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Santi Aldama is the Grizzlies’ mystery man

Santi Aldama could grow into a meaningful rotation player soon, but it all remains a mystery

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Boston Celtics v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s fair to say when the Memphis Grizzlies drafted Santi Aldama with the 30th overall pick in the 2021 draft, we all let out a collective “WHO.

That’s not any sort of shot at him or the front office. Discovering a prospect from Loyola Maryland requires pretty intense scouting, and he’s a prospect that flew under the radar a bit when doing these big board exercises. One of the more impressive pre-NBA tidbits on him was he won the 2019 U18 Euros over fellow 2021 prospects Franz Wagner, Alperen Sengun, and Usman Garuba.

For the most part, Santi Aldama was just a mystery prospect.

A year later, he’s still a mystery.

People were too quick to dub him a bust in Summer League action. However, with the NBA rules regarding trades, he couldn’t join the team until Las Vegas after August 6th, the date of the new calendar year for the NBA. So he had very little time to get accumulated to the system. Then, he dealt with jet-lag from traveling from Spain, and surely that affects fatigue.

Advancing into the meaningful basketball, Aldama was a mixed bag — flashes of skill that leaves you with an “oh? that’s there!” and some that illustrate how far along he has to go towards becoming a NBA rotation player.

Let’s start with the areas of improvement.

The most obvious one is his outside shooting. This season, Aldama shot 12.5% (6-48) from 3-point range this season — as well as 27.3% (21-77) with the Memphis Hustle. As someone that’s supposed to project more as a finesse 4, that’s a facet of his game that’ll need to improve, and his jumper is probably the spot that could define his NBA career the next few years. There’s promise that he could get there, as he shot 36.8% from 3 in his final season at Loyola Maryland.

The other offensive improvement to see is shot selection. In fairness, a lot of Aldama’s minutes were in unusual situations — health-and-safety protocols, “soreness” lineups, and garbage time. There were still times where his shot selection needed some refining. After Summer League, I thought he’d need to go through a role adjustment — after years of being the main option in college and his Spanish team, he needed to get acclimated to a smaller role. With more time learning the system, I doubt that is a persistent issue.

Aldama’s defense is something that’ll be interesting to monitor. His defensive role is pretty unclear. Can he switch onto guards, or is he going to be a drop guy? Will he guard wings or big forwards that are slotted at the 4, or will he defend 5’s? Those questions remained to be answered at the moment, and we’ll likely find out over the next 8-10 months. For now, we’ll have this block on James Harden’s stepback — which was probably the breaking point for the 2021-22 Brooklyn Nets’ season (Nets fans, please don’t take this part too seriously) — and will hold it near and dear to our hearts.

Santi Aldama’s flashes come from the offensive end. He has a solid dose of skill and finesse that serve as a solid foundation for his growth as a player. He has good mobility for a player with his size — showcasing good footwork off drives, and an ability to attack closeouts.

And obviously a lot of finesse was shown on his game-breaking slam against the Phoenix Suns in April:

Aldama’s playmaking isn’t anything to really marvel at quite yet, possessing an Assist Percentage of 5.5% — ranking in the 18th percentile among big men, per Cleaning the Glass. Though the number isn’t promising, and a primary reason is sample size, he’s shown flashes of feel with some of his passes sprinkled throughout the season.

While these areas of his offensive game remain an area of improvement for him, Aldama has the potential to emerge as an interesting foil to the rotation with his skill out of the frontcourt.

Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

With Kyle Anderson’s impending free agency in over a month, finding his replacement could be in the cards. Figuring that out through the draft or through Xavier Tillman are the more notable routes. However, Santi Aldama shouldn’t be counted out.

Aldama has the skills in place to grow in that role, and Grizzlies have the developmental environment set for him to find his groove as a NBA player.

The next couple months will be set the tone for what’s in store for the 2022-23 season, and he built a good foundation through the April stretch and the close of the Memphis Hustle’s regular season — averaging 22.6 points on 49.8% shooting and 9.1 rebounds in 16 games in the G-League.

Despite what we’ve learned from Aldama’s game this past season, he still remains a mystery.

And with the opportunities ahead, that mystery may become more evident very soon.

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