For his team, Adecco Estudiantes, this game was a matter of life or death. The team practically needed to win every one of their four games left until the end of the qualifying round in order to advance to the next stage of the Euroleague competition, starting with today's match against Cibona Zagreb. Unfortunately for them (or so they thought), their starting point guard, Nacho Azofra, was due to miss his first game in a long time.
Into this tense situation enters Sergio Rodríguez, with all the responsibilities of the playmaking role resting in his hands, and only the inconsistent combo guard Andrs Miso to give him some rest from time to time.
You can bet that he didn't disappoint. In fact, he was more focused and confident than ever. He shot the ball very well, drove to the basket at will, successfully played the transition game, assisted, took advantage of pick and roll situations, and generally took the steering wheel for his team for a big part of the game. He finished with 22 points (7/11 from the field, netting all 3 treys he shot), 4 rebounds, 7 assists, and also 4 turnovers in 31 minutes of playing time. The 9 minutes he spent on the bench were fatal for Estudiantes, especially those in the second half, cutting the momentum of the game, and finally resulting in a defeat for the Spanish team, with some questionable calls made by the refs included.
Two important circumstances came into play in this great game for Sergio. First, the confidence he felt being the only point guard of the team. Second and most importantly, related with the previous one, the possibility of being the catalyst for virtually all of his team's offense. The first gave him the peace of mind to start off the game well, losing few balls and succeeding in various offensive situations. The second resulted in his most brilliant sequences of the game.
There is no longer any doubt about it: Sergio needs the ball in his hands to really be effective, and he needs it all the time. He was the starting and ending point of anything the Spanish Junior Team did last summer, assuming an incredible share of the offensive responsibility, as as we shared with you here at . His brightest performance in senior competition had taken part in a game against F.C.Barcelona early on in the season, when his team relied on him completely to come back from a difficult situation in the fourth quarter, to the point that no one knew what to do with the ball if the play wasn't being run by Sergio.
In yesterday's game, with Estudiantes' roster depleted with injuries and foul trouble, Sergio found himself in some stretches of the second half without any of the team's biggest names on the court, even sharing minutes with Carlos Suárez , his buddy at the European Junior Championships, who managed to score 10 points, mostly as a result of passes made by you-know who. It barely needs to be said that those minutes where the most exciting and productive for Sergio.
Of course, it's too much to ask for a Euroleague club like Estudiantes, finalist in last season's ACB League, to give up the keys of the team and total control of its game to an 18 year-old kid. Indeed, the club in general, and his coach Pepu Hernández in particular, have shown amazing faith in him, basically splitting the point guard minutes between Nacho Azofra and Sergio, and never backing down even if he was showing notorious inconsistency.
So this raises some interesting questions for the future. Will Sergio ever be able to be effective while playing a smaller role? If the answer is yes, how long it will take him? On the other hand, will he ever find a situation or team with the same kind of confidence Estudiantes has in him?
These are not small issues. I'm guessing that sooner or later he will take full control over Estudiantes and their offense. The team will at least continue to give him consistent playing time in the future. But what will happen if/when he tries the NBA adventure? Especially worrying might be the situation if he goes there too soon. Will any team be patient enough to give big minutes to a Euro kid who absorbs so much of the offensive game and is an average defender at best? Other players, at least, can be rather productive in small periods of time, while not necessarily being the spotlight of the team. For Sergio it seems to be all or nothing.
I guess a lot will depend on the situation he'll find there. For countless players, success is only a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Sergio could be one of them. But also, the degree of maturity he develops before going to the States could make all the difference. It's not the same thing to arrive to the League as an unproven teenager and to get there as a solid young veteran star with the experience and knowledge to adapt to different situations. Not to mention the respect he'd have to earn from his coach and teammates, something that would be much easier as an incoming European star that has already earned his stripes.
So I find myself wondering if we aren't rushing too much on Sergio Rodríguez here. I hope he'll be smart enough to know when it's the time to try the next level.