Prospect Discovery #2: LNB Argentina

Philip Wheeler (Picture: Marcelo Endelli / La Liga)

In the second edition of Prospect Discovery we’re going to focus on Argentina, which has been one of the biggest and most consistent exporters of basketball talent in Latin America through the past twenty years, as demonstrated by the near constant presence of Argentinian players in NBA and top-tier European team rosters during said period.

Lately, the Argentinian LNB has evolved past its initial status of highest level of competition for local players that are looking to make the leap to Europe, developing into a true regional hub for basketball talent, where young players from the rest of Latin America go to face a better level of competition and get more exposure before European basketball decision-makers.

Prospect Discovery #1: North Macedonian First League

Phillip Wheeler

Nationality: Puerto Rico | Team: Gimnasia de Comodoro Rivadavia | DOB: 04/23/2002 | Height: 6’8″

Wheeler has had an unique path in basketball for a 19 year old prospect. Once rated as a 3-star high school recruit playing for Ranney School in New Jersey, Wheeler left in 2019 to start a pro career that has already taken him to Italy (Stella Azzurra), Puerto Rico (Atléticos San German) and most recently to Gimnasia de Comodoro Rivadavia in Argentina.

Wheeler is an exceptional all-around athlete that stands out immediately in this level of competition, possessing a unique combination of size, open-court speed and vertical explosiveness. Wheeler’s long legs allow him to run the floor at an excellent speed, frequently outpacing opponents in transition, which, combined with his ability to play at the rim both off one or two feet, makes him a threat as a transition target.

 

In the half-court, Wheeler does most of his offensive work when he’s off the ball. While he’s not an especially creative ball-handler and the shiftiness and ability to change directions in short areas is something he is yet to develop, he knows how to attack closeouts and favorable matchups effectively when given straight lines to the basket, using both his speed with the ball in his hands and the momentum he’s able to gain in his final steps to the rim. While Wheeler could improve as a finisher against contact and through crowds, as he’s frequently thrown off-balance, he complements this with impressive footwork and body control in his final steps, which allow him to create space in crowds, and with his energy in the offensive glass to follow his own misses and generate extra possessions for his team.

 

The same can be said of his shooting ability. While he hasn’t been tasked with perimeter self-creation and his three-point attempt rate of .293 is fairly low for a perimeter offensive player, Wheeler shows touch in his shots off the catch and some flashes of versatility as a shooter, such as shooting in quick relocations and off-rhythm situations, where he uses quick moves such as fakes and jab steps. It should be pointed out that some mechanical aspects of the shot should be tightened — his feet tend to be too close together, affecting his balance, and both his elbows flare out, which leads to left/right variance on the release.

 

Wheeler is an impressive on-ball defender on the perimeter, he uses his combination of size, length, and mobility to force opponents into tough shots, whether he’s containing penetration or using his hip flexibility and lateral speed to stay in front of drivers all the way to the rim. His effort level is also impressive, regularly attempting plays outside of his comfort zone such as chasedown blocks in transition. His optimal position defensively is matching up against wings, and while he could potentially see time at the four he is not ready for a full or even a part-time assignment as an interior defender, as he is still skinny in the upper body and his high center of gravity makes it hard for him to hold his position against stronger opponents in the paint; he’s certainly more length-reliant than you would like for an interior defender.

 

The area where Wheeler still needs to make strides is his decision-making with the ball in his hands; he’s an aggressive driver but can dribble his way into tough situations, walk right into turnovers, and miss open teammates on the way. Similarly, some aspects of defensive decision-making need to be cleaned up. When defending off-ball, he’s prone to ball-watching which can get exploited by cutters. Some of those mistakes in team defense should get ironed out in the future by improving his communication on the court.

With his combination of size, foot speed and motor to become a multi-positional perimeter defender, and the tools and foundational skills to become at least a passable off-ball offensive player, Wheeler’s move to a bigger competition level is a matter of “when” and not “if”. Becoming more consistent as a decision-maker and refining his drive selection will make him an even more enticing player for any team in the world, as it can be the difference between Eurocup, Euroleague, or even NBA level a few years down the line.

