23 days of Toronto Raptors history: #1 overall draft pick is….Andrea Bargnani

The Raptors in 2006 won the right to pick first in the NBA Draft lottery. Bryan Colangelo decided long-range shooting was the future, but Andrea Bargnani wasn’t the right choice to make the transition with.

The Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies joined the NBA via league expansion, the second such event in 6 years. Orlando and Minnesota began play in 1989, and by 1995 the Magic were in the Finals. Jealous team owners drew a direct line between Orlando’s immediate success and the fact they were allowed to draft the #1 pick in 1992, Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.

Consequently, in their first three years, the Grizzlies and Raptors were not granted the right to win the #1 pick. As fate would have it, neither team got the #1 pick until the Raptors got lucky. In their eleventh season, Toronto had the fifth-worst record but the ping-pong balls were friendly. For the first and so far only time, the Raptors won the draft lottery.

The draft class had no transcendent talent to make the selection easy. Instead, the consensus choices rapidly came down to two giants: a conventional power forward/center from the University of Texas, LaMarcus Aldridge, or a sweet-shooting Italian, Andrea Bargnani. There were a few contrarians calling upon Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo to grab Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison. He and Duke’s J.J. Redick grabbed all the the NCAA College Player of the Year attention.

Colangelo had made no secret of his preference for the free-flowing style of European hoops as compared to the low-post banging featured in so many NBA games of the period. Thus none of us were surprised when the selection of IL Mago (“The Miracle”) was announced by Commissioner David Stern.

A gunner with size

Bargnani was supposed to be a Unicorn before the term entered common parlance, the first seven-footer with a shooting stroke extending past the three-point arc. He arrived in Toronto a tongue-tied twenty-year-old whose introverted personality did not adapt well to pro ball.

We all know the Bargnani story, and it’s not a happy one. He peaked as a Raptor in 2010-11, leading the team in scoring with 21.6 points per game. However, with Chris Bosh gone, the Raptors were dreadful. There was a 2-18 run in January and February, and a final embarrassing mark of 22-60.

Beating on Bargnani is too easy. He was frequently hurt, and always a who-cares defender. Every season of his career his defensive rating was worse than his offensive, and his career result is 105 – 111, for a minus_6 overall rating. For a man of his gifts, that’s unforgivable; particularly so since he could defend quite well when in the mood.

According to coach Sam Mitchell, Colangelo wouldn’t allow him to bear down on Bargnani in practice. Whether Bargs would have been better with a more hard-ass approach is impossible to say. He certainly couldn’t have been worse.

Why did it have to be this class?

There’s only mild consolation in realizing that Bargnani wasn’t a terrible pick compared to some of the others. The pundits were proven right about the 2006 class – they said it was bad, and so it turned out. Aldridge is a rare exception; his college promise was realized and he’s enjoyed an All-Star career. Morrison was a colossal flop at #3, but Redick, the #11 pick, has been excellent. He’s still draining 3-balls from everywhere for a resurgent 76ers squad.

The #4 and 5 picks were Tyrus Thomas and Shelden Williams…nothing to see here, move along please. Other lottery selections: Randy Foye, Patrick O’Bryant, Mouhamed Sene – yikes.

Brandon Roy, the #6 pick, was Rookie of the Year, but his career was cut short with knee issues. Those were known at the time of the draft, and the reason cited by Colangelo for passing on the brilliant combo guard. Rudy Gay is still around, taking closely-guarded shots at every opportunity.

The Raptors second-round selection at #35 was P.J. Tucker. Why the team gave up on him so early remains a mystery. He played 17 games and was chopped. I thought he was an interesting rookie, undersized but in near-constant motion and always willing to stick his nose in among the trees. After a lengthy overseas sojourn, Tucker made a successful return to the NBA.

Another second-rounder who paid off big time is Paul Millsap.

Late first-rounders who didn’t disappoint are Rajon Rondo and Kyle Lowry.

Who needs the #1 pick anyway

Colangelo restored his reputation as a drafter in Toronto with a trio of excellent picks starting in 2009: DeMar DeRozan (#9), Ed Davis (#13), and Jonas Valanciunas (#5). He could have maintained his streak in 2012, but chose the frustrating Terrence Ross over Andre Drummond with the #8 selection. Colangelo is gone from the NBA, likely forever, following a strange series of events in Philadelphia.

Bargnani’s career fizzled out in Brooklyn in 2014-15. Some people (Anthony Bennett!) aren’t cut out to be Number One Overall.

Checkout day 15 of our “23 days of Raptors history” tomorrow when we look back at Kobe scoring 81 points.