Exclusive! Spain's basket prodigy Santi Aldama talks NBA dream and when dad played Michael Jordan
Santi Aldama hit headlines when he won MVP at the U18 Euros: 2.13m (6'11) tall, versatile, and sky-high basketball IQ, the 19-year-old Loyola power forward is ready to shine in the NCAA with NBA "on the horizon"
The NBA? Santi Aldama is in no rush.
Born in January 2001, this rising star of Spanish basketball has dreams of one day playing in the NBA, but he has time on his side.
Santi's talent is no secret in Spain after a stellar tournament at the FIBA U18 European Championships in 2019, where he led La Roja to the gold medal and was named tournament MVP.
The offers came flooding in from top tier NCAA schools and pro clubs across Europe, but Aldama chose to play for the Loyola Greyhounds in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Greyhounds is an NCAA Division I team. The university was previously a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) from 1989 to 2013.
Santi is hailed as "one of the biggest college-bound international steals in quite a while," said a commentator from 247Sports.
After a stellar first season with the Greyhounds, it's more apparent than ever that Santi has what it takes to make it to the big stage.
"The dream is the NBA, I wanted to play in the NBA since I was a child," - Santi Aldama.
Tavaras Hardy, head coach at Loyola, believes that Santi has the talent to go all the way, "I think it's no doubt that playing in the NBA is going to be on his horizon."
Santiago Aldama, Santi's father, was also a former professional basketball player, and he represented Spain at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
At those Games, he played against Michael Jordan and the original Dream Team. He believes that his son is Spain's next big hope.
Santi Aldama: "The total package"
Commentators of college basketball in the US had ranked Santi's overall recruitment at 61 when he originally signed for Loyola, and after his rookie year, his stock is on the rise.
Physically, his coach says he's unrecognisable from when he first arrived; all that gym work and great diet discipline has seen him go from 90kg to 102kg and rising, that increased muscle mass giving him greater strength and presence.
"Eating dinner at 7pm was hard for me," laughs Santi, "in Spain, we eat the earliest at nine." That and other changes have reaped the rewards.
But what's unique about Santi Aldama's game apart from being nearly seven feet tall? In a word, Coach Hardy says:
"Being that tall and being able to get his shot off the way he's doing is special. But also being able to put the ball on the floor and make plays at the rim, being a great passer and unselfish, that total package is what I get most excited about when thinking about Santi."
The Loyola 'Hounds play a style that suit Santi perfectly too.
"We play the Princeton offence," says the canario, "which is basically just constant reads, a system without really having one. So I feel like I can read the game really good and that gives me an advantage in the league. It's constant moving, I really like it."
His development as a player looks in good hands at Loyola too.
"We don't put him in a bubble because... Why?" Coach explains, "he can shoot. He can handle the ball. He can score inside when we need him to. That versatility he also has defensively, he rebounds and block shots.
"There are no limitations to his player development.
"He's not just the pick and pop guy that's only allowed to shoot threes off the ball screen. Like, that's not how we think about the game. We we want him setting ball screens. We want him using ball screens and everything else that comes with it."
Aldama's first season at Loyola showed flashes of what's to come.
In March he scored a season-high 23 points against Lehigh with nine boards, posted back-to-back double doubles against Navy and Lafayette and was named to the Patriot League All-Rookie Team.
Not bad when you consider that he missed the first 22 games with a knee injury and surgery.
"It built up over the years," explains Santi, "I had knee pain for a long time, but I just learned to live to live with it."
His impact on the team when he returned from injury was clear, "we were struggling before he came back," Hardy says, "and then once we inserted him in the lineup we won six out of our next seven games. Amazing."
On his return from injury, Santi made an impact during a game against Lafayette that stayed stayed with his coach.
"So, he posts up post up and (Teammate) Golden Dike had the ball in a pitch post, drops it to Santi and he just spins baseline off the guy and jumps off his left leg and reverse dunks it on the other side."
"It just an amazing moment because Santi isn't known as a post player, more a big perimeter guy, but when he made that move, it was just like it took the breath out of everyone. Everyone on our team, our whole coaching staff.
"We were on the road, so the whole arena goes quiet. The announcers didn't know what to say! It was one of those wild moments, and I know there's plenty more to come from him."
Santi Aldama: Why the Loyola Greyhounds?
