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Aldama dreaming of success with Spain this summer

The Spanish center plays a key role the Memphis Grizzlies’ rotations. He’s in one of the best teams in the competition - and also one of the most spectacular.

Santi Aldama.
Ronald Cortes /Getty

Santi Aldama chose his own path. He went to college basketball and spent two years (2019-2021) playing at Loyola-Maryland, where he won a first-round berth draft (number 30 in 2021). With the Grizzlies, he is growing steadily, little by little but with an increasingly defined role and in a team that believes in his virtues. In fact, he recently posted his best performance in the NBA: 22 points and 14 rebounds (both the best figures of his career) in the 112-108 victory against the Dallas Mavericks - a result that returned the Tennessee franchise to second place in the Western Conference (44 wins, 27 losses).

The 21-year-old is averaging nearly 10 points and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes per night, double his rookie year. And he’s getting better all the time - after last summer, in which he chose to give priority to preparing for his second NBA season, everything points to the fact that in 2023 he will be with Spain, defending their world crown.

Each year you have taken firm steps: reaching the NBA, establishing yourself as a rookie, growing in your second season... What’s next?

I am just planning on continuing on the same path and probably improve some aspects of my game. I know I need to improve in defense, try to block more shots, rebound a little more... And in attack, be able to penetrate and distribute a little more. But in the end you have to take one step at a time. This year it’s all about helping the team win. Especially behind, in defense. And in attack, make the right decisions. In summer I will work more to be able to contribute even more.

This summer, it looks likely that you will be part of the Spain squad playing at the World Cup.

Yes, that is a dream that I have and that I hope will come true this summer.

You weren’t part of the team that starred in last year’s Eurobasket so that you could prepare for this season in the NBA. How did you experience it from a distance?

With great enthusiasm, as always. I was looking forward to seeing Spain compete. It is true that this time it was a different team from other times, but the identity was the same. We played hard, we played the basketball that we like to play, and I think that in the end it showed and that is the reason why we won. I was very happy, I ended up jumping for joy when we won the final.

Santi Aldama, MVP and 2019 European Under-18 champion.
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Santi Aldama, MVP and 2019 European Under-18 champion.Santi AldamaTwitter

You also missed the All Star Rising Stars Challenge. Were you angry not to be involved?

Well, I’m not angry, but I would have been excited to have taken part, that’s for sure. In the end, it’s a popular vote and that is how it turned out. I have time to focus on the team, rest a bit and prepare for the end of the season, which is tough.

Memphis Grizzlies is one of the youngest, most attractive and most competitive franchises in the current NBA. What is so special about this team?

I think it’s the culture. That’s something we talk about a lot, but if you see it from the inside, it’s much more appreciated. I think that all the people in the team, not just the players, are on the same page. It’s very easy to work, day-to-day is very easy, and that ends up being noticeable both on the court and off it. I think that what we call our game, which in the end is running, passing the ball and having fun, and that shows.

And people have fun watching you…

In the end, when you see us play, people have fun because we have fun. We are young, we want to play, we come from that time when the ones you play with are your friends and we continue to have that philosophy.

“A lot of people tell me they have fond memories of Pau and Marc”

You are in a franchise in which both Pau and Marc Gasol were already very important. Do they get mentioned because you are also Spanish?

It is very noticeable. Every person I see mentions Pau and Marc… they have been in most of the history of this franchise, especially in this part in Memphis. And both the fans, the people who were already in the franchise, workers in the pavilion... they all tell me that they have very good memories of them.

Which player do you focus on to continue progressing?

Since I was little I paid close attention to Pau and Dirk Nowitzki, they were the players I liked the most. Although when I was little I played more as a point guard and forward, but I liked playing like them. Now I just look for players that I can get a little closer to my game. I pay close attention to Giannis Antetokounmpo, although we are very different, but in transition he is very good and I like to see what he does and the advantages he generates due to physicality, although obviously there are no other players quite like him. But I really like to analyze how he gets those advantages being so tall, to work out and understand how he does it.

Luka Doncic and Santi Aldama greet each other after a game.
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Luka Doncic and Santi Aldama greet each other after a game.KAREN PULFER FOCHTEFE

And who would you say is the toughest opponent you've faced, the one you found the most difficult to overcome?

There are many, and Giannis himself is certainly among them. You can’t defend him one-on-one, it has to be a collective effort. But I would say that by far the most difficult player to defend, and the one who has impressed me the most, is Stephen Curry. He is a guy who is constantly on the move. If you relax for a second when he releases the ball, he runs out and finds an open 3-pointer. He is also very capable of finishing plays on the inside even though he is less tall... and he also has a great team around him that helps him a lot. If it happens, they have [Jordan] Poole, Klay Thompson... players who are capable of hitting a lot of three-pointers. I would say that he is the most difficult to defend in the NBA, without a doubt.

You decided to go to the United States in 2019 to play college with Loyola-Maryland University. Do you think following that route helped you adjust better when it was time to make the leap to the NBA?

Yes it helped. In the end it’s a decision that I made to continue playing at a good level and studying at the same time, but yes, it helped me a lot. The change to the NBA is big in itself, wherever you come from. Even if you are American it is. But being there for two years before making the leap to the NBA did help me adapt, because you get to know the culture, even if you change cities you already know what to expect, how life works here, which is very different from Spain. So the two years at Loyola did help me, also in my development as a player and as a person.

"Making the leap to the NBA is huge, but going through NCAA helped me to adapt"

Do you like living in Memphis, are you comfortable there?

I do like it. It’s a small city, one of the smallest with NBA teams, but I like it a lot. There isn’t much traffic, you can move around well, the weather is a bit like Madrid, although more humid... but that’s fine. You can go to restaurants, take a walk along the Mississippi, in the summer we play a little golf… there are things to do.

How did you see the debate that took place last summer about the game in Europe and in the NBA, the different styles, the difficulties to score in one or the other...?

I think that, in the end, it is a question of numbers. In NBA games, many more points are scored, but it is that they last eight more minutes and there are many more possessions due to the pace of the game. There are many more short possessions. In the ACB or the Euroleague, the ball moves much more to find the best possible shot. Here in the NBA, if you're open at four seconds and you have a three-pointer, you have to throw it. Because in the end, even if you keep moving the ball, you still can't find a better shot.

Stars like Doncic returned from the Eurobasket saying that it's easier to score in the NBA.

The field is bigger, there are more spaces, and this is noticed by players like Luka Doncic who have a lot of the ball and are so good at exploiting those spaces... It’s much more difficult, here you can’t defend in the zone like in Europe; you’re going to set a zone where he will have the ball less. But here he is able to hold onto the ball and he is very good at finding the positions he wants to be in; and if he doesn’t shoot, he will find the teammate who is free and unmarked. He has a lot of ease to play his game.