Quote by Young talents for the Spanish reconquista
If Italian and Spanish basketball have one thing in common, it is the growing number of young players deciding to attend a US college as a student-athlete. In Spain, like in Italy, there are no programs supporting both studies or sports activities, bringing many Spanish youngsters to leave and take their chances in the Ncaa. Some of them were part of the U20-and-under national teams that won so many medals in the recent past. Besides, any 18-year-old should be allowed to dream. Who will be the next Calderon, Gasol or Fernandez? Will there ever be a “Generacion Dorada” 2.0? BN singled out three of the most interesting prospects from Spain that are now playing in the Ncaa.
However, the first step had to be a chat with Nacho Juan Gracia, Senior Editor and expert on all things Ncaa for the website basketamericano.com. BN’s Stefano Russillo had the chance to talk to him about the Spain to Ncaa trend.
Would you explain this connection between Spain and the Ncaa?
It started plenty of years back and things grew in a positive way, leading to the current situation. The Ncaa went from being “exotic” to a credible competition, something that people are now considering valuable. What changed the most is the way people think about it. The Ncaa has always been considered a league where players were coming from, but now it became a league to get to, and this idea keeps growing.
What kind of interest is there in Spain for college basketball?
It goes two ways. On one side, Nba fans are attracted by what is coming. Fans enjoy the season, but really want to know what the future of the league is going to be, get to know future stars that might be The Big Thing for the next decade. Comparing players to other players is always a bit iffy, but most people want to know who will be the next LeBron. Thanks to the ridiculous amount of information anyone can access, and to social media, we can all watch videos and consume other contents that are creating hype more than describing the prospect. College basketball satisfies this need. The other reason of the great interest for the Ncaa in Spain is obvious. The number of Spanish young players, boys and girls, who decides to cross the ocean grows every year, and will keep growing. And a fan wants to know how well they are playing, learn about their experience and understand if they will be able to play at the next level. They chose a different path, and this creates an interest.
So you are saying that interest is growing in the last few years.
Definitely. The interest is growing and we noticed that even websites that are not exclusively talking about US basketball do write about it, especially towards the end of the season. March Madness is fascinating for the fans, its format, the Cinderella stories, the epic of the narrative. It is also about the Nba regular season that is about to end and does not have much more to say until the beginning of the playoffs. And that is also when people starts talking about the draft. When you want to know about the draft, you have to check the Ncaa and see future prospects in action.
How is the youth sector organized in Spain? How does it work?
In general, it follows the same model that exists in the rest of Europe. Usually, it is the most important professional clubs to have the best young teams, and most importantly, they are the teams that have the best resources, at least financially. There are teams, though, that have great history within the youth sector despite the disparity in monmey and media attention with Real Madrid or Barcelona, like the Penya (Joventut Badalona’s youth team) or Estudiantes. Moreover, most of these are affiliated with other teams that do not play in the top league but can still offer a context and the minutes on the court that are necessary to grow and get some experience.
Why do Spanish players decide to play in the Ncaa?
It’s quite simple, really. American universities offer them something their clubs can not: the chance to combine their studies with a great competition. They are too young to be forced to know if they will be professional athletes or if they are ready for it. The Ncaa offers a different opportunity. Besides, a Division I university offers the kind of exposure a player would not have with his team. The competition is ferocious, but if the player is ready to take advantage of the chances he or she will be offered, then scouts from all over the world (Spain included) will notice.
Why is this trend growing in the last few years?
Besides the two reasons that I just listed, there are the good results these boys and girls are having. Moving to the US to play ball takes courage but, if it went well for other Spanish players, it is easier to take the decision. We were used to see Spanish players kept in secondary roles on their teams, now we can see how they became core pieces, some of them became team leaders, in plenty of them. It is very common among women players (there are 46 Spanish women playing Ncaa basketball), with some of them being top level players. Which, as a consequence, is not only increasing the number of Spanish players in the Ncaa, but their average level.
What are the Spanish player moving to the Ncaa looking for that they can’t find on their home team?
Spanish players are looking for two things, mainly. An academic opportunity and a chance at a future among professionals. The Ncaa offers an alternative, including at a personal, human level with an experience that will stay with them for the rest of their life. University life in the US, and even more as a student-athlete with a scholarship, is considered a privilege that only a few can afford.
Who are the best Spanish players in the Ncaa right now? Why is it worth to keep an eye on them and what are the expectations on their future?
The best of the group is Sebas Saiz, without a doubt. He spent his last high school year in the US and since he joined Ole Miss, he has been growing steadily, both in his game and in his role with the team. He is a forward-center, very mobile, who can combine his athleticism with his energy. He is a fighter, and despite the difference in weight, he makes his presence known and has good nose for rebounds. In his senior year he became an important piece for Andy Kennedy on both sides of the floor. He is the kind of player who is at his best away from the ball, but he can still be inconsistent. For now, the Nba is too much for him, but he should be a perfect fit with an ACB team. He can have a role from day one, his competitive spirit helps him in that regard. The second in the list, at least in terms of upside, is Yankuba Sima. The former St John’s center has an imposing frame and can intimidate his opponents with his muscles. He still has a lot of work to do on his post game, but he has the potential to improve in every aspect of the game, especially in reading the game. He needs to play more minutes to know what his limits really are.
There are other players who might be interesting for the Spanish league and the rest of Europe. Francis Alonso, a guard for UNC Greensboro, is a sharpshooter, a player with great IQ who can swing close games his way with his shooting. Ruben Guerrero, center for South Florida, is a great fit as the player in the middle in a zone defense. Jorge Bilbao, with his intangibles and passion on the court, has been one of the most important players for UT-Arlington for a few years. He is one of those players whose impact goes way beyond the numbers. Another player who will soon be talked about is Eric Vila, who comes off the Barcelona youth sector and is now in the rotation for Texas A&M. He is a versatile wing with good hands who really knows how to play. Others to keep an eye on are Ramon Vila, at Arizona State, and Jaume Sorolla, at Valparaiso, especially once Alec Peters leaves. There are other players worth being mentioned but it should be obvious by now: Spanish players in the Ncaa are not just names anymore, they are starting to be the protagonists.
Let’s have a look at some of these protagonists, with a focus by Isabella Agostinelli on Sebastian Saiz, Yankuba Sima and Eric Vila.