So how does Aldama, who comes from Gran Canaria, and played his entire high school career with the Canterbury Lions end up at the Loyola Greyhounds in Baltimore?
After his performance at the U18 Euros, clubs including Real Madrid and Barcelona were tripping over each other to bring Santi into their setup.
So why Loyola?
"I had options," says Santi, "but I wanted to go to college. Of course, you will never say no to the NBA. Right? But I just don't think that should be like my only my only goal in life."
He studies business management and is interested in entrepreneurship and taking that route after his basketball career.
"I feel like I have to develop myself as a person and study and other things are like, secondary. I will work to be the best player ever, but of course, you got to know what what comes first. I feel like having studies is important. So that's what I chose."
Coach Hardy is impressed by his maturity.
"You know, he cares about school, which, for a lot of basketball players, everyone wants to be a pro. It's hard for 18 to 22 year olds to see that at some point the ball is going to stop bouncing, but Santi sees that.
"And he knows it's not either or. I can be both a pro and get a great education and prepare myself for life after basketball. You don't have to choose between the two. And that's what makes him special. He cares about both. He pursues excellence at both."
"And that's what's gonna make him big time in life, regardless of what he chooses to do."
But there was another big reason why he chose Loyola: "Ivo Simovic," says Santi.
"He made me realise like this was a good option for me, and I really trust him."
Now Loyola's assistant coach, Simovic has an NBA Championship ring from the 2014 season at the San Antonio Spurs where he was assistant coach to Gregg Popovic.
"I would say one of the best decisions I made as a first time head coach was to hire Ivo Simovic," says coach Hardy, "he has an incredible background."
"He's from Serbia. But he spent 10 years coaching in Spain. He's worked in the NBA. He's worked in the NCAA, his relationships and his background are the reasons we were able to find out about Santi and get him here at Loyola."
Simovic knows the Spanish game, and also knows Santi's father.
"So that's why I decided to visit Loyola. I wasn't really sure," is how Santi tells it, "I went on the visit, but I didn't really know what to expect. But when I got there. I saw the campus. I saw everything.
"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."
At the U18 Euros in 2019 Santi put his name up in lights.
When the knockout games came, Santi was clutch: 19 points against Latvia in the first knockout round, 25 in the quarter-final against Russia, 19 points and 11 rebounds in the semi final against Greece and he went into beast mode in the final.
Santi sank 23 points against Turkey, with Spain behind for much of the game, and walked away with the tournament MVP and a winners' medal.
Coach Hardy was there watching, "I felt like a kid in a candy store watching, knowing that he was coming to Loyola."
"He was a little banged up at the time but he played through it. He played through adversity, led that team to a gold medal."
Better still, Santi's Spain teammate Golden Dike - another Spanish player with NBA potential - decided to join Santi at the Greyhounds later that summer.
"He's a really good friend of mine," says Santi, "I know him since I was 12 and just having him there, of course, it's like it's like having family. It's important for me and I think it's important for him.
"After the summer we spent together winning the (European U18) championship and everything, like we were really, really motivated."
On the court they have a natural connection.
"Golden I have like really good understanding, we can communicate with our eyes."
(Golden Dike is far right in the photo below)
"Win patriot and play in the NCAA Tournament"
Now Santi is 100% recovered from his knee problems, fit, and ready to take the team further in his second campaign.
Last season, Loyola finished in 9th place in the Patriot League. But despite an injury hit campaign there were plenty of positives and three strong freshman showings from Aldama, Spain teammate Golden Dike, and Cam Spencer.
"I want to win the Patriot League and get to NCAA tournament," says Aldama, "and I feel like we should strive to compete at the national level. So I just feel we got to go step by step, we just got to work like the best and see what basketball gives us."
Santi spent the off-season and coronavirus quarantine at home in Gran Canaria with his family and as soon as it was possible joined ACB to train and get into shape.
Teammate Golden Dike is there too, and they've been working hard to hit the ground running for season two at Loyola.
Back to the beginning
Home always reminds him of where it all started, his first memories are of wanting to play basketball.
"I was like three and I wasn't at school yet," Aldama remembers, "but I saw my cousin playing basketball there and I told my father, yo, I want to play here. And he told me, 'no, you have to wait one more year.'"
The school is Canterbury School, a private bilingual school on Gran Canaria.
