Feature | Basketball

How Spain develops the best NBA talent outside of the USA

As the Hernangomez brothers take over from the Gasols, we take a closer look at the Spanish system that consistently produces world-beating basketball talent, and is looking for gold at Tokyo 2020.  

By Andrew Binner ·

Gone are the days when the NBA was a USA-orientated business.

If one player best-represents this motion, it is reigning two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Milwaukee Buck is something of a rare find out of Greece.

As the world’s top basketball league continues its rapid globalisation, one country that is already embedded in its modern culture is Spain.

Players from the European nation feature regularly in North America title-winning team rosters.

But how has Spain managed to produce so many world-class athletes?

Below, we take a look at the Spaniards that have taken the NBA by storm, and what the secret is to their success.

The Spanish men's team celebrate after winning the 2019 FIBA World Cup in Beijing, China.

Spanish basketball culture

To understand Spain’s impact on the NBA, we must first look at its domestic structure.

While football is undoubtedly the European nation’s favourite sporting pastime, basketball is widely acknowledged to be second.

The sport is so popular, in fact, that local hoops legend Juan Antonio San Epifanio was chosen to light the torch at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics.

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The top Spanish basketball league, the ​Liga ACB, is considered the strongest in Europe. The nation's top franchises also play in the Euroleague, where they compete against the best teams on the continent.

Most sports fans around the world will have heard of Spanish powerhouse football clubs ​Real Madrid and Barcelona. Both teams also have a basketball side, who are historically also the two most successful in Spain.

Tickets to the basketball matches tend to be a lot cheaper, which may also contribute to the sport’s growing popularity!

Over the past few years, the NBA has toyed with the idea of capitalising on its European popularity by creating a Europe-based NBA side.

Real Madrid, given its success and location, would be an obvious choice. ‘Los Blancos’ President Florentino Perez even proposed the idea to club delegates in 2019.

Developing all-round players

The perceived success of the top Spanish clubs, is their emphasis on developing a player’s all-round ability.

So often in basketball in the USA, conversations about upcoming players are focused solely on his or her physical potential.

Top dunks

Top basketball dunks from Rio 2016.

But in Spain, the coaches - who must all be certified by the Spanish Basketball Federation - instil high levels of basic skill and game knowledge on their players, and rely less on their natural talent.

This means that Spanish players who make it to the top are tactically astute, and very disciplined.

“I've never played with a Spanish guy who I didn't consider to be a great teammate,” former professional basketball player and Stanford top scorer Dan Grunfeld told SBNation.

“They all communicated well, they were coachable, they were willing to work together, they believed in the team concept and more than anything, they were committed to winning over individual success.” - Dan Grunfeld on his Spanish teammates.

With a restricted number of foreign players allowed in the Spanish system, homegrown players benefit from greater opportunities to play, compared to other European professional leagues.

Top NBA players from Spain

With such a robust basketball infrastructure, it wasn’t long before the best Spanish men's players outgrew the domestic competition, and headed across the Atlantic Ocean to test their skills in the NBA.

To date, there have been 18 players in the league from Spain.

The pioneer was Real Madrid legend Fernando Martín Espina in 1996 – considered by some as his nation’s greatest basketball player. Martin played 24 games for the Portland Trailblazers before returning home.

Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernández used all their experience playing in the USA to become key components to their national team’s success.

Other more recent exports include Pau Gasol, a two-time NBA champion with the LA Lakers, his brother Marc Gasol, and Ricky Rubio, who was the No. 5 pick of the 2009 NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Hernangomez brothers

Currently, there are five Spanish players in the NBA including Rubio, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Hernangomez brothers Juan and Willy.

But are the latter pair ready to fill the sizable shoes of the Gasol brothers in the NBA?

Such comparisons are perhaps premature at this stage, given that the Gasol’s both have NBA titles to their names. Marc is also still contributing, and may well add to his trophy collection with the LA Lakers this year alongside LeBron James.

However, the Madrid-born Hernangomez men are relatively young as mid-twenty-year-olds, and have plenty of time to make their mark.

In any case, the younger brothers remain respectful towards the Gasols and their standing in the game.

"Pau Gasol is a legend, in basketball and in everything. In how to behave, in the steps to follow, in how he advises young people, in how you have helped us since we arrived at the national team, in how you have adopted us as little brothers, in how you broke the barrier of going to the NBA and succeeding there. We children have always dreamed of being like Pau Gasol," Juan wrote on Instagram last year.

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The 'Golden Generation'

The Hernangomez brothers have a vital role to play both for the Spanish national team, and for the NBA’s popularity in their homeland.

With such a strong domestic structure in place, Spain have flourished on the international scene in recent times.

From 1999 to the present day, their ‘Golden Generation’, have won two Olympic silver medals and one bronze.

They have made the podium at every EuroBasket tournament since 2007, and are the current world champions.

The Gasols were a huge part of this success, and if Spain are to retain their place as the best team in the world, the Hernangomez’s must step up to bridge the gap with the next generation of players.

If the NBA wants to stay relevant in Spain, and on the global stage, Spain must continue to succeed.

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It wasn’t so long ago that Spain struggled at the top level, but an improved structure off the court breathed new life into the organisation.

“Isolated results can come as the consequence of luck, or because of an extraordinary athlete or an extraordinary generation of athletes,” Former Toronto Raptor and current Spanish Basketball Federation president Jorge Garbajosa told AP News.

“But a succession of triumphs can give you a clearer picture."

His significant role in recent Spanish success internationally was to turn the federation’s significant debut into a surplus, establish a more robust transitional system from youth teams to seniors, and to secure Spain as the hosts of several large tournaments events.

These achievements led to more successful results on the court, which helps hoops continue to make inroads into football’s popularity.

“These results, in addition to highlighting our work, have greatly helped promote our sport,” he continued.

“We’ve practically touched the ceiling, but we can still aim higher.”

Olympic qualification

Spanish basketball lacks just one key trophy, however: An Olympic gold medal.

The men’s team qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021 early by winning the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

The USA will undoubtedly be the favourites in Japan, but their lacklustre World Cup performance combined with Spain’s excellence, means it's far from a one-horse race for the Olympic title.

While qualifying is still ongoing, Spain have already been drawn in an Olympic group with Argentina and hosts Japan - neither of which they should lose to on current form.

The only lingering question surrounding the Spanish team is whether they have the star power to win an Olympics.

Their ageing squad relied heavily on outworking opposition at the World Cup, but lacked a true superstar with the ability to change the pace of a game.

Spain will be hoping that Marc Gasol doesn’t become too fatigued after what could be a long NBA season for the Lakers.

If he, alongside the Hernangomez brothers and maybe even Rubio, are fit and healthy in Tokyo, Spain will be quietly confident of their chances.

It would be just reward for a nation that has come to expect and develop excellence on the basketball court.