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Santi Aldama’s preseason hints at rotation-piece potential

It’ll be fascinating to see how his 2021-22 campaign with the Hustle pans out.

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NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Santi Aldama is one of the latest multi-faceted international talents to make his way to the pros. A Spanish native, Aldama grew up in the city of Las Palmas. His father Santiago was a former professional basketball player, even suiting up for the Spanish National Team during the fabled 1992 Olympics. Because of this, Aldama was exposed to the sport early in life and started playing by age three. After spending his formative years starring in leagues across Europe, Aldama committed to Loyola University, where he would put together a fantastic two-year collegiate career, averaging 19 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

Still, when the Memphis Grizzlies selected Aldama 30th overall this past July, there was seemingly widespread astonishment among Beale Street faithful (myself included). After all, names like Jacob Preston, Miles McBride, and Sharife Cooper were still on the board. Not to mention Aldama handled the draft process interestingly, to say the very least. He declined to work out for anyone in person and went so far as to persuade teams not to draft him. Later, it was discovered that the reason for this was Memphis promised they would pick Aldama. Nonetheless, many were still up in arms about the selection even upon the news of Memphis’ long-standing interest.

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Why choose the guy who put up big numbers on a bad team against the mediocre competition in the Patriot League?

This was a sentiment I saw across social media, and summarizing Aldama’s collegiate stint in such a way is shortsighted. There have been countless small-school standouts who turned out to be NBA studs, with one of the youngest and best being Ja Morant (who wasn’t exactly playing against the cream of the crop of college basketball in the Ohio Valley Conference). The moral of the story: have faith in Zach Kleiman and company as they held an interest in Aldama for a reason — he’s 6’11” with the skills to fit the modern NBA. And while Aldama almost certainly won’t see the court during the season unless it’s garbage time, his encouraging performances this preseason hinted at his potential to be a rotation piece down the line.

Arguably what stood out most when watching Aldama this preseason was his board-snatching ability. His rebounding average through the first four games (6.5) was tied for third-best on the Grizzlies despite ranking 13th in minutes played over this span. Specifically, Aldama showcased a great pair of hands and the wherewithal to hold his own when banging with NBA fours for position.

Aldama grabbed nine misses against the Hawks on October 9th, the second-most of any Grizzly that night beside Xavier Tillman. Below is Aldama’s most impressive of them all. He utilizes his left forearm to keep Danilo Gallinari (who has ten pounds on Aldama) from crashing the offensive glass and then secures the one-handed ‘bound with his right.

Maybe rebounding isn’t the biggest hole on Memphis’ roster (yet). Jaren Jackson Jr. appears to have a newfound tenacity for pulling down rebounds since returning from injury; Steven Adams is practically a black hole on the boards (though not at the level of Valanciunas), and the Grizzlies have Clarke and Tillman backing them up. But this big-man rotation is far from set in stone long-term. Adams, currently on a two-year deal, will likely be trade fodder next summer. Then there’s the Clarke situation. He’s flashed an improved jumper this preseason, but Clarke might be an underwhelming 2021-22 away from the rumor mill (he’s set to hit restricted free agency in 2023).

If one of Clarke or Adams leaves next offseason, rebounding would become a need in Memphis. And even though it’s just preseason, Aldama’s masterful rebounding is making the case that he could fill that need.

Another takeaway from Aldama’s preseason stint was how well he moved without the ball. This development came as a pleasant surprise — draftniks considered Aldama’s off-ball skills a weakness of his entering the NBA Draft. Being the head of the snake for his teams at Loyola, he didn’t have many chances to show off his cutting chops. But now, Aldama is no longer a primary scoring option, and he is taking his new role in stride.

Aldama converted on 12 total field goals by the end of the preseason. Five, or 42% of them, stemmed from action away from the ball. Here Ziaire Williams finds Aldama streaking to the cup in this beauty of a sequence between the neophytes:

Aldama has already proven to be an above-average perimeter shooter and ball-handler for someone of his stature. It’s unique for a behemoth to be so confident handling the rock or shooting a trey via a dribble-handoff. However, suppose Aldama can provide consistent rebounding and off-ball scoring coupled with his shooting and self-creation. In that case, it’d (presumably) be only a matter of time until Taylor Jenkins seriously considers adding him to the rotation.

This year make sure to follow the Memphis Hustle, as Aldama’s expected to have a significant role with the club — his season with the Hustle will shape his future in Memphis. Let’s hope he dominates.

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