10/03/2012 04:09 EDT | Updated 12/03/2012 05:12 EST

Bargnani is ready to start fresh after a summer of rehabilitating his injury

HALIFAX - Just a day after playing one of the best games of his life, Andrea Bargnani's season that had held so much promise came to a screeching halt.

And some ways, the Toronto Raptors' campaign did too.

The Italian centre and team's leading scorer would go on to miss 35 games with a calf injury, spoiling a strong season for the big man and throwing a giant wrench into the Raptors' campaign.

After an off-season of rehab, Bargnani is keen for a fresh start.

"Yeah, for sure it's a long time for me (since he last played). I don't remember another time when I was so many days without playing games," Bargnani said Wednesday.

Bargnani lit up the scoreboard on Jan. 24 against Phoenix, scoring 36 points — 18 in the third quarter alone — and shooting a perfect 12-for-12 from the free throw line in Toronto's first win over the Suns in eight years.

It was his first game back from a calf injury that kept him out six games and that he thought was ancient history.

But just a night later at Sacramento, he pulled it again.

"The second time when I got hurt I realized right away it was pretty bad," Bargnani said. "I realized right away it was not going to be two or three weeks."

The Raptors' No. 1 draft pick in 2006 was having a career year. For a guy with the reputation as being a soft player, his attention to the defensive side of the game under new coach Dwane Casey was dramatic and impressive.

"Last year, definitely," Bargnani said, when asked if last season was the best basketball he's played. "Not much for the offence because I always play good in the offence, but I was playing very good on defence, that's why it was the best."

That made his season-ending injury even tougher to take.

"It was tough mentally, because I had to sit out and watch my teammates play," he said.

The seven-footer went home to Italy in the off-season and has come back healthy and strong.

"Really happy that he's come into camp in great shape, 15 pounds heavier, stronger but he's playing at that high level that we saw last year and I'm excited about it," Casey said.

Bargnani, his hair soaked with sweat after a gruelling morning practice at the Canada Games Centre, said the extra weight comes from a summer spent in the gym. He didn't follow a special diet — "just grandma's cooking."

The 26-year-old took a rare summer off from Italy's national team to fully heal his body and mind, a much-needed break for someone who's played professionally since he was 18, and Casey said Bargnani is back even better than he was to start the season last year.

"When he plays at that level, he can be an all-star, one of the most talented players in the league when he plays at that level," Casey said. "And I have all the confidence in the world that he can do that."

The extra weight, said Casey, will help his physical play and his stamina.

"He's moving strong with the ball. He's got (small forward) Dom McGuire going at him and he's going to face a lot of guys like that this year, we have to get him used to going against those 6-8, 6-9 guys that are quick and physical."

Casey said teams guard Bargnani with six-foot-eight players.

"He's getting that in practice every day so it's going to help him and I see him playing with such aggression and such confidence now he's giving everybody fits when we get him the ball," Casey said.

The coach's one complaint was number of turnovers Bargnani committed on Day 2 of camp, an affliction that he said struck virtually the entire team. The climate of this year's camp is different from last year's when Casey came in as a new coach with a focus mainly on defence.

With those defensive principles now in place, the coach has allotted more time to the offensive end of the game at this camp. The players are adjusting to a more up-tempo style than they played last season.

"It was a good day, love our effort, love our spirit but way too many turnovers," Casey said. "One thing when you play fast and we're trying to up-tempo the game, there becomes a responsibility with the ball, and everyone's guilty of it and it's natural. But that's the only thing I'm saying we're behind on is taking are of the ball and making sure we make the right basketball play, the smart basketball play.

"The effort is there; it's one of those things we're doing to have to grow into, playing at a high tempo. Every drill we run is on a clock and that heightens the situation and with that, we were just too careless with the ball."

The Raptors will practise through Saturday in Halifax. They host Real Madrid in their pre-season opener on Monday at the Air Canada Centre.

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