"So yeah, I started playing basketball in my school when I was like, four, and I played there for 14 years, which was great."
Fiercely loyal to his school, Santi turned down both Real Madrid and Barcelona to stay at home and build lifelong friendships, leaving a legacy on the island of Gran Canaria.
"I want to win and that's how I have fun." - Santi Aldama
In 2017 Santi shone at the Spanish Under-16 Championship, averaging 18.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, playing alongside Oumar 'Baby Shaq' Ballo.
Canterbury surprised everybody by beating island rivals ACB Gran Canaria to take third place, only Barcelona and Real Madrid finished higher.
"We always come face to face with Gran Canaria," says Santi, "it was always them or us. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost. But yeah, I always had that winning mentality, like, I would never play just for the sake of playing, I want to win and that's how I have fun."
"Being able to compete this many years has also helped me as a player. But it has also given me a lot of friendships which I think I will hold on to for the rest of my life."
Santiago Aldama vs. Michael Jordan
Santiago Aldama senior, dad, and uncle Santiago Toledo were both professional basketball players, and have been supporting Santi from the start, without pressuring him.
"They've let me be myself, but when it comes to decision making and just being able to improve, they told me a lot of advice and just what's right and what's wrong. Just having them, and their experience has been a big boost for for my game and myself as a person."
If Santi does one day play with Spain at an Olympics, he won't be the first Santiago Aldama to have done so.
Santiago senior tells a great story about meeting Jordan.
"Before the game I wanted to say hi to David Robertson who I looked up to as a centre, and I went to say hi but suddenly there I was face to face with Michael Jordan. We both wore No.23 and he came straight to me.
"I didn't know what to say to him, I was so startled that the only thing that came to my head was, 'good luck'. As if they needed it!"
The USA won the game by 122 to 81, but like so many players at that Olympics the Spanish were just happy to be on the same court, awestruck by greatness.
"The Dream Team trained behind closed doors in Badalona," Santiago senior continues, "one day we convinced the guards to open the doors slightly. We watched them train for a minute and it was just huge for us. I felt like a kid now would watching his superstar idols train. They were incredible players."
Santi's Olympic Dreams
Playing at the Olympics is up there alongside the NBA on Santi Aldama junior's dream list too.
"I want to win the European Championships, World Cups and of course, the Olympics, because since I was young, my first memories are watching the Spanish national team. And I just love Spain."
"I love the Olympics. That's the time of the year where you watch every sport. When the Olympics are on I'm just sitting on the sofa all day just watching every sport from morning to night, I just love it!"
But Spain have come a long way from watching the Dream Team in awe at the '92 Games, idols have become rivals and it's a new world.
In 1992 the NBA had 21 international players on its rosters; in the 2019/20 season there were 108 from 38 countries, and the reigning MVP was Giannis Antetokounmpo - from Greece.
But while the rest of the world has closed the gap, the USA remains dominant on the Olympic stage, only Argentina managed to break the spell of the invincible Dream Team at Athens 2004.
The U.S. have won every other men's basketball Olympic gold medal since NBA players joined in 1992.
Spain came closest to beating the USA at the London 2012 final, where Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Durant's USA overcame Pau and Marc Gasol's Spain by 107-100 points.
It's Santi's favourite Olympic moment. "I love that game. It was incredible. Just seven points, we could have won it for sure, we were so close."
Santi Aldama: The NBA, but his way
Both Santi and the people around him have high hopes and big dreams of NBA and Olympic glory, but he's smart enough to see the bigger picture and life beyond basketball.
For now he's keeping it simple, enjoying the journey and working every day to "be better than yesterday" like Kobe said.
Santi is playing the game he loves at a college he loves, and doing the things kids his age do. If there is more of a celebrity culture around college ballers in the USA, Santi hasn't noticed it.
"I just feel like my mentality is to work and study hard. Of course I have an important role in the team, but like I said, I'm just focused on work and so I don't really think about that."
In his spare time he likes to watch Formula 1 and football (Soccer!) - supporting local team Las Palmas - and plays F1, NBA 2K, FIFA, and Fortnite video games.
"On NBA 2K I like the classic teams, I play with Steve Nash, Shawn Marrion, and Stoudemire from that Phoenix Suns team."
It's only a matter of time you feel, before kids all over the world are selecting Santi Aldama as their favourite player on the latest NBA game.