Bautista Lugarini

Nationality: Argentina | Team: Bahía Basket | DOB: 01/31/2001 | Height: 6’7″

Lugarini more than passes the eye-test when in terms of physical tools. Standing at 6’7” with a strong frame for his age, Lugarini should be able to keep up with wings defensively and a good percentage of forwards in terms of physicality. While Lugarini doesn’t possess the most explosive leaping ability or the quickest vertical pop, he’s still able to finish strong at the rim with a head of steam.

 

As a scorer, Lugarini shows the ability to self-create with the ball in his hands. Having a quick first step for his size, he’s able to initiate drives against a set defense by using a number of moves (pump fakes, hesitations) that prove to be effective in getting defenders off balance.

Lugarini doesn’t have an advanced degree of shiftiness as a handler, he’s way more comfortable changing directions in the open court than trying to pull out the same moves in a crowd, but he does a good job of using his combination of long legs, strength, and body control to make his way to the rim in a crowd, creating space out of physicality and drawing fouls on his way to the rim. As a finisher, however, is where Lugarini shows his best weapons, as he has an excellent combination of touch, hangtime, and creativity, which allows him to convert tough, contested layups.

 

Lugarini also shows flashes in other offensive areas. He is a smart situational passer who is capable of reading a defense, making passes over smaller defenders, and finding cutters, showing flashes of advanced vision. His shooting is still a work in progress and could stand some mechanical tweaks (segmented release, seems to have trouble transferring energy from lower body to upper body, needs to improve balance, and hold his followthrough, loose lower body, tends to kick his legs forward affecting his balance), but his flashes in versatile shooting, his volume (6.9 3PA per 36 minutes, 0.553 3PAr) and his bold shot selection for his size and age could be positive indicators in this area.

 

Defensively, his combination of strength, size and mobility makes him a perfect match for wings and perimeter-oriented forwards, Lugarini is quick to turn his hips when attacked off the dribble, slides laterally with good speed and shows quick and solid footwork in the perimeter, which allows him to hold his own on an island and cover drives all the way to the rim.

The concerns on defense are mainly due to certain concerning tendencies, like sagging off of shooters too much, which gives opponents time and space to get their shots off and fouling jump shooters when closing out. While this could be attributed to scheme, the other concerning tendency is his need to play more aggressive, especially when helping on the interior as despite his strength, he wasn’t able to keep up as a post defender against physicality, which can take him out of plays.

Lugarini has improved in the past three years and found his optimal role as a wing/forward defender who brings potential versatility on both ends of the floor. Already 20 years old, it’s hard to see an immediate avenue for Lugarini to the NBA considering where he is development-wise, but he should be playing in a way more competitive (and lucrative) league rather sooner than later. Should he continue his improvement as a shooter and expand on his flashes as a passer, he could develop into an important piece for any European team and could even make his way to the NBA as a UDFA a few years down the line.

Caio Pacheco

Nationality: Brazil | Team: Bahía Basket | DOB: 02/22/1999 | Height: 6’3″

Pacheco is arguably the most well known player in this list. After leading the league in assists (6.0 per game) and finishing second in scoring (19.4 points per game) in the 2019-20 season, Pacheco declared for the 2020 NBA Draft but pulled his name from consideration before the final entry date.

A 6’2” primary initiator, Pacheco is able to orchestrate the offense for his team in a number of ways, whether it is by creating advantages and finding open teammates in transition and by exploiting his gravity as a driver to create open shots for others. Pacheco is quick and reactive as a passer and shows an impressive level of versatility and flair in his deliveries, often making passes off the live dribble that catch opponents by surprise.

 

Pahceco stands out at this level of competition due to his shifty ball-handling ability. He’s effective at using in-and-outs and hesitations to get defenders off balance and initiate drives. He’s also able to change directions in tight spaces, which allows him to make his way to the rim through crowds. His fluidity with the ball in his hands is impressive, as he’s able to flow between one move and the next without slowing down or losing control of the ball.

 

As a finisher he’s mostly bound to the ground, but shows a good degree of deceleration and touch on more difficult finishes (46% on floaters this season according to InStat) and some ability to create space out of physicality in his final steps towards the rim.

