A Gritty Guard Aims to Put Uruguay on the Basketball Map
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The NBA’s international academies are molding next-gen talent.
Santiago Vescovi understands where he’s at — that as a virtual unknown in American basketball circles, he’s going to be checked, tested, maybe even ridiculed. He is, after all, from Uruguay, the South American country known for producing goal scorers of a different sport known to the world by a single name.
And while Vescovi is no Cavani, Suárez or even Forlán — not yet, anyway — as a slender 6-foot-2 guard, he refuses to be disrespected.
“It’s a cultural thing,” says the 17-year-old Vescovi. “In Latin America, our soccer players in Uruguay have a reputation for toughness in their game. It’s diving on the ground, playing hard.”
I don’t let people get into my game.
Reco Hallmon, a guard with the Skill Factory, an Atlanta summer basketball team, apparently hadn’t done his homework on Vescovi when the two faced off in a recent tournament. On a simple inbounds play, Hallmon tried to rough up the left-hander — putting his arms around Vescovi’s midsection and playing him tight.
Unfazed, Vescovi swatted the defender’s hand away and drove to the basket for a layup.
Over four days in July at the NBA Academy Games, Vescovi played with grit — keeping defenders off him, hitting the floor for loose balls, playing aggressive man-to-man D — that could go a long way to putting his homeland of just 3.5 million people (that’s fewer folks than Oklahoma) on the basketball map. And, on offense, he showed he was more than grit, making 16 of 33 three-pointers with 19 rebounds, 19 assists and 19 steals over five games.
“I don’t let people get into my game,” says Vescovi, who averaged 17.4 points per game in Atlanta. “If they want to speed me up, I just do what I do normally.”
College basketball coaches were sufficiently impressed. Vescovi, mostly unknown a year ago within the U.S. college basketball recruiting merry-go-round, came away with scholarship offers from Temple, the University of Miami, Washington State and Rutgers, according to an NBA source. In addition, 24/7 Sports reported that Maryland has an offer on the table.
“He doesn’t have that explosive quickness,” says one college coach who is not allowed to comment publicly on high school players, as per NCAA rules, “but you better get over that. He can play.”
Former Temple All-American Aaron McKie, the top assistant to coach Fran Dunphy, brought the entire Owls staff to vet Vescovi. Boston College is also expected to enter the “Santi” sweepstakes, along with Butler.
It’s been quite the journey for Vescovi.
Born to an accountant father and a marketing professional mother, Vescovi grew up in the capital of Montevideo doing what most kids do — playing video games, listening to music, hanging out — but his ability and ambition pushed him to leave home for Mexico and the NBA Academy Latin America early last year, at age 16. “I was all the time with my family; I was close to them,” he says. “When I had to make a decision to go to the Latin America academy, it made me stronger. I know that’s what I want and I have my family support.”
Only one Uruguayan has ever reached the NBA — center Esteban Batista, who spent two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks in the mid-2000s. Vescovi played the national pastime of soccer as a child, but his first love was always hoops, no doubt because of his grandfather Daniel Vanet, a former star in Uruguay basketball. Vanet, a shooting guard, routinely talked to his grandson about ways to improve his game, physically and mentally — and Vescovi wears No. 9 in his honor (though he knows he cannot wear that number in U.S. college basketball, which bans 6s, 7s, 8s and 9s on jerseys in order to simplify referees’ hand signals).
Vescovi’s game in Mexico impressed, elevating him to the Australia-based NBA Global Academy team. Against better and stronger competition, Vescovi has added 25 pounds to his frame since arriving in Mexico, bulking up to 175 mostly out of necessity. “The only thing that is a problem, but not really a problem, is to work on the physical because I think the college players will be older, bigger,” he says. “That’s going to be one of the biggest obstacles I will face. I want to get stronger so when somebody bumps me I feel better.”
Vescovi seemed sturdy enough in the NBA Academy Games. He had no issues shielding the ball, creating space and finding his shot. “He plays at a nice pace,” says Marty Clark, head coach of the Global Academy team and veteran Australian coach. “He doesn’t try and play too quickly. He can see what’s happening around him, [and] he does the other things some guards won’t do.”
Vescovi still has some growing to do. While his offensive numbers in Atlanta were solid in those five games, he also had 16 turnovers. “Something I have to improve on,” he says. Vescovi is young enough to understand that his growth will take time. Coaches get that too.
When the college recruiting period revs up, starting this month, Vescovi will have some long plane rides to the U.S. as he visits a fast-growing list of schools. Few would have even known his name a year ago, but now Santi is on his way — like so many of Uruguay’s soccer stars — to one-name status in the basketball world.
Read more: From Down Under, with a nod to the Mojave Desert, comes a new hoops star.