The Knicks held their first training camp practice on Tuesday, with hopes of beginning a quest that’ll ultimately end with them hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But before those visions of grandeur come to light, head coach Mike Woodson will need to get all the newcomers on board and figure out everyone’s role.
Perhaps the biggest piece of the reworked puzzle is Andrea Bargnani. The former Raptor has already made a big impression with his new coach, and not just because the 7-footer has the natural abilities of someone six inches shorter. But because the former No. 1 overall pick has come to camp focused and ready to play whatever role Woodson deems fit.
Woodson said Bargnani has come to camp with a clean slate and eager to learn the system, particularly the defensive intricacies, and is looking forward to melding the player’s mind to what is already great physical ability.
“He’s gonna be fine because he’s more agile than you think he is. We just have to get him thinking about guarding his position. And if he gets caught in a mismatch, he’s got to feel good about that as well. He’s a smart kid. Once he learns the position, it’ll just be a matter of pushing him in the right direction,” Woodson said, adding he’s thrilled with the Bargnani trade — even if that meant the departure of well-liked veterans. “I don’t think you can pass up on a talent like Bargnani. I’m very grateful for the time I spent with [Marcus] Camby and [Steve] Novak. But I just think Bargnani’s one of those gifted players that I think I can reach. And in return he can help us win some games.”
Whether Bargnani helps the club as a regular starter, spot duty or off the bench remains to be seen.
“I don’t know who’s gonna start. But that’s what we’ll use camp for — [to] evaluate and see where we are. But I know [Bargnani] has been a starter for all his career, but we’ll asses that as we go along,” Woodson said. “He can play the four [power forward] or five [center]. He’ll definitely play both for us this year. ... We can play a big lineup with what we’ve got, with Melo [Carmelo Anthony] at the four and Bargnani at the five, because Melo has been very good at that. Or we can go traditional with Andrea at the five. Either way, I’m going to have some options.”
Bargnani’s presence will definitely make the Knicks’ star player happy, since the Italian import will do what Amar’e Stoudemire was unable to do as Anthony’s sidekick — be a floor-spacing big man who can take off some of the scoring pressure.
Anthony said after just one practice he can tell Bargnani will do wonders for his game and is intrigued at the wrinkles Woodson and his staff have in store for the dynamic scoring duo.
“I’m looking forward to getting up and down the court with Bargnani. His capabilities, I know what he’s about and know what he can do,” Anthony said. “And for me, it helps me out a lot to have a stretch-four [long-range shooting power forward] that can shoot, create off the dribble and get shots for others. It’s another weapon we have.”
Anthony then quipped that Bargnani should be carefree, even if he’s now playing in New York.
“There ain’t no pressure on him. All the pressure is on me,” Anthony said. “This should be an easy transition for him. Just come in and play basketball and do what he’s got to do.”
Bargnani, who had an uneven experience being the face of a franchise, said he’s just happy to execute any task.
“New York is a different situation than Toronto, for sure, and the pressure is on him of course,” Bargnani said of Anthony. “But there’s pressure on the whole team because there’s a lot of expectations on the team.”
Despite being known as one of the league’s better long-range shooting forwards, Bargnani said if his role is only rebounding errant shots or banging in the post — something critics are skeptical about — that’s what he’ll do, because all those seasons of losing north of the border got old really quick.
“The main thing is winning,” Bargnani said. “Toronto didn’t make the playoffs for five straight years, so I’m starving for some winning. It’s all about the team.”
The veteran scorer then flashed a grin when asked his thoughts of playing with such an accomplished player like Anthony.
“I can score the ball, that’s what I do,” he said. “When you play with great guys it makes everything easier because they draw all the attention and they know how to play. Carmelo is not only a great scorer but has great vision, so he can only make things better. ... It’ll be hard to guard us at the same time, because who are you going to guard? Especially in the pick-and-roll. It’ll be exciting.”
Knicks notes ...
» Stoudemire (knee) didn’t participate in today’s session, as expected, but Woodson noted the recovering power forward was on the floor for a little bit participating in standstill shooting drills.
Woodson reasoned to not forget about Stoudemire, as he still considers him a major contributor when healthy: “We’re taking it a day at a time with him. But STAT is a big piece of the puzzle still. We’ve got to utilize him, but I also have to be smart this year about maximizing his minutes. I don’t think we can play him 30 minutes, so when he comes back we’ll have to groom some minutes early and grow from that.”
» Bargnani caught pneumonia while playing overseas during the summer, but said he’s got a clean bill of health now and is fully recovered: “My lungs are clear and OK. It’s now just a matter of getting in shape, and today was pretty good.”
The Knicks play Bargnani’s former team twice in the preseason, but he said he’s not giving that — or the reaction — much thought: “What do you want me to say? When I was in Toronto, we played the Knicks a lot in the preseason. Of course it’ll be weird for me to play them after being there seven years. That’s a long time. But it’ll be weird coming to the gym wearing another jersey.”
Woodson’s praise of Bargnani was effusive. He reasoned he didn’t truly appreciate Bargnani’s greatness, even while coaching against him. But said now that he finally has him in person, the player is even better than he thought: “I’ve watched him from afar for many years, in terms of coaching against him all those years when he was in Toronto. I just think he’s a talented young player that can do a lot of things for you. I’ve just got to get him acclimated to what we’re doing and feeling good about himself again because I think he can help this ball club. Plus, he can post up and put it on the floor. He’ll give us more options than just living on the perimeter.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.