In terms of shooting, Pacheco utilizes that same fluidity and creativity with the ball in his hands and his solid footwork to create space for dribble jumpers. Pacheco is definitely bold in his shot selection and is not afraid of taking tough jumpers. When it comes to mechanics, he has a one-motion release with a short jump and a low release point that while quick, allows bigger opponents to contest and at times block his jumpers.

 

Defense is where most of Pacheco’s woes are located. Due to his size, he’s limited to defending the smallest opponent on the court, but he doesn’t seem to have the best lateral speed nor the quickest reactions to his match-up’s first step to cover opponents on the perimeter. He also doesn’t generate enough defensive events (0.8 steals per 36, 0 blocks) to suggest that he could be a factor as an off-ball defender.

Pacheco already had his first experience at a higher level of competition in this very season, as he played a month with UCAM Murcia of the Spanish ACB on loan, before returning to Bahía. Despite his defensive limitations and concerns, Pacheco projects as a solid starter for most European teams, with the possibility to develop into a top player at the position down the line given his ability to create offense both for teammates and for himself.

Maximo Araujo

Nationality: Argentina | Team: Atenas | YOB: 2003 | Height: 6’0″

One of the very few 2003-born players seeing regular minutes in the league, Araujo stands out for his shotmaking ability, showing a balanced self-creation arsenal by utilizing both his driving and his pull-up ability to keep defenders guessing.

As a shooter, Araujo has a quick release, with a compact upper body, good alignment to the rim, and consistency in his motions. The best part is his versatility as a shooter off movement and his off-balance touch and shooting against pressure. This allows him to be bold in his shot selection.

 

When attacking off the dribble, Araujo hasn’t shown the elite explosiveness to beat his primary defender with sheer quickness, but he’s able to create drives against mismatches or when assisted by screens. Where Araujo really stands out is with his ability to control the ball in traffic, which allows him to minimize turnovers out of ball-handling. Despite his lack of size, Araujo does compensate to some degree with his ability to finish against contact and in awkward angles.

 

His best moments as a passer come when he’s on the move, this is where Araujo shows the quickness to process what’s in front of him and react accordingly, finding the open man out of gravity. Beyond that, Araujo sees very few moments as a half-court passer, which is something to monitor through the next few years in order to project his future role as an initiator.

 

Defensively Araujo will be limited to covering the smallest player on the opposing team due to his size. His best trait is his lateral speed and his ability to turn his hips quickly when he’s attacked by drivers, which allows him to stay in front of opponents and cover drives. Beyond that, Araujo still needs to make strides in terms of off-ball defense and overall discipline, as he can fall asleep, miss cutters and fall for ball fakes.

The youngest player seeing regular minutes in this league, Araujo shows limitations in terms of size and explosiveness and at this point doesn’t offer the amount of playmaking you would expect from someone at his size, but his touch and shotmaking ability are certainly interesting enough to track his development closely through the next few seasons.

Bryan Carabali

Nationality: Ecuador | Team: Quimsa | DOB: 08/24/1999 | Height: 7’0″

Carabali stands out immediately due to his sheer size, standing at 7’0”, but also due to his impressive mobility. Carabali is a fluid north/south athlete that utilizes his long legs to sprint the floor at a tremendous speed for his size. Carabali is similarly mobile as a vertical athlete, being quick to elevate off the floor.

 

Due to his optimal physical tools for the position, Carabali plays almost exclusively near the rim on both ends of the floor. On offense the game comes easy for him due to his size and length, as he’s able to play at rim level with ease and be a factor on the offensive glass, generating extra possessions for his team at an impressive rate (4.0 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes in the 2020-21 season).

Despite a large majority of his shots coming on catch-and-finish situations, Carabali shows a degree of versatility as a finisher in limited opportunities. According to InStat, he’s shooting 50% from the 8-16ft range — albeit on a very small sample. This is where the eye test is important and shows moments of good touch in awkward angles and off-balance situations.

 

Carabali could improve even more as an interior offensive player once he develops in terms of strength. He could still add muscle in the upper body which would make him more comfortable playing against contact, but his high center of gravity might put a hard cap on his ability to hold his position and not rely so much on his touch off-balance to finish against contact.

