Film Session: Sergio Llull
Examining the skill set and development of Rockets' 2009 second-round selection
HOUSTON - We live in an instant gratification society; the whole world seemingly little more than a click away. On Demand movies and music, downloadable books, myriad methods of immediate communication – all have silently combined to conspire to shrink nearly everything we know about – and desire from – the universe into something that neatly fits into the palm of our hand.
As a result, ‘patience’ has practically become a dirty word. Forget about having to wait for anything. As Jim Morrison once bellowed, “We want the world and we want it now!” – a famous line that, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know wasn’t the call to arms or battle cry of adolescent impatience it was then believed to be, but rather a desperate plea from the forward-thinking Doors’ front man expressing his desire for a subscription to Amazon Prime.
And yet, amid this all-encompassing need for now there remain at least a few things that still rate as well worth waiting for; essentials ranging in significance from the right relationship, all the way down to the simple pleasure derived from a well-prepared and well-cooked meal. And it is with this sentiment in mind that we now turn our attention to the matter of Sergio Llull.
Nearly three years ago, the Rockets selected the Spanish guard with the 34th overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft. Llull was 21-years-old at the time, largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic, oozing with potential but raw to be sure. He was largely considered an energy guy then; dynamic in the open floor but not yet at home in a half court setting. Llull could come off the bench and give his club a considerable jolt, but even his ideal position was somewhat up in the air as he was more combo guard than a natural one or two.
Today, however, Llull stands front and center as one of the best players on one of the top teams in Europe. He has emerged as a fiery floor general for Real Madrid while not only playing the point guard position but excelling there, as seen during his recent MVP performance in the Copa del Rey final when he helped lift his club to victory over heavily favored Barcelona thanks to a tour de force showing which included 23 points, 5 assists and a 5-for-7 effort from beyond the arc.
How has Llull grown as a player since we last checked in on his progress and when might Rockets fans get a glimpse of him in Houston? Rockets.com sat down for a film session with the team’s Vice President of Player Personnel Gersson Rosas to find out.
This part of Llull’s game is as strong as ever. The 6-3 guard is a one-man fast break, capable of racing the length of the floor in such speedy fashion that at times it appears as if his opponents are moving in slow motion.
As with many young players who love to wreak havoc in the open court, Llull is prone to playing out of control on occasion, which is why his turnover rate in transition is higher than one would prefer. Improving his efficiency in that area, however, will come with increased maturity and experience. What can’t be taught is his explosive athleticism – an attribute that translates very well to the typically more wide-open NBA game.
Notice, too, the passion on display after Llull converts with contact in the second clip. He plays the game with an infectious energy and panache capable of elevating the play of those around him, and that sort of spirited demeanor has, not surprisingly, made him quite the fan favorite in Madrid.
“He’s an aggressive, attacking guard who will get in the paint,” says Rosas. “He can really create for your team in transition and he loves to play in the open court. He’s a guy who’s very physical, very tough, very competitive and plays all out with a lot of passion and a lot of force.
“He’s very similar to Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic. They’re guys who are looking to attack the basket and they’re looking to get in the paint and create not only for themselves but for others. His size is probably more similar to Goran but he’s probably a better athlete than both of those guys. He’s probably got a little bit more lift than Kyle and Goran. Each one of them has their own individual game but he’s a guy who’s feisty and competitive, hates to lose, has played at high levels, and he has become a self-made player who continues to get better and becomes more productive.”
Llull’s development in the half court setting surely serves as the No. 1 reason the Rockets and their fans are anxious with anticipation to see what he can do in the NBA. Llull’s assist rate this season is the highest of his career and he’s proven to be especially adept at negotiating the high-screen-and-roll – an integral part of Houston’s point guard friendly offense this season.
The above clips give just a glimpse of the damage he’s able to inflict upon the opposition; whether it’s showing off his creativity with one-handed passes and jaw-dropping alley-oops in the lane, or his ability to split the double-team and finish with authority at the rim.
