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Latino Ballers Shine More Than Ever in Wake of NBA Draft and Summer League

NBA Summer League court in Las Vegas - Image Credit: NBA

NEW YORK — Despite the fact that the NBA has notoriously held a lack of notable Latino players throughout its 77-year history, the tides have seemed to be turning for the past few years, and look better than ever after this summer. 

Over the course of the past month, a multitude of Latinos have been drafted or signed as undrafted free agents by NBA squads, and were given the chance to prove themselves in the annual NBA Summer League, split between locations in Las Vegas, Nevada and Sacramento, California. Needless to say, they did their job. 

Young stars with roots from all over Latin America have shown out and made a name for themselves, months before the tipoff of the NBA season has even begun. 

The highest-drafted Latino player in the 2023 NBA Draft, Jaime Jaquez Jr. is definitely a guy to keep an eye on. Although he was projected to go in the late first round or early second round, the Miami Heat took a chance on the four-year UCLA product from Irvine, California.

Jaquez Jr. was the equivalent of a household name among all college basketball fans, as the leading scorer (17.8 points per game) of a solid Bruins team that made their way to the Sweet Sixteen before a heartbreaking loss to Gonzaga. 

However, many scouts and fans alike disapproved of the Heat pick, citing Jaquez’s age and ‘lack of explosiveness’ or ‘fit to the Heat system.’  Almost immediately, he was labeled a major reach by Miami, a team notorious for picking out the most underrated players in every draft and turning them into productive players almost immediately. 

In two games for the Miami Heat during the Summer League, the third generation Mexican-American proved his worth almost immediately: he averaged 13 points, two rebounds, and 1.5 assists on an extremely efficient 43/44/80 shooting split.

It might be too early to call, but Jaquez has an opportunity to be a prime example of a player who proved scouts wrong and flourished against the odds. 

On the other side of that heartbreaking loss for Jaquez and the Bruins was Julian Strawther, a guard for the Bulldogs who almost came out of nowhere his junior season in 2022-23. Strawther didn’t seem like he was destined for the NBA after averaging just 3.4 points his freshman year in Spokane, but made a massive jump his sophomore year (11.8 points), and then again his junior year, finishing the last year of his college career with 16.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game. 

Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther, who was drafted in the first round of the 2023 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers then traded to the Denver Nuggets – Image Credit: Sports Illustrated

Ten years ago, Strawther might have been a lottery pick, but with today’s NBA that continues to value younger athletes more than ever (the first 13 picks of this year’s draft were Freshmen, International, or Overtime Elite), he fell down the draft boards quite a bit. But with the 29th pick, the Indiana Pacers selected the 21 year-old guard, but soon traded him to the defending champion Denver Nuggets. 

Born in Las Vegas but with roots in Puerto Rico, Strawther made the Nuggets front office look good with their trade, as he averaged 18.2 points per game in five appearances in his home city. Strawther’s size is easily his most attractive attribute, as he stands at 6’7″, but plays like a 6’2″ guard while rebounding the ball very well (4.6 rebounds per game in the Summer League).

It would be no surprise if Strawther quickly carves himself out a role as a backup option to All-Star caliber guard Jamal Murray within the next season or two. 

One of the lesser-represented countries in the league, Brazil has made a name for itself in this year’s NBA Summer League with two big names: Gui Santos and Yago Dos Santos. Gui, who entered the NBA ranks last year as the 55th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft but never made an official NBA roster, and instead played for the Santa Cruz Warriors (Golden State’s G-League affiliate) this past season. 

This summer, the 6’8″ forward, Santos, was clearly out with a vengeance. In six games between Sacramento and Las Vegas, he put up 17.7 points per game and 5.7 rebounds on an insane 51.4% shooting from the field.

Now heading into his sophomore season, the 21-year-old is ready to make an impact as part of a revamped Warriors lineup. 

His partner-in-crime, Yago Dos Santos, finally got his shot with the Chicago Bulls this summer after having looked for a spot in the league since 2019. Out of Sao Paolo, Dos Santos was given the chance to represent all 12.3 million people of his hometown, and he performed admirably: the 5’10” guard had 8.3 points per game, 3.2 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, all while shooting nearly 45% from beyond the arc.

Now that he’s got his chance, Dos Santos will have to work his way to become the second Santos in the league.

The island nations haven’t done bad for themselves, either. Guys like Chris Duarte, Al Horford, José Alvarado have made names for themselves and represented the Caribbean well, but two more guys could be added to the mix soon in Vincent Valerio-Bodon, and LJ Figueroa.

Valerio-Bodon, a half-Dominican, half-Hungarian stud from Sopron, Hungary, had a nice game against the Orlando Magic as part of the Boston Celtics Summer League roster.

Vincent Valerio-Bodon in Celtics Summer League – Image Credit: Boston Celtics/NBA

He finished with 13 points to go along with six boards and three assists, and made a name for himself for the Celtics front office to think about. 

Figueroa, who had a solid three-year college career with St. John’s and Oregon, made a bold move and declared for the NBA Draft in 2021, following the conclusion of his junior year. Despite going undrafted, Figueroa has seen opportunities arise for him during the Summer League time and time again, having earned spots as part of the Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Charlotte Hornets, and now finally the Los Angeles Lakers. But this past summer, the Dominican-American big man showed just how good he can be with what can only be considered one of the highlights of this year’s Summer League:

The monster putback slam that Figueroa had in LA’s game versus the Memphis Grizzlies had the media and fans in awe, and surely put Figueroa on the map, and made him a name to remember.

Finally, three more under-the-radar ballers, all of which were college stars, made their way to the next level. Xavier Castañeda, a guard out of Akron University, found his way onto the Los Angeles Clippers roster after two outstanding scoring seasons in college (21.7 points per game his senior year), and although he saw limited action during the Summer League, he is likely to make his way into the G-League within the coming months. 

Xavier Castañeda in NCAA March Madness Tournament – Image Credit: Akron Beacon Journal

Former Mississippi State guard Iverson Molinar got back to the NBA Summer League this season after a short stunt with the Milwaukee Bucks. He returned to Milwaukee after having played for the Wisconsin Herd, their G-League affiliate, the season before. Molinar impressed in the floor time he did see, scoring five points on nearly 60% shooting.

If he does ever see the NBA floor, Molinar would make history as the first Panamanian player since All-Star guard Rolando Blackman to play in the NBA. 

Lastly, University of Wyoming product Hunter Maldonado earned a spot on the Oklahoma City Thunder roster this summer, finally moving into professional basketball after a whopping six years as a Cowboy.

Hunter Maldonado in Wyoming regular season game – Image Credit: Wyoming Athletics/University of Wyoming

The Colorado Springs native averaged nearly 20 minutes per game in the five games he played, and thus is definitely a consideration for OKC to join their G-League team, the Oklahoma City Blue.

The current wave of Latinos joining the NBA ranks seems like it might just be the beginning as basketball expands and becomes more and more worldwide — don’t be surprised to see Latinos dominate the sport in no time. As for now, the new generation is sure to break some records and make their mark on the NBA landscape as it stands today.

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