The day that Deni Avdija will drafted by an NBA team as well as Killian Hayes, European basketball will be losing for a new young and up and coming star who could make an impact in the future in the world’s best league. Already today, even before the Israeli sensation will be selected in October’s draft one can put their finger on that next star who will be talked about non-stop during the upcoming season, one Usman Garuba.
Real Madrid’s Spanish big man can play both the power forward and center positions and is thought to be an excellent player right now, but he still has a ways to go to get to the NBA and become a proven entity. Mario Gomez who covers the Spanish league up close spoke about the expectations that Garuba will have to deal with this coming season, “Garuba’s expectations will depend on the opportunities he has at Real Madrid as 2nd or 3rd pivot in the rotation. He has been constantly evolving on the court year after year and this has been demonstrated with the Youth Spanish National Teams, as well as at the ANGT Youth Euroleague competition with Real’s junior team. The staff has taken it step by step with Garuba and has had excellent mentors. At the same time, there is room for improvement and growth to become a better player than last season, working on his T2 jumper or his free throw percentage for example.”
In fact, Garuba is already the real deal and has gained some serious experience at a very young age. As a 17-year old, Garuba played in 14 Euroleague games as well as in the Spanish ACB League which is considered to be the best domestic league in Europe. In his first two Euroleague games Garuba scored 12 points in each, at 17 years old. After the youngster helped Real beat German giants Alba Berlin in his second Euroleague contest going a perfect 5/5 from the field while leading the team in scoring, his head coach Pablo Laso was full of compliments, “I am pleased with Usman. I do not give anyone minutes just for the sake of it. That was the case 3 or 4 years ago as well about another young guy. The stat sheet says he played well. He was successful for the youth team and now he is ready to compete for us in every game.”
Of course when Laso spoke about another young guy there was no doubt in anybody’s mind as to who he was referring to, Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic. “Comparing great players to younger ones is never a great idea. Garuba is Garuba, a player with physical qualities similar to Serge (Ibaka) when he began at CB L’Hospitalet in the LEB Oro league. But Usman’s training has been much more complete to reach the elite level in Europe. He needs to work on his technique with the ball in 1×1 situations, but we are talking about an 18-year old intimidating physical forward on defense, with good T3 shooting range and who had the ability to play near the rim,” explained Gomez when asked about comparing Garuba to Doncic and to the Toronto Raptors’ Serge Ibaka.
Even though Garuba and Doncic play completely different positions, it’s simply inevitable that the comparison will be made despite Doncic achieving what others will probably never reach again. Both grew up in Europe and starred at Real Madrid’s youth department, with the Slovenian Doncic becoming the youngest player in the club’s history at 16 years old, two months and two days to make his first division debut.
Garuba on the other hand, played his first ACB game at the age of 16 years old and 7 months and while he became the youngest center in the Spanish league’s history, he also managed to become the youngest starter all time for Real at 17 years old, 6 months and 19 days, breaking the club record set by Doncic. Last season, Garuba also notched a double-double with13 points and 10 rebounds against Murcia in the domestic league, thus becoming the youngest player in the league to ever reach that mark or take 10 rebounds in a game. And yes, you guessed it, Doncic had held those records beforehand.
Even before that, Garuba was used to breaking records. The big man’s parents who went from Nigeria to Belgium and then moved to Madrid where Garuba was born, make his mark already at just 14 years old. At the 2016 Under-16 European Championship tournament held in Poland, Garuba was named the youngest most outstanding player in the tournament’s history and led Spain to the title. But pay close attention to his final numbers against Lithuania; a triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds and no less than 10 (!!!) blocks. Overall, Garuba averaged an incredible 16.3 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game in the tournament, while being the second youngest player in the entire competition. Garua also had great success at the 2019 Under-18 European Championship held in Greece, where he helped his birth country capture the gold with averages of 15.6 points and 12.9 rebounds.
“I don’t believe in future stars. With effort, commitment and passion on the court any goal is possible to achieve. From an early age, Garuba dominated with his talent in each category that he participated in as well as his performances with the Spanish National teams. For years, Real Madrid has been working very well with young players as they help them make the journey to the first team where they can show everything that they have learned. We saw it with Luka Doncic and we are seeing it now with Usman and with the arrival of Boris Tisma,” said Gomez about the Madrid prodigy.
Gomez also spoke about Usman’s strengths and weaknesses on the court, “Last season confirmed that Garuba is another option for Real Madrid in the paint. This coming season should be one with settlement and growth, with more responsibility and decision-making for the benefit of the team. In both competitions he must be in the paint contributing while his versatility is his biggest advantage, a modern center with several offensive resources. His disadvantage is on defense, where he must continue to learn and fight with taller and stronger centers than him.”
There is also an Israeli connection to Garuba’s story. Against Maccabi Tel Aviv at the Under-18 Euroleague tournament in January 2019, Garuba and Real Madrid met Deni Avdija and the Yellow & Blue. Garuba dominated the floor in Germany with 22 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists as Real took apart the Maccabi youth 96-58. One of the players who featured in that game was Raziel Hayun who scored 13 points including a 3-pointer on the Spaniards head.
Hayun talked passionately about Garuba, “He has extraordinary physical abilities, he’s a super athlete,” but it doesn’t end there. Hayun told an amazing story about Garuba from their time together in Munich, “I was able hang out with him at the hotel for a while after the Euroleague tournament and he was a really nice kid. Ben Meiri and I (who played with him at Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth department) bought him water in the hotel lobby because he didn’t have his wallet with him and we sat with him for a while and talked with him. He’s a really nice guy.”
“He’s an excellent, talented player, who from year to year adds more elements to his game which is always good,” continued Hayun. Although he may have hit a triple against Garuba, the Israeli recognized that the budding star has plenty to offer at both ends of the court, “He’s the best defender that I have seen at the youth level and even at the senior level in my eyes.” Garuba eventually helped Real win the Euroleague Youth Tournament that saw the final stages played in Vitoria, Spain.
Garuba is expected to be a significant part of Pablo Laso’s rotation for the 2020/21 season and while this may be his last year in Europe before heading to the NBA, Gomez spoke about the importance of this upcoming campaign, “As I mentioned before, Garuba must have a relevant role in the paint both in the ACB and Euroleague too. Laso and his staff are aware of Usman’s constant growth, so they will know the exact moment as to when he will be able to give his best performance on the court. He’ll be a young center in the rotation who brings intimidation on defense, with strength and offensive talent near the hoop.”
When talking about a can’t miss European prospect like Garuba, Deni Avdija’s name obviously comes up as well. Despite Maccabi Tel Aviv being overwhelmed by Real Madrid at the Euroleague Youth Tournament, Avdija scored 18 points, grabbed 11 boards and dished out 6 assists. “Both are two of the youngest prospects coming out of Europe. They faced each other numerous times over the previous years and they know each other very well. Avdija has confidence and is heading to the NBA Draft where he will be selected in the first round. While Garuba is progressing a bit differently, Real worked with him in order for him to take advantage of his height and position so that one day he will have the ability to reach the NBA as well.”
With his impressive qualities and expectations, Garuba is predicted to be the top European player selected in the 2021 NBA Draft which will place him around seventh overall. Garuba will have to withstand the pressure from his home country and across the basketball world. Only time will tell how far Garuba can go in his career, but his starting point is relatively good for his age. Rest assured that when he eventually reaches the NBA and becomes a star in the best league in the world, he will already have a wallet bursting with cash and no one will need to buy him a bottle of water.