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2021 NBA draft: Loyola Maryland’s Santi Aldama eager to ‘leave a mark’ with Memphis Grizzlies after surprising first-round pick

Santi Aldama realized a childhood dream when the former Loyola Maryland forward was selected Thursday night by the Memphis Grizzlies with the No. 30 overall pick to end the first round of the NBA draft. But in the aftermath, he was still grasping the achievement.

“I am still letting the fact I was drafted sink in,” Aldama said from the Canary Islands, an autonomous community of Spain’s off the coast of Morocco where he celebrated his new future with his family, Greyhounds coach Tavaras Hardy, assistant coach Ivo Simovic, and sports information director Ryan Eigenbrode. “I cannot describe what I am feeling right now. It is what I have been working for, but it is only the beginning. Of course, the goal was to be in this position, but my end goal was not just to be in the NBA, but to leave a mark. Right now, with Memphis, my goal is to have great years and to have a long relationship and achieve great things.”

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When Memphis chose Aldama on Thursday night, he became only the fourth player in Patriot League history to hear his name called during the draft since it went to a two-round format in 1989. He joined an exclusive club that began with Colgate’s Adonal Foyle picked by the Golden State Warriors in the first round in 1997 and included Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round and Bucknell’s Mike Muscala picked by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round in 2013.

The honor roll among the Greyhounds is even shorter. Shooting guard Mike Morrison was selected by the Phoenix Suns in the second round with the 51st pick in 1989.

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Hardy predicted Aldama could contribute quickly for the Grizzlies.

“Memphis is a great organization with a lot of incredible young talent that I think he will be able to grow with,” Hardy said. “The way they play fits his game perfectly.”

The Grizzlies’ decision to choose Aldama elicited a range of reactions from other outlets. While the pick drew a D- from Sports Illustrated and a D from Bleacher Report, it earned a B from SB Nation and a B- from USA Today.

The 6-foot-11, 224-pound Aldama wrapped up a sophomore season this past winter in which he paced the Patriot League in rebounds at 10.1 per game and ranked second in points at 21.2, becoming a first-team player in the conference and the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ All-District XIII. He emerged as the first player in league history — and the only player in NCAA Division I — to finish a campaign averaging at least 18 points, eight rebounds, two assists and 1.5 blocks and was only the second player in conference history to average 20 points and 10 rebounds after Foyle first established that standard in 1995-96 and 1996-97.

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Loyola Maryland's Santi Aldama became only the fourth player in Patriot League history to hear his name called during the draft since it went to a two-round format in 1989.
Loyola Maryland's Santi Aldama became only the fourth player in Patriot League history to hear his name called during the draft since it went to a two-round format in 1989. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Aldama became one of just two players in the country to average 20 points and 10 rebounds, joining Austin Peay guard/forward Terry Taylor (21.6 points and 11.1 rebounds). He completed the season ranked 12th in the nation in points, 14th in rebounds, fifth in defensive rebounds (8.3), 48th in blocks (1.7) and 69th in field-goal percentage (.513).

Despite those gaudy numbers, initial mock drafts did not have Aldama projected in the first two rounds. But after a series of strong workouts, Aldama began to creep into the back end of those mock drafts, ranging between Nos. 40 to 55.

As surprising as moving into the last slot of the first round might have been, Aldama said he had faith in what he had shown potential suitors.

“I trusted the work that I put in,” he said. “I trusted the coaches. I trusted the process of what I went through, and I knew that I could be in a position to be picked where I was.”

After selecting Stanford forward Ziaire Williams with the 10th overall pick, the Grizzlies reportedly traded the No. 40 pick and two future second-round choices to the Utah Jazz to move back into the first round to grab Aldama. He might have been aided by Simovic’s relationship with Grizzlies assistant coach Darko Rajakovic as they coached together for a long time in Serbia and remain close friends.

Aldama joins a core of young players that includes Williams, point guard Ja Morant and power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. on a team that was middle-of-the-road on both offense (15th of 30 at 113.3 points per game) and defense (16th at 112.3). The Grizzlies finished 38-34 and claimed in the eighth seed in the Western Conference before losing to the top-seeded Jazz in the first round in five games.

“I can add a bit of everything with versatility for Memphis,” said Aldama, who shot 36.8% (32-for-87) from 3-point range. “I can play outside, and I can play inside to try to help out as much as possible.”

Hardy said Aldama’s perimeter shooting could provide spacing on the floor and force opponents to avoid double-teaming Jackson in the paint.

“Santi can continue to use and build on the skills he has shown at Loyola,” Hardy said. “Santi is a total package when you look at the way that he carries himself off the court and his versatility on. He will do whatever it takes to win, but his teammates also are going to love him.”

When Aldama entered his name into the NBA draft in April, he emphasized that he would return to Loyola if he was not satisfied with what he heard from NBA scouts. He said not joining his teammates for his last two seasons will be one of his biggest regrets.

“I will miss the time I had with my teammates at Loyola,” he said. “I have great memories, going to classes with them, practices and living with them.”

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