The field was wide open before the competition began, as would-be favourite Turkey was missing its biggest star, Ersan Ilyasova, leaving several teams with a reasonable chance to win it all. It came as quite a surprise, then, that after a so-so preliminary round, the Spanish team rolled over everyone to win the gold medal. Spain's effort was a triumph of team play, as they relied on unselfishness and heart instead of individual athleticism. But the biggest winner of this competition -and the main reason for the Spanish success- was none other than Sergio Rodríguez, who earned well-deserved MVP honours.
This kid is a truly special and tireless creator. He was the brain, the heart, and the lung of the Spanish team. No other player at this tournament came close to reaching the level of influence and importance he had on the offense of his team. Sergio was by far the best passer here, averaging 8.5 assists -3.2 assists more than the next player on the list. I saw many playmakers here taking their opponent off the dribble, forcing rotations, and dishing to the open teammate, but Sergio did it better than anyone else. He is unstoppable when going one-on-one due to his combination of ball handling and quickness. He always manages to find the best option, even in the most difficult situations. He is so in control over everything that one might come to believe he has eyes in the back of his head. But Rodríguez also excels in the area where very few players at Zaragoza did, and where few players do nowadays, period: assisting from the perimeter. It is amazing how he rewards a cutting teammate with a lightning quick pass inside the paint, putting the ball right where it needs to be for the easy basket. It is even more amazing considering that he is not especially tall and so does not have the luxury of seeing the floor over his defender, and yet he still makes perfect passes in a variety of ways.
When Sergio breaks his man down with the dribble, he is equally adept at creating his own shot when the pass is not there. He does not even need to beat his match-up, just some dribbling, perhaps a crossover, and the defender is unbalanced. That is when he goes for the jumper, executing it very quickly and with excellent mechanics. It is true his shot selection could stand to improve. While he is not a crazy gunner like Jason Williams used to be, there were times during the tournament when he forced shots that were not as open as one would like to see. In spite of that, Sergio shot about 50% both from the field and from behind the arc throughout the tournament to average 19 points per game, which I consider great stat lines, especially next to his 8.5 assists. And just to complete the picture of the impact of his skills, there was no question that every single time the dwindling possession clock threatened the Spanish offense, his teammates would look for him to solve the problem. There were games in which the sheer amount of offensive responsibilities loaded on to Sergio's shoulders left him completely exhausted at the end.
From a fan's standpoint, Sergio is a pleasure to watch. Everything he creates is spectacular. The no-look pass is not the exception but the rule for him; why use your eyes when you can simply feel the game? He is always highly unpredictable. During the final (see videos), he dared to dribble the ball between the legs of an opponent in transition, just to finish with one of his amazing passes. The audience was already going nuts over him, and this play brought the house down. Just to clarify, it is not a matter of being disrespectful or humiliating his rival. It is just fun for him, the manifestation of the immense love that Sergio feels for this game. He enjoys every single second he is on the court. Everybody who knows him thinks he is a very pleasant kid.
Of course, he is not perfect. He committed many turnovers, although not all of them were his fault. He plays at another level of speed and understanding of the game, and sometimes his teammates just cannot keep up. His unpredictable style of play makes a high number of lost possessions almost inevitable. But make no mistake, few of his decisions are poor. It is a high-risk equation, but you can bet it's worthy.
Another issue is how he controls the tempo of the game. He loves to push the ball, and sometimes it looks quite clear that he should instead cool off and play more under control. Take this with a grain of salt, though. Many times during the championships, you could be screaming at him to stop, calm down, but he usually made a fool out of you with his enormous production in transition, even in heavy traffic.
Perhaps the most serious flaw in his game is his defense. He is not hard to beat at all, but I think it is more a problem of physical underdevelopment than a matter of quickness. He struggles defending on the ball, but he is quite good avoiding his man at the other end to receive the ball. He is not the most dedicated player in the world defensively, but his attitude did not look bad, either.
I suppose everyone who has read this far has concluded that I love this guy, and I really do. He is an artist with the ball, a magician who finds the play where there is none. He reached the peak of his imagination at this tournament.
After making his debut with Estudiantes' first team in Spain in the fifth game of last year's ACB League finals, he was expected to be the third point guard of the team for the next season, although an interesting scenario has been brought up now that the starter has left for Italy. If Estudiantes does not bring in a foreign point guard (and even if they do) he will have the chance to get minutes at the highest level of competition outside the NBA, both in the ACB league (considered the strongest domestic league in Europe) and in the Euroleague (where the top teams from all over Europe congregate every year). His coach, Pepu Hernández (Spanish coach of the year) says that he will not hesitate to play Sergio, even as a starter, IF he earns his minutes.
It will be interesting to check how his game translates to the next level. Will he be able to keep his magical touch? I guess in one way or another, his game will have to evolve into a more orthodox version of his freestyle trademark. We will surely keep you posted.
The burning question: NBA potential? As you can see, he is no seven-footer who will get instant love from the scouts. He will need to continue to prove himself at the next levels of competition to receive a chance in the NBA. His talent is first round material, but it remains to be seen the degree to which he adapts to leagues as strong as the Euroleague and the Spanish ACB. I am sure he will make it, though. He works as hard as any player you will find. He would be playing basketball 24 hours a day if he could. He is that crazy about the game. We have only now just tasted a sweet bit of his winning character. We can only beg for more.
This is Sergio Rodríguez for you, a Spanish magician.
Sergio Rodriguez scouting report.
Three FIBA Europe videos of Sergio Rodriguez and the Spanish national team (possibly for limited time only).
FIBA Europe interview with the coach of the Spanish Junior national team about Sergio.