Quarter finals of the European Junior Championship. Spain is routing the Russian team and Sergio Rodriguez has the ball in his hands. All his teammates clear out so that Rodriguez can play one-on-one against a Russian kid. He tries to guard Rodriguez, but seems to give up when the Spanish point guard takes him off the dribble. His coach yells at him and the Russian player crouches down in a defensive position as the game continues. Rodriguez embarrasses him again. He crosses him over for the second time, drives to the basket and scores on a layup. The Russian kid goes to the bench crying. Rodriguez walks downcourt as if nothing had happened.
In that same tournament, he twice bounced the ball between the legs of defenders, delivered no-look passes in bunches and left the crowd in awe. Among the crowd, no less than 15 NBA scouts. One of them had "first-round draftable" written in his scouting report of Sergio Rodriguez, who finally led the Spain to the gold medal. The 18-year-old, 6-foot-3 point guard ended up being named MVP. Could you argue he was the best in a tournament that featured NBA players in the making like Johan Petro, Martynas Andriuskevicius and Nemanja Aleksandrov? Maybe. Was he flashiest and most exciting player to hit the court? No doubt about it.
For the way he plays and the player he idolizes, you can call Sergio Rodriguez Spanish Chocolate. Jason Williams, aka White Chocolate, is his favorite basketball player since he was a kid. And you could tell that just by watching him play. He does most of the things in Jason Williams' repertoire – only with more of that European refinement.
"The best J-Will is a mix of the first J-Will that played in the league and the current J-Will," Rodriguez says. "You can see he has matured, but I miss all those incredible things he used to do in the past."
Williams represents the spirit of those white players with black soul – just like Sergio Rodriguez.
"I like to be that type of player when I'm on the basketball court, but outside the court I don't live the life of a ghetto boy."
His parents are teachers and at age 18 he's already getting a good paycheck from Adecco Estudiantes, one of the top clubs in Spain that will compete in the Euroleague this season.
The concept of playground legend doesn't exist in Spain. But Rodriguez is the closest thing to that you can find. There are websites with videos featuring him doing And1 moves. Those videos helped create some buzz about the Spanish guard prior to his coming-out party in this summer's European Junior tournament.
Rodriguez has dreamed about in a playground in the U.S. since he can remember.
"They say they play really hard. It must be great. Every time a friend goes to the States, I ask him if he has seen any of those playgrounds in the streets."
While he has not yet had the chance to showcase his skills on those legendary courts, he has already faced one streetball legend. He played against Sebastian Telfair in the Nike Hoop Summit last April. Their paths may cross again in the NBA soon.
Rodriguez was supposed to be third point guard of Adecco Estudiantes this season. After some moves made by the club this summer, he was handed the backup role behind veteran star Nacho Azofra. With some great performances in the preseason, he may end up playing more than any other point guard on the team.
The common thinking in European basketball is that saying positive things about a talented player at an early age is only going to hurt him in the long term. For that reason, you'll rarely see any coach admitting any of his players has a future in the NBA. It happened with Pau Gasol and is happening with Sergio Rodriguez. But the fact is, Rodriguez is a future NBA player. Some of his former coaches will admit it off the record. His game is better suited for the NBA, they say. His mind is already on the NBA, in fact.
"We all think about it," he says. "It's everybody's dream since you are a kid."
It may not be an easy road, but his agent Arturo Ortega – who has worked with Gasol and Emanuel Ginobili, among many others – knows Rodriguez is NBA material. Should Rodriguez opt out of his contract with Adecco Estudiantes, he would have to pay a lot less to join an NBA team than if he chose to leave for another club in FIBA basketball.
When asked about his favorite NBA players outside Jason Williams, Rodriguez has doubts. "There's so many. McGrady, Garnett ... and Gasol, of course." He follows the NBA closely and even knows the figures of Sebastian Telfair's shoe contract. Like the Blazers rookie guard, Rodriguez will probably sign a contract with adidas soon.
The NBA is part of his world because basketball is his life. He was watching the finals of the Nike Battlegrounds competition last week and could hardly contain the excitement. "Damn, it's just watching the court and I'm looking forward to play," he said. It was 11 pm. He had practiced in the morning and in the evening with a pro basketball team and all he wanted to do was play, embarrass somebody and laugh. Not laugh at anybody in particular. Just for the joy of playing. Like in the playgrounds.
Enrique Peinado writes for Gigantes and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
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