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Friday January 22, 2010 9:38 AM

Introducing Sergio Llull

Shining the spotlight on the Rockets' second-round selection from Spain

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Houston - Nearly 5,800 people were packed into the Palacio Vistalegre on a pleasant late October evening in Spain, preparing to watch Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid host the perennial Polish Basketball League champs Asseco Prokom. The game was an early season Euroleague matchup, one that featured the typical fan fervor which accompanies such tilts as all manner of flags, banners and shouts were ready to be unleashed.

Mixed in among this madding throng was the unassuming figure of Sam Hinkie, omnipresent blue sports coat adorning his shoulders, uber-analytical mind in constant flux, eyes locked in on the action set to take place before him. The Rockets Vice President of Basketball Operations was in Madrid on assignment, eager to get a firsthand glimpse of one of the players he had traveled nearly 5,000 miles to see.

As the game got underway, Real wasted little time racing to a big lead, delighting the home crowd by seizing an 18-point halftime advantage before cruising to a 94-72 victory. 6-11 Lithuanian center Darjus Lavrinovic was predictably strong throughout as was Spanish bulldog Jorge Garbajosa. But someone else caught Hinkie’s eye and captured the vast majority of his attention; a player who seemed to be the catalyst behind nearly every Real run, a plus-minus junkie’s dream, someone whose team seemed to surge further and further ahead every time he stepped on the floor.

The young man was not quite 22 years old at the time – an anomaly among the veteran-laden clubs of big-time European basketball – but his teammates fed off his playmaking and frenetic defense all the same, seemingly buoyed by the boundless energy and enthusiasm emanating from his 6-3 200 pound frame.

That player was Sergio Llull, a young guard selected months earlier by the Houston Rockets as one of their three second-round selections (No. 34 overall) in the 2009 Draft. Since the night his name was called from the podium in New York, Llull has likely fallen off the radar screen of most American fans while he continues to develop his game overseas. But for the Rockets, out of sight does not mean out of mind. They are bullish regarding his basketball future, believing he has the necessary tools and skill set to become an impact NBA player sooner rather than later.

“He’s unique as a very athletic international guard,” says Hinkie. “He’s a combo guard but one who is playing significant minutes at the point guard spot for a very demanding, very good, execution-oriented coach in Ettore Messina. But Sergio has been playing really well in that system. He is not your prototypical ball-moving, distributor, calming influence type point guard; he’s been much more of an athletic, attacking, multi-position, up and down, good-shooting, good-driving athlete.

“He has great speed, NBA speed, which makes him interesting and unique for an international point guard. He defies a lot of the stereotypes you might want to put on guards coming from overseas. He’s a gifted, active, committed and high energy defender who can defend multiple positions. He’s often called on to guard twos and ones. One of the things he combines with that, which you don’t really see as much, is that he can really shoot the ball. He’s shot the ball well from three and he’s proven to be a good and improving standstill shooter.”

That intriguing skill set went a long way toward helping Llull earn a coveted and somewhat surprising spot on the stacked Spanish national team last summer. Seen as a bit of a long shot to make the squad due to his relative youth (Llull is the third youngest member of the team behind Ricky Rubio and Victor Claver) and the caliber of competition from Spain’s deep talent pool, he nonetheless proved impossible to keep off the roster, impressing the coaching staff during training camp for the European Championships with precisely the same gifts which had prompted Houston to swing a draft-day deal to acquire his rights.

Several weeks later, Llull and the Spanish side came home with gold medals around their necks, emerging victorious after having laid claim to the country’s first-ever EuroBasket title. The Mahon native averaged a modest 4 points per game during the tournament but still managed to make a big impression due to his dogged defense and ability to push the pace and change the tempo the second he steps on the floor.

“Going into training camp the thought among Spain’s coaching staff was that they wanted to take much more experienced players,” explains Rockets’ Director of Global Scouting and International Affairs Arturas Karnisovas. “But, in this case, they believed Sergio deserved to be among the top-12 players. The fact he got as many minutes as he did was also a surprise and tells you a little bit about his determination and work ethic. He went from being a long shot to make the team to getting himself into a rotation filled with NBA players.