Defensively, his combination of size and length obviously allows him to be a difference-maker on the interior, where he has blocked 5.3 shots per 36 minutes in the 2020-21 season, allowing just 41% on shots at the rim and 26% on shots in the 8-16ft range according to InStat. Carabali is able to protect the rim both as a primary defender or from the help side, where he’s generally on time and on target with his rotations. While his level of activity gets the best of him at times (e.g. falling for pump fakes), his impressive measurements and quick second jump allow him to block a good number of those second-opportunity shots.

 

Carabali’s defense in space still needs work, his lateral technique is not extremely fluid and he can be too upright when dragged to the perimeter. This is likely to limit the number of defensive schemes in which he can be effective, as he would be an awkward fit in switch-heavy teams, but it also might limit the number of lineups you can play him against, as great pull-up shooters would run pick-and-roll over and over, expecting him to go under screens in order to shoot.

Overall, Carabali’s outlier physical tools will always make him an enticing player for pretty much any team in the world. He is not at a point where he can be trusted as a switch defender or as a ball-handler, but there is still value in a catch-and-finish scoring, offensive rebounding, interior defending specialist, and he has the potential to be extremely efficient in all of those areas.

Fausto Ruesga

Nationality: Argentina | Team: Bahía Basket | DOB: 07/18/2000 | Height: 6’6″

Standing at 6’6”, with a solid combination of strength and open-court athleticism, Ruesga is a plug-and-play wing who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to impact the game offensively and provide value to his team.

Starting with his shooting ability, Ruesga is a reliable off-ball floor-spacer (1.27 points per possession in catch-and-shoot jumpers according to InStat), who has compact shooting mechanics with a two-motion release. Ruesga is really fluid transferring energy from his lower body and getting the ball from his shooting pocket to his release point. His numbers as a shooter off the catch, plus the flashes of versatility he showed as a shooter off the dribble this season, and just the sheer level of confidence despite his bold shot selection all are encouraging signs for his future as a shooter.

 

Similarly, Ruesga’s best moments attacking the rim come when he’s off the ball, either in cuts or attacking closeouts, situations in which he shows a powerful first step and excellent straight-line athleticism, which allows him to gain momentum and finish strong at the rim.

 

The area where Ruesga made significant strides this year is as a rebounder, grabbing 9.6 boards per 36 minutes — 2.2 of them offensive. Despite not possessing optimal size nor the quickest leaping ability off a standstill, Ruesga’s combination of motor, physicality, timing and positioning allow him to come up with contested rebounds and create extra possessions for his team.

 

Defensively, Ruesga didn’t have a huge statistical output in terms of generating defensive events (0.8 steals and 0.3 blocks), but considering his combination of positional size, motor, and foot speed, he should be able to hold his own against twos and a majority of both ones and threes at any level of competition.

 

For all of his upside as an off-ball player, Ruesga shows some clear limitations with the ball in his hands. His drive creation is restricted to attacking closeouts, as he doesn’t show either the required quickness in his first step nor the creativity as a ball-handler to get defenders off balance. This restricted role didn’t leave him much space as a playmaker for others, and as shown by his low assist rate (0.6 per 36 minutes) and his negative assist-to-turnover ratio, limiting his passing contributions to situational reads.

After spending the majority of the season playing for Bahía Basket in Argentina, Ruesga recently signed and made his debut for Morabanc Andorra in the Spanish ACB. Given that he will add value mostly as an off-ball offensive player, it wouldn’t surprise me if he has a quick transition to this new level of competition and contributes to winning nearly immediately for Andorra.

Other Prospects of Note

According to RealGM, there were 98 different players born in 1999 or later who played at least one minute in the 2020-21 LNB Season. Needless to say, the initial list of players considered for this piece was long. In order to focus on the players who had the best combination of positional size, statistical profile, developmental stage, and current age, there were a lot of interesting prospects left out. The four closest omissions were the following players, who I might revisit in the future if I run an updated version of this piece next season:

  • Tomas Chapero – Bahía Basket (6’9″ Big. Born 2001, Argentina)
  • Federico Elias – Bahía Basket (6’2″ Scoring Guard. Born 1999, Argentina)
  • Theo Metzger – Ferro (6’7″ Versatile Forward. Born 1999, Uruguay)
  • Juan Pablo Venegas – Obras Sanitarias (5’10” Primary Initiator. Born 2000, Peru)
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