By Steve Keating
TORONTO, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Italian forward Andrea Bargnani has seldom experienced La Dolce Vita during seven enigmatic seasons with the National Basketball Association's (NBA) Toronto Raptors.
Despite being the first European taken with the number one pick in an NBA draft and a five-year $50 million extension in 2009, the sweet life has eluded the seven-foot Roman who is losing fan support with play that is often as bewildering as a Federico Fellini film.
Indeed, things have turned decidedly sour for the Italian, who was greeted to a chorus of boos from a frustrated home crowd when he returned to the Raptors lineup on Wednesday against Boston after missing 26 games with elbow and wrist injuries.
"I'm disappointed," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey told reporters after the Raptors fell 99-95 to Boston. "This young man has done nothing to deserve that. He's been hurt.
"Fans have a right to boo, to cheer, to boo me. But I don't think Andrea deserved it, coming back from a serious injury."
With each passing season the criticism has grown louder and more frequent as Bargnani fails to develop into the franchise player expected from a number one overall selection.
Even Raptors General Manager Bryan Colangelo, who used the top pick in 2006 to claim Bargnani, once labeled him as the "enigma of all enigmas," openly suggesting it might be time to finally trade the 27-year-old.
"I heard some cheers, some boos but I tried to lock in and be aggressive and do my best for the team," Bargnani said after scoring 13 points in his return. "It's not my role to say if it is fair or unfair, I'm a player so I just have to go in and contribute to the team."
Bargnani's offensive talent is both obvious and impressive. In the previous two seasons combined he has averaged 20 points a game and provides a court presence that commands respect and opens up space for others.
But while his English has improved dramatically over seven seasons playing in the NBA's most northern outpost, development of his defensive skills have not kept pace, preferring to work from the perimeter while displaying a reluctance to get involved in the dirty work under the basket.
Nicknamed "Il Mago" (the magician), Bargnani's best trick has become an infuriating disappearing act, delivering a magical performances one night then missing the next.
That inconsistent effort, combined with a passive demeanor, has left fans cold but Casey warned that Bargnani's reserved nature should not be mistaken for disinterest.
Compounding the aloof perception, the soft-spoken Italian also lacks the magnetic star power a number one overall pick normally commands, as blase about the spotlight as he is interested in rebounding.
"He's a quiet man and I think people mistake that for not caring and I do know he cares," explained Casey. "I think that is the part of Andrea's personality that no one has been able to grasp but there is a lot going on upstairs.
"He is a smart guy, he does care, he is very conscientious about where he stands in the team, in the league."
Three head coaches, Sam Mitchell, Jay Triano and now Casey have all tried to fan Bargnani's competitive fires, pushing him to be more aggressive with limited success.
Even as Bargnani becomes the subject of escalating trade speculation leading up to the Feb. 21 deadline, there are signs the Raptors may not yet be quite ready to throw in the towel.
At the start of last season, Casey was, for a brief time, able to entice the type of performance from Bargnani that everyone had been waiting to see and now with his injuries woes behind him might be able to produce again.
"Whatever I have to do, kick his butt, be his friend, pat him on the back, hit him in the head, whatever it takes to get him to that level is going to be huge for our team going forward," Casey told reporters. "I talk to him, we want him to get back to that level he played last year.
"I've been on him in practice. We're going to push him just like everyone else but we need him to step and play the way he did the first 18 games last year." (Editing by Frank Pingue)