Tall forwards with good handling, passing and shooting skills often get compared to Larry Bird. Tossing out the former Celtic's name is an easy way to say, "This guy is tall and he can shoot from the outside."
It's an unfair comparison to most, but in the case of Danilo Gallinari, it has a darker connotation. Yes, the Italian rookie has been able to hit the three for the Knicks (over 45% for the season) but it's his lower back that has many people dropping Bird's name.
Gallinari is beginning his career in the same manner that Bird ended his – lying down. The young man known as "The Rooster" is enduring such back pain that he cannot sit on the bench. Rather, he's been forced to start games stretching in the locker room before stepping onto the court. And when Mike D'Antoni subs him out, Gallinari sprawls out on the hardwood so as to alleviate his back and leg pain.
"I'm working with these guys (motions to trainers) and trying to activate my muscles," Gallinari told HOOPSWORLD of the time he spends before entering the game.
[Only registered and activated users can see links. ], Gallinari might have issues with multiple discs – a sign of a degenerative condition. When you add his leg pain into the equation, it's easy to see why the Knicks are concerned.
However, Gallinari insists that it is, "just one disc," and that the leg pain is subsiding. And while the disc injury did prevent him from playing in the summer league (he did not play from the beginning of November until mid January as well) he has noticed some slight improvements.
"If you compare it to the summer, then it's improved a lot," Gallinari said. "Now it's kind of that stage where it's not getting worse, it's not improving. So, I'm still at 70% – I can still feel it, but I can still play."
The cause of the condition is still unknown to the team. In January, rumors began circulating that Gallinari's first exposure to weight training might have been a contributing factor. However, that was something that D'Antoni – a former teammate of Gallinari's father, Vittorio, with Olimpia Milano – was not buying.
"Have you seen his body?" D'Antoni asked HOOPSWORLD recently. "He hasn't been doing any weights. He can't go there. We've got the best people that worry over our guys' health. They're doing everything possible. His back, for whatever reason, just didn't respond. Now that they've worked on it for six months, they've got it to a good spot."
The issue of weightlifting is very cultural. While many domestic players grow up with weights in their basement, European players tend to look like the 220-pound Bird.
"Well it's different," said the Lakers' Sasha Vujacic. "In Europe, you have a little different program of weight lifting. Me, I'm not a big fan of getting bigger, or whatever. The process of him coming here probably hurt him a little bit because he wanted to bulk up too soon.
"I was very, very skinny," he continued. "I was half my size right now. It takes time. We're built differently. We play in a different way, so it just takes time. You have to adjust to it and get in that weight room."
Gallinari is currently listed at 6-10, 225. He has the frame to add some weight and has already considered taking a more aggressive approach this offseason to avoid the trappings of last summer.
"For sure I'm going to work out a lot to be better, better and better," said Gallinari. "'Work' is the only word I know to get better. I'm going to work out here (instead of in Italy). If I go back to Italy, it will just be for vacation."
Despite all the back pain and the missed games, Gallinari has actually been a driving force behind the Knicks playoff push. Currently the team sits three and a half games behind the Bulls for the final spot in the Eastern Conference. As the race for April tightens, D'Antoni hasn't hesitated to turn to Gallinari for some big shots.
"I'm happy for that and I'm happy to be important, but that was my goal coming here: to be important for the Knicks," said Gallinari. "I'm an important player for this team and I'm just trying to bring some aggressiveness and some energy as soon as I get on the court."
In March 4th's win over Atlanta, Gallinari scored a career-high 17 points thanks in part to a 4-of-5 shooting performance from beyond the arc.
"He really spreads the floor.," D'Antoni said after the game. "He's one of our smartest players."
And in two narrow losses (February 25th's loss to Orlando and March 8th's loss in New Jersey) Gallinari knocked down several important fourth quarter three-pointers.
"Obviously he has talent, but it will take some time to learn the game to play here," Charlotte's Vladimir Radmanovic said of Gallinari. "He has everything he needs to be a good basketball player. He's skilled, he can shoot, big man, (and) has a bright future in front of him."
Gallinari's Player Efficiency Rating sits only .62 points below the league average. That would be good enough for 17th-best among rookies if he had enough games to qualify.
"He's a great player," said the man who actually ranks 17th among rookies in Player Efficiency Rating, Charlotte's D.J. Augustin. "He understands the game pretty well. He's a great player and if we all keep working hard, we can all be great players in this league."
So far, Gallinari is hitting nearly 96% of his free throws and 46.5% of his 3 pointers. However, it is his defense that is his most surprising asset.
So far this season, Gallinari has had moments guarding Lebron James, Rashard Lewis and even point guards like Augustin. He still has a long way to go on the defensive end, but his attitude and willingness to guard anyone on the floor proves he has a future in this game on both ends of the court.
"I think defense is all about mental aggressiveness," explained Gallinari. "If you want to play defense, you can play defense..
"(Guarding point guards is) not something new," he continued. "I always use to play little guys. I always like to post up and then play defense against the point guard like (Knicks forward) Jared Jeffries is doing. I'm not like, 'Oh my God, what do I do now?'"
Already an elite shooter, Gallinari is learning to fill-out the rest of his game. And while he does admit that his back has been an issue this season, he thinks to the comparisons to Larry Bird can end there.
"That's probably too much," he said with a smile. "That's a great comparison, but I think Larry Bird is one of the best players ever and I've just come to the NBA. I appreciate it though."
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