“Sergio is a prospect that has really matured here over the last couple of seasons and has become one of the main players for one of the top teams in Spain and in Europe,” says Rosas. “We’re very excited about his maturation process. He’s become a key cog for that team. He’s played a lot more point guard this season which was important to us because we feel like that’s the position he’ll more naturally translate to.
“He’s played a more balanced game this year in the half court which will help his development and help his maturation process. He can play both positions – he can play some one and some two – and, as you’ve seen in our history, our coaches are very open to having our point guards play both positions, so he fits that mold pretty well.”
For much of his career, Llull’s outside shooting stroke has been a strength, seeing him knock down 38 percent or more of his 3-pointers taken each of the past three seasons. This year, however, his percentages have dipped, as he’s hitting just 31 percent of his treys in league play. But as his 5-for-7 performance from downtown during the Copa del Rey final showed, he’s still more than capable of filling it up from beyond the arc, and it's also worth noting that 3-point shooting percentages in European basketball tend to be more volatile due to the fact fewer long-range attempts are taken overall. The Rockets fully believe in Llull's ability to serve as an inside-outside threat at the NBA level, expecting him to connect at a clip of 35-percent or better from distance once he makes the transition.
“Perimeter-wise, he’s still in progression, he’s still developing,” Rosas says. “He had a good year last year from the international 3-point line; this year he’s been a little bit up and down and that’s one of the areas that we’re focusing on in terms of his game and his development. But we feel like it’s an area where, with his work ethic and approach, he’s going to improve upon it once he gets to the NBA. Right now, his ability to get to the basket it his biggest strength – both to score and to create.”
Befitting someone of his impassioned playing style, Llull’s defense is just as intense as one would expect it to be. The first clip shines the spotlight on this point perfectly, as Llull gets right up in his opponent’s grill, pressuring him face-to-face before doing a superb job of utilizing his quick feet to stay step-for-step with his man, ultimately forcing him into a tough, off-balance shot that misses the mark.
The second clip, meanwhile, showcases what the Spanish dynamo is likely to see a great deal of Stateside, as he’s forced to work over, around and through pick after pick in an effort to stick to his counterpart in the half court. This is a challenge for every young NBA guard and the same would undoubtedly hold true for Llull. But given his strong defensive metrics and all-out effort, the Rockets have every reason to believe Llull would quickly adapt defensively, even when facing the quicker, stronger athletes of the NBA.
And as the second and third clips eventually show, when Llull puts himself in position to make a play on defense, the end result is often two points for his team at the other end.
“He’s a little unique in terms of the European profile in that he’s probably a plus athlete for European players and he’s an above average defender,” says Rosas. “So he’s a guy that, at least at the international level, can guard ones and twos – we’ll see how the translation goes to the NBA. He’s not afraid to get physical, he’s not afraid to get into opponents and he’s a guy who values winning and he’s doing it at a high level outside of the NBA.”
So when might Houston fans see Llull in a Rockets uniform? He’s currently under contract to Real Madrid through the 2013-2014 season, so an arrival any sooner than that would require a negotiated buyout between Real and the Rockets – a reality that obviously makes projecting any sort of specific timetable a dubious endeavor at best. This much, however, is clear: there exists mutual attraction between both the player and team, as the Rockets touch base regularly with Llull to emphasize their interest in his continued growth and development.
Yes, patience continues to be the order to the day for now. But the more the Rockets see of the Mahon native, the more convinced they become that the wait will prove most worthwhile.
“He has good pedigree and good experience,” Rosas says. “Last year he played with the Spanish national team and he’s currently playing on one of the top teams not only in Euroleague but also in Spain. He’s got a lot of good professional experience.
“He’s one of the top Spanish players in the ACB and he’s a guy who wanted to parlay his career into a situation of playing in the NBA. He’s a guy we’re working with now and talking to in order to see when the time is right for him to come. He wants to come when he’s got an opportunity to be a part of an NBA rotation and that’s when we want him. We want to come over so he can play and contribute. We’re working through those things and looking to see when the time is right, not just in terms of the team but financially for him and for us.”