“It was really big for him. It’s the highest level of European competition. He got on the floor because of his defensive abilities alone and the team figured anything he gave them offensively was just a bonus, especially since Spain had plenty of people who could score points. But even on the offensive end he exceeded expectations as well, as you can see by looking at his shooting percentages for the tournament (Llull hit 62.5 percent of his shots from the field, while shooting 44.4 percent from three).”

Yet for all the great strides taken by the precocious Spaniard, Houston’s brain trust is in no rush to begin the process of bringing Llull to the U.S. The Rockets realize he’s gaining quite the hoops education while playing in Spain’s ACB, which is thought by many to be the second best professional basketball league in the world (current and former players include Houston’s own Luis Scola and David Andersen, Pau and Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio and a host of others). From both the standpoint of pressure to perform and quality of play, suiting up for a big money, high profile squad like Real Madrid is about as close as anyone can get to receiving a first class NBA apprenticeship.

“They play in front of huge crowds and under enormous fan pressure and media scrutiny – maybe as much or more than many NBA teams,” Hinkie explains. “I think NBA fans often equate European basketball with college basketball because they think of it as a pipeline in, or maybe a competitor to the NBA for talent. In truth, it’s significantly bigger and better than college basketball in terms of level of competition, sophistication of schemes, and amount of teaching, resources and scouting.

“One example is simply the age of the players. Take a team like Real Madrid; you’re talking about players who are highly accomplished, who are not only near 30 years old on average but who have also been professionals since they were 14 or 15 years old, and have been honing their craft for many years.

“That said, the interesting thing is when they speak about Sergio they talk about him the way (North Carolina Head Coach) Roy Williams might speak about a college freshman in that ‘he’s a nice young player’ or ‘he’s a big part of what we hope to do in the future’. The truth is, many of us are of the opinion that, if he were in the NBA, he would be spoken of in the same way, in possibly a more significant role.

When might that day arrive? For now, the Rockets are choosing to stay mum on the subject since Llull is under contract with Real Madrid. Instead, Hinkie says the Rockets are content to merely monitor the guard’s growth and development which have quickly transformed Llull into a fan favorite in his native country.

He is the quintessential sparkplug off the bench, averaging 8.2 points, 2.6 assists and nearly one steal per game – all while playing little more than 19 minutes a night. And Llull’s shooting touch, so deadly during the European Championships, has lost none of its pinpoint accuracy either; he’s currently connecting on better than 59 percent of his shots from the field and 46 percent from beyond the three-point arc.

Even a month-long stint on the sidelines following an ankle injury couldn’t cool him off. In his first game back on January 13, with Rockets’ Vice President of Player Personnel Gersson Rosas watching from the stands this time, Llull helped Madrid rally from a 7-point halftime deficit on the road against Armani Milan by scoring 11 points in just 11 minutes of action, hitting 3-of-5 shots from long range and playing his trademark lockdown defense at the other end.

“He played limited minutes in the first half coming off the ankle injury but he played more in the second half and was really the difference in that game,” said Rosas. “Madrid was struggling offensively and he came in and made shots from three and really did a good job of moving the ball as a point guard for that team, and defensively he really slowed down Milan’s point guard who’d had a big first half.

“It’s been a welcome surprise to see his development and we feel like that process has definitely been sped up by his performance this year as a point guard. We felt like he could definitely play some two but that his value going forward would be predicated upon his ability to play the point guard position and he’s showing this year that he can now run his team.”

The key now is for Llull to show he can handle that responsibility on more of a full-time basis. He’s clearly quite comfortable in transition and is an excellent finisher at the rim but could still use additional time and experience to fine-tune his skills in the half-court. As the quarterback of the offense, a point guard’s job is to ensure quality shots for himself and his teammates every time down the floor and the Rockets would love nothing more than to see Llull demonstrate the ability to make solid, sound decisions every single night, while still incorporating the explosiveness and flair which make him such a dynamic player.

“His ball-handling is quite good,” says Hinkie, “But seeing the floor and managing the game – which is, quite honestly, the hardest part to grasp – needs further development. That said, we feel good enough about his athletic base and where he sits right now that, even if he doesn’t transform himself all the way into being a stereotypical pass-first, game manager point guard, he can still be an impactful player.

“Much of our analysis pointed to a prospect like him being interesting. He has characteristics that fit with the way we want to build our team. Now we look forward to seeing how he develops.”

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