While Loyola Maryland is probably not the first (or maybe even the second) “Loyola” that comes to mind when thinking of college basketball, Spanish sensation Santi Aldama could help put the Greyhounds on the map in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Santi Aldama is coming off an incredibly productive sophomore season, which inflated the hype around the Spaniard and spurred him to put his name on the NBA Draft Early Entry list. As the pre-draft process has gone on, the versatile big man has been a popular name thrown about in the various conversations about second-round sleepers, undrafted free agents under the radar, and the like.
But just how did he get to this point? And just how special is Santi?
The Spanish star takes after his Olympian father
After Santi Aldama took home the MVP honors as Spain won the FIBA U18 European Championship two years ago, he placed himself squarely on the map as one of the top Spanish prospects coming down the pipeline. He starred in that tournament alongside presumptive first round NBA Draft pick Usman Garuba, though Aldama and teammate Golden Dike decided to head to America while Garuba stayed at home in the Liga ACB.
In doing so, Aldama began to forge his own path to basketball stardom, which becomes even more notable when you consider his father’s legacy. While not necessarily an international superstar, Santiago Sr. was good enough to carve out a journeyman career in the Liga ACB spanning a decade from 1987 to 1997. During that time, Aldama’s father was selected for the 1992 Olympics, which were being held in Spain, and he played against the Dream Team (albeit in a reserve role).
The younger Aldama would not be born until roughly four years after his father’s professional career ended, but Santi grew up around the sport and has already taken up the mantle of representing his country on the hardwood. If the 2019 Euros were any indication, the future of La Roja is in good hands with Aldama and Garuba.
So, how does a Spanish national star on the rise end up playing in the United States? (And in the Patriot League, no less!)
It’s all about connections.
European connection paved the way to Baltimore
Prior to the 2018-19 season, Loyola Maryland underwent a coaching change, moving on from G.G. Smith after five losing seasons (.364 winning percentage). The school opted to hire Tavaras Hardy, who had a stellar playing career in which he started 113 games for Northwestern from 1998 to 2002. Among the additions to Hardy’s first staff at Loyola was Serbian coach Ivo Simovic.
Simovic is no stranger to Spanish basketball, having been a head coach and sports director in the country’s Liga EBA, a fourth-division professional league. Simovic helmed the club CB Espacio Torrelodones from 2007 to 2009, before becoming the team’s general manager and head coach of its youth programs. His move to the states started when he became an international scout for the San Antonio Spurs and then served as an assistant coach for the team during Summer League in 2013 and 2014. Since 2015, Simovic has moved strictly to the college game, serving as an assistant at Hartford, Charlotte, and now Loyola.
Clearly a man with his ear to the ground in European hoops, it’s no surprise that Simovic had Santi Aldama on his radar. It also helped that Simovic and Santiago Sr. had an existing relationship, running in the same circles of Spanish basketball. Those connections led Santi to take a trip to Baltimore to visit Loyola campus, where he knew he was at home.
In an interview with Ken Browne for Olympics.com, Aldama said, “I talked with Tavaras, with Ivo. I just thought, like, this is the perfect place for me. Like, as soon as I visited and talked to them, I knew that this was the place for me. So I had no doubts.”
Soon, Aldama would go on to erase any external doubts, too, registering an impressive freshman campaign in 2018-19 in which he scored over 15 points per game and pulled down more than seven rebounds each outing. The small school knew they had a big star on their hands, but Aldama was just getting started.
His sophomore stat line puts him in rarefied air
As a sophomore, the big man logged one of the most impressive statistical seasons of any college big man in the past 30 years. During the COVID-shortened season, in which Loyola only played Patriot League games, Aldama finished with averages of 21.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.7 blocks per game. Since 1992-93, only six players have had seasons with those types of averages:
With the exception of recent CSUN star Lamine Diane, who went undrafted last year and is currently rostered with the NBA G League team in Delaware, the other players with college seasons like the one Aldama just had went on to have long, productive NBA careers. Between Duncan, West, and Bogut, there are eight NBA titles and 17 All-Star appearances (though most of that belongs to Timmy D). Thompson, meanwhile, had the unfortunate luck of being drafted by Sacramento and toiled in relative obscurity despite being a lottery pick.
As for Aldama, it’s unclear exactly when — or even if — he will be drafted next month. One thing that sets him aside from these other players is his ability to hit the long ball. Last season, the Spaniard knocked down 1.9 three-pointers per game at a 37 percent clip. To put that in context, only one other NCAA player since 1992-93 has had a 20-point/10-rebound/1.5-block season while also hitting this many threes per game: Kevin Durant.
Suffice it to say, if Aldama ends up being anywhere near as good as Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant, some NBA general manager could end up looking might smart in next month’s NBA Draft.
He would be just the second Greyhound to play in the NBA
If Aldama is selected, he would be just the second Loyola Maryland player to ever be taken in the draft. Back in 1989, former Greyhound star Mike Morrison was taken in the second round as the 51st overall selection by the Phoenix Suns.
Like Aldama, Morrison averaged over 21 points in his final season at Loyola. Unfortunately, Morrison never made it past his rookie season, finishing his short NBA career with just 36 games played. The Greyhounds do have a bit more NBA pedigree in their history, but you have to go back another 40 years before Morrison to get there.
Though he was never drafted, Andy O’Donnell parlayed his career at Loyola into a gig with the hometown Baltimore Bullets for the 1949-50 season, making him the Greyhounds’ first professional player. O’Donnell only played in that one season, though, logging just 25 career appearances.
In terms of NBA longevity, Aldama has a chance to put both Morrison and O’Donnell in his rear view mirror by this time next year if he’s picked up by an NBA team and plays even half the season.
He would be the first Spaniard to make the NBA from the NCAA
Aside from the school history Aldama could soon make, the big man would also be creating some more national history for his home country. According to RealGM, only 18 Spanish players have ever graced the NBA, though four of those players do not qualify as full Spaniards, per se. Wally Szczerbiak was born in Madrid, but because his American parents lived there while Wally’s dad played hoops for Real Madrid. Johnny Rogers, Nikola Mirotic, and Serge Ibaka all moved to Spain to pursue basketball careers and ended up becoming citizens later.
The remaining 14 Spaniards all took the same route to the Association: develop their game at home in Europe, get drafted or signed by an NBA team, and wait until you get the call to come overseas (which happens sooner for some than others). That formula worked wonders for guys like Pau and Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, and others. However, that’s not the path that Aldama is taking.
In fact, regardless of whether he is drafted or not, if Santi Aldama ever reaches an NBA court, he will become the first Spanish player to do so by way of an NCAA school. International players have long been a part of the college game, but Aldama could be opening a new pipeline for young Spaniards with pro aspirations.
If you are an NBA GM looking for a steal late in the draft next month, look no further than Aldama. Worst case, you’re taking a flyer on a solid post player with proven shooting chops. Best case, you’re getting a mix of Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Durant, all in one package. Seems worth a shot to me.
Header image via Justin Lafleur/Loyola Maryland Athletics.