summer-league opener. The league might have had three All-Star names, but noted gym rat Gilbert Arenas was advised against joining Artest and Stoudemire and potentially overextending himself after floating the idea of joining Washington's squad here as a means to prepare for the Team USA training camp in Vegas later this month.

• Golden State might have suffered a major blow before even playing a game when guard Monta Ellis' knee buckled on a drive to the hoop in a practice session in advance of the Warriors' opener Friday against Portland. The injury was initially diagnosed as a sprained right knee, but a more conclusive diagnosis isn't expected before Friday. Earlier this week, Golden State agreed to trade veteran guard Derek Fisher to Utah in part to create more playing time for Ellis, a 20-year-old who finished his first season out of high school strongly.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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