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Original Issue

NBA Roundup

The Italian Job
Top draft pick Andrea Bargnani is delivering unexpected value

PROJECT is not a label that fantasy owners like to see affixed to their players, unless there's a league out there that awards points based on the number of times a coach compliments someone's work ethic. That's why, despite the abundant--and immediate--success of recent No. 1 picks Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Yao Ming, Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani wasn't high on many fantasy draft boards this fall. Bargnani certainly didn't allay any doubts right out of the gate: In his first month in the NBA the 21-year-old Italian averaged 7.3 points (albeit in 15.8 minutes).

But Bargnani has been on a steady statistical upswing, thanks in no small part to a directive from Raptors G.M. Bryan Colangelo last month telling coach Sam Mitchell to give the 7-footer more minutes. The move paid immediate dividends: Bargnani had six straight double-digit scoring nights from Nov. 26 to Dec. 6. "His comfort level since November has improved significantly," says an Eastern Conference scout. "It's as if he has recognized that he's already a good enough shooter to play at this level." Don't expect Bargnani to become gun-shy anytime soon, either. "One thing about Andrea," says Mitchell. "He's not afraid to shoot."

WRIGHT STUFF
Credit Miami assistant coach Keith Askins with the development of forward Dorell Wright, who has played nearly as many games so far this season (19) as he had in his first two seasons with the Heat (23). Under Askins's tutelage Wright has become a more consistent defender and at week's end was averaging 6.6 points, nearly tripling his scoring average from 2005--06. "They haven't even asked him to play offense yet," says an Eastern Conference personnel man. "This kid is just loaded with potential." In eight games as a starter Wright was averaging 8.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists. With the emergence of Wright and James Posey's steady play off the bench, Antoine Walker, who at week's end was averaging a career-low 9.5 points per game, figures to see his minutes dwindle.

CURRYING FAVOR
Knicks center Eddy Curry may be the most frustrating player in the NBA--considering his lackadaisical defense and tendency to rebound like Chubby from Teen Wolf--but he's been pure gold for fantasy owners this season. Curry scored 20 or more points in nine consecutive games and has established himself as the focal point of New York's offense. "[Knicks coach] Isiah [Thomas] loves to go small in the fourth quarter and play the energy game," says one scout. "But Eddy has been so good that Isiah not only has to leave him in, he has to go to him a lot more often."

HOT HAND LUKE
Lakers forward Luke Walton's play won't make any highlight shows, but he has proved to be a reliable producer in his first season as L.A.'s starting small forward. At week's end Walton was averaging 12.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists, and had earned the trust of coach Phil Jackson. "He doesn't do anything great," says a Western Conference scout, "but he's tailor-made for the triangle offense, and you can count on regular production from him every single night." Another reason for fantasy owners to like Walton: Kobe Bryant is day-to-day with an ankle injury, and Walton is averaging 17.0 points in the games Bryant has missed this season.

DISPATCHES

FANTASY OWNERS who took a chance on injured Grizzlies forward PAU GASOL are about to be rewarded. Gasol, who has been the subject of trade rumors, averaged a career-high 20.4 points and 8.9 rebounds last season but hasn't played since breaking his left foot at the world championships in August. According to a team source, Gasol could be back in Memphis's lineup as early as this week.

ROCKETS GUARD Luther Head isn't turning many heads with his 9.7-point scoring average. But a long-range view reveals Head to be a fantasy find: At week's end he was tied for sixth in the league in three-pointers made (46), shooting 50.5% from behind the arc.

KEEP AN EYE on which arena Gilbert Arenas is playing in before you start him. The Wizards guard has averaged 34.4 points and 7.4 assists at home this season. But he's been cooler away from the Verizon Center, averaging 21.1 points and 5.2 assists.