The young NBA season has been a whirlwind so far, and you’d be forgiven if some story lines have escaped your attention. One of these less heralded story lines is the emergence of Andrea Bargnani. For his entire pro career, he’s been labelled “soft”, and not without reason. His rebounding and defense is not commensurate with his height and prodigious athletic gifts. His career rebounding average has hovered around 5 per game, an abysmal mark for a center, and his Rebounding Rate has been equally terrible. Likewise, his defense, specifically his help defense, has driven Raptors fans into fits. Before this year, there wasn’t much he could do well outside of scoring in a nontraditional way.
Then, this year happened. Not only has Bargnani improved on his rebounding, tying a career high in TRR and achieving a career high in DRR, he’s improved on defense. Bargnani is allowing .59 PPP overall, according to Synergy, enough to rank him 21st among all players with 25 or more defensive plays. Digging deeper, he’s been even more spectacular in the post, allowing just .5 PPP, good enough for 2nd overall among all ranking players. And while Bargnani still isn’t the best pick and roll defender, allowing 1.18 PPP to the roll man, most of those points come because Bargnani is overaggressive in his hedges. On the spectrum of defensive mistakes, a tendency to overhelp is preferable to complacency. Casey’s team defensive concepts have worked magic, and as long as Bargnani continues to listen to his coach, we can expect him to improve steadily, although it’s unlikely he keeps up this defensive production.
And even with all the improvements in his defense and rebounding, the biggest change in his game has been on the offensive side of the ball. While his per minute scoring stats are similar to last year’s, his first year as a first option, the efficiency with which he’s scoring is shocking. First of all, he’s putting up the best percentages of his career: 52.3% from the field, 56.3% eFG, and 61% TS. Secondly, he’s going to the line at a career high pace, averaging .38 free throw attempts per field goal attempt. And thirdly, add in the fact that the percentage of his shots that are being blocked are at a career low, and you have a picture of a scorer having a breakout year.
While it’s still too early in the season to be certain that Bargnani is really breaking through, it’s fair to ask what he’s been doing that has let him score at such a torrid pace. His shot locations can provide valuable information to determine this. Andrea is averaging as many attempts at the rim as he has in his career, and he’s shooting a career 75.8% there. He’s also been assisted on a career low 59% of his at the rim field goals. From the looks of it, that means he’s been more consistently attacking the rim, and he’s become better at finishing there. Bargnani is also shooting a career high 52.2% and 54% from 10-15 and 16-23 feet, respectively, two numbers that are likely to regress to normality. And finally, Bargnani is shooting fewer threes than any year before the last, and ALL of them are assisted, meaning he’s not shooting threes off the dribble.
Those numbers tell us quite a bit about the results, but I want to go even deeper. Luckily, Synergy Sports, a service that tracks every single play in every single NBA game and records the data, exists. We’ll go there for information and video on Bargnani’s game this year.
Looking at the Synergy numbers, we see that Bargnani is ranked 18th overall on offense by PPP, and that includes a rank of 5th overall in isolation, 2nd overall in the pick and roll as the roll man, and 3rd overall in spot up plays. He hasn’t had enough plays to be ranked in the post, but his very robust 1.13 PPP is very close to LeBron James’ 1.22, which ranks 2nd in the league. So, he’s been good. What else, though? What does his video show us about him?
I looked at the video of his isolation, post up, and pick and roll as the roll man possessions. One thing comes through the most. Andrea is most consistently effective when he only uses the pull up jumper as a threat to draw defenders off balance. I believe it was Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated who ranked Bargnani’s pump fake as the best among all big men, and he’s pretty close there. Repeatedly, in the post and on the wing, Bargnani would pump fake and draw his defender into the air and then waltz around them for a shot at the rim. Teams had their most success defending him in isolation when they stayed home, and even then, when the perimeter jumper was falling, he’d kill them.
And then, even when you’re defending him perfectly one-on-one, there’s the problem of defending Andrea in the pick and roll. Bargnani is blessed in that he has an elite pick and roll point guard, one of the five best in the league, in Jose Calderon. Jose is smart enough and has the passing ability to make the defense pay for cheating anywhere on the court, so opposing teams are forced to play his and Andrea’s pick and roll straight up. One of the surprising things I’ve found about Bargnani’s play in the pick and roll is his tendency to slip the screen. And by tendency, I mean the fact that he almost never actually sets a screen, instead choosing to slip either towards the rim or towards the perimeter for a jumper. For whatever reason, defenders haven’t yet picked up on this, but eventually, they’ll realize he’s not a threat to screen, and play him closer. When that happens, you can expect his efficiency in pick and rolls to go down…theoretically.
So, what does all this mean? Well, we saw that Andrea Bargnani has really improved his defensive game, along with his rebounding, probably as a result of Dwane Casey’s tutelage and pushing. We’ve also learned that his offense has experienced the most improvement, although it may not be sustainable improvement. In all probability, Bargnani will not maintain his career high efficiency from mid range, and that will surely drive his overall numbers down. That, combined with an increase in defenders playing him for the slipped screen, will probably push his numbers back down to something resembling normalcy. However, as long as he remains aggressive, his physical gifts and touch around the court should ensure that he remains an offensive threat. The key is, he must remain aggressive. It will be up to Casey to keep Bargnani engaged in the team concept, and that means keeping him involved on defense and on the boards. If he can do it, Toronto’s future will be brighter than it has been for a long time.
All statistics courtesy of Hoopdata and mySynergySports