For Santi Aldama, those valuable lessons are almost as good as gold now.
The growing pains and breakthroughs from playing behind, alongside and – at times – in place of Jaren Jackson Jr. in the Grizzlies’ lineup the past two years are providing a boost.
“I’ve learned from Jaren a while now,” Aldama insists from overseas. “What I think I’ve learned most that’s helping me is basically how to use my body (defensively) to change shots and (offensively) to get position. That’s a strength Jaren has. I try to use that in my game.”
If production with their respective national teams is any indication, the 6-foot-11 Spanish pupil has caught on quickly with lessons from his 6-foot-11 American mentor and NBA teammate.
Much like Jackson has with Team USA, Aldama and Spain swept their three games in initial group stage play of the FIBA Basketball World Cup to advance to this weekend’s second round.
Also like Jackson, Aldama has been essentially irreplaceable on his frontcourt as Spain has powered on to the round of 16 remaining teams vying for berths to the 2024 Paris Olympics.
And statistically, the Grizzlies’ two versatile big men are having a similar impact – albeit with their own unique styles of play. Through three games in FIBA action, Jackson is averaging 11 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and a steal in nearly 17 minutes a game as USA’s starting center.
Aldama, meanwhile, has been a sensational sixth man for Spain in contributing 11.3 points, six rebounds, 1.7 blocks and a steal per game. He leads Spain in blocked shots and plus-minus ratio (+18.3), is tied for first in rebounds, is second in minutes played and is third in scoring.
While Jackson and Team USA have been stationed in the Philippines for their games, Aldama and Spain have been anchored in Indonesia for these initial rounds. Yet, there’s a mutual admiration of each other’s breakout play on the global stage as their respective team’s advance.
“It’s been great,” Jackson said of tracking Aldama’s progress from afar as they both push through the FIBA field. “He’s one of the best young players coming up right now, and he has all the tools to be amazing. With him putting it all together now, I know he’s been playing like a superhero with his country over there. It’s great, and I’m happy with everything he does.”
They now move a step closer to a potential showdown for a FIBA gold medal, but both face major obstacles in their quests to emerge from the weekend and make the knockout stage. Spain advanced to Group L and plays Latvia on Friday before Sunday’s showdown with fellow unbeaten Canada, which is arguably the most impressive team so far in the World Cup field.
Team USA, which capped its 3-0 start with Wednesday’s 110-62 thrashing of Jordan, moves ahead to Group J matchups Friday against Montenegro and Sunday versus 3-0 Lithuania. The top eight teams that emerge from Sunday move on to next week’s quarterfinals, with the bracket culminating in the Sept. 10 FIBA Basketball World Cup gold medal game.
Spain entered the 32-team field last week as FIBA’s No. 1-ranked squad based largely on its gold medal finish in the 2019 World Cup. But the USA, Canada, Serbia and Germany have proved to be viable threats to win the tournament, with each of those teams led by several NBA players.
“We have to figure out a way to play at our pace, with our physicality, that’s the biggest thing,” Aldama told Grind City Media of defending Spain’s World Cup title. “There are a lot of good teams in the World Cup, and you can already see the amount of talent is huge. There are so many teams that can win it. If we focus on winning every day . . . winning every single practice day by getting better, that’s our biggest challenge. If we do that, we’re set up for success.”
Although the Hernangomez brothers and Rudy Fernandez all boast previous NBA experience, Aldama is the lone player on Spain’s active roster who played extensively in the league last season. That became the case when Spanish superstar and NBA veteran Ricky Rubio announced in FIBA training camp he was stepping away from the team to cope with mental health issues.
“We lose Ricky, who’s a great player who would have helped us a lot, and we have to adjust,” Aldama said. “But it’s obviously more important what he’s going through right now. And we stand with him. But we have the guys we have. And we have a great group.”
Rubio’s absence created a scoring void that gave Aldama a bigger opportunity to emerge. During his senior national team debut on Aug. 4, Aldama scored 16 points in 16 minutes in an exhibition win over Venezuela. He followed up with a team-high 18 points, seven assists and six rebounds in another tune-up victory, this time over NBA superstar Luka Doncic and Slovenia.
Then came the highly anticipated matchup with Jackson on Aug. 13, when Spain pushed Team USA for three-and-a-half quarters before faltering late in a 10-point loss to the Americans. Aldama matched Jackson’s scoring output, with both big men finishing with 14 points.
It was a full-circle moment for Aldama. He opened his second NBA season a year ago as the Grizzlies starting power forward for the first two months as Jackson completed offseason surgery rehab. Aldama finished that season having played in 77 games, including 20 starts, while averaging career-highs of nine points and 4.8 rebounds in 21.8 minutes.
Now, after an offseason dedicated to building strength, improving his defense and expanding his offensive game, Aldama is testing his growth against the player who helped build his skillset.
“It was also the ability to make mistakes and learn on the fly,” Aldama said of how last season prepared him for FIBA play. “That’s carrying through with Team Spain, having to play in a different system, with different rules and a different team. Having that experience where I was able to adapt, having to play more minutes at some points last season and less in others, that just set me up properly so I can contribute to my national team the way I’ve been expecting.”
Jackson is just as proud of the gains he’s seen in Aldama’s game. The conversations and pointers he offered along the way last season are paying dividends now. And Aldama believes there’s no better teacher than a stalwart like Jackson, the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
“He did a great job filling in for me – he held it down then, and you can see it just in his presence now,” Jackson said of Aldama. “His defense is coming along, and his offense has really always been there. He’s versatile. He works, so he’s going to be great in this league for a while.”
Only one of the two can potentially return to Memphis with a FIBA gold medal.
Jackson smirks when asked if it might be awkward to face his Grizzlies’ teammate with a FIBA World Cup championship on the line, should both teams continue to advance.
“It’s not going to be weird at all,” Jackson vowed. “I want that. I’ll be ready to go.”
There’s no backing down from Aldama or Spain as they continue to rise to the challenge. Spain has won 11 straight World Cup games, dating to their 2019 FIBA championship run. That streak matches the longest in that national team’s history.
But this is a different team, and a different time. Yet, it’s the same Spanish national pride.
“I’ve been training the whole summer for this moment,” Aldama assured.
Regardless of the World Cup outcome, Jackson believes the Grizzlies will ultimately come out winners. They’ll have two frontcourt players returning in midseason condition when training camp opens a little more than a month.
“That frontline is going to be super important, so I hope he takes this all seriously,” Jackson said. “I already know that’s him at his core. Santi works hard, does everything right and he’s coached well. So, it’s going to be great putting it all back together back in Memphis.”
These FIBA games are highlighting Aldama’s growth and Jackson’s emerging greatness.
Two examples of the Grizzlies’ gold standard for development on the global stage.
Read More: MikeCheck: Grizzlies’ gold standard for development shines as Jackson (USA), Aldama (Spain) advance