Even a day at the beach got a little stressful for Santiago Aldama Toledo.
During a break in the FIBA U18 European Championship in Volos, Greece, the 18-year-old forward for the Spanish national team who has shortened his name to Santi Aldama, sought some down time by relaxing with teammates along the waters of the Pagasetic Gulf. But he was besieged by other beachgoers for autographs and pictures.
“It felt a little bit different,” Aldama said of his newfound popularity. “It was fun, but in some ways, it was also stressful because I wanted to talk with some people.”
The 6-foot-11, 210-pound Aldama’s rise to stardom was cemented by his performance in propelling Spain to its first European title since 2011 and fourth overall. In the seven-game tournament, he ranked third among all players in scoring (18.0 points per game), ninth in rebounds (7.6), third in blocks (2.3), 14th in steals (1.9) and 23rd in assists (2.6). He scored at least 19 points in all four of his country’s elimination games, including 23 in a 57-53 win over Turkey in the gold medal game Aug. 4.
And Aldama, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, will cross the Atlantic Ocean later this month and make his American debut in November for Loyola Maryland.
Coach Tavaras Hardy is excited about the prospect of molding Aldama.
“He brings us instantly someone that is a winner,” Hardy said. “He’s extremely talented. He’s very versatile, so we can play him in all different places on the floor. And I think our guys are really going to enjoy his personality.
"He’s not one that cares about stats or individual awards. He cares about the things you want — winning, being a great teammate, impacting the university, impacting the community, representing his home and family well. All those things are what matter to him.”
Although Aldama might be an unfamiliar name to Greyhounds fans and the Baltimore basketball community, he is a budding talent, according to Fox Sports college basketball analyst Evan Daniels.
“He’s a bona-fide high-major player,” said Daniels, who singled out Aldama in a recent column. “Aldama is one of the biggest recruiting steals I’ve seen in years. For a player of that caliber to go to the Patriot League is really impressive. This kid is a high-major talent, and we’ve now ranked him among the top 60 [first-year] players in America.”
Aldama’s path to Loyola was paved by the presence of assistant coach Ivo Simovic, who has known Aldama’s father, also named Santiago. Aldama’s father played in the Spanish and Portuguese professional basketball leagues and was a member of the Spanish national team that played against the U.S.' “Dream Team” in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
Aldama said any doubts he had about playing for the Greyhounds dissipated after meeting Hardy and visiting the campus in June 2018.
“Playing basketball in America has always been a dream for me,” he said. “But I knew I would have to make that decision when I was older. Last year, I was thinking about it. I chose America because I think I can get a good school degree with a lot of good basketball competition.”
Aldama is part of a five-member freshman class for Loyola that recently was cited by CBBCentral.com as one of five underrated mid-major recruiting classes. Daniels said Aldama could make an instant impact for the Greyhounds, who finished last season 11-21 overall and 7-11 in the Patriot League.
“He’s got good size and length and mobility. He’s extremely fluid,” Daniels said. “He can step out on the floor and make jump shots. He’s got good hands, a nice touch around the basket, and he’s also an active rebounder that will protect the rim. So it was a pretty impressive performance from him.”
Aldama said adding about 13 pounds over the past year helped him attack opponents in the tournament.
“I felt far more comfortable,” he said. “I noticed the physical difference with the opponents. I felt like I was bigger now and I could a lot more things. So I felt much better.”
Golden Dike, who will join Aldama this fall at Loyola after also playing for the Spanish national team, said his countrymate seized the reins in Greece.
“I was really surprised because I have never seen that of Santi,” Dike said. “He was really shy. He was a leader, but he didn’t talk a lot and he’s a team player. But at the European Championship, he was the leader of the team. He shot a lot of 3s, he willed us to the victory. He was amazing.”
Hardy, the Greyhounds coach, had initially planned to leave Greece after the quarterfinal round. But after gauging the reaction from Aldama and Dike when he floated the idea of staying for the Spanish team’s entire run, Hardy changed his return flight home and added a few more nights to his hotel.
“It was good for me to see the impact he has on the game without scoring the ball,” he said. “His ability to shoot, his ability to score in a lot of different ways was known through the film we watched and looking at his numbers from the Canterbury [Academy in Spain]. But being able to watch him in tough competition be able to rebound, defend and make the passes that he was able to make, that for me was really rewarding and exciting to see.”
Aldama acknowledged that his performances during the European Championship boosted his confidence.
“It gives me a lot of motivation,” he said. “It just makes me want to work harder to do great things in the Patriot League. I think we can be champions. So that’s my next goal.”
Aldama said he plans to arrive on campus later this month with Dike following a few days later. He laughed at the idea that his popularity might precede him.
“I have to keep working,” he said. “I’ve done nothing. So I know I have to keep working. If I’m popular, that’s good, but as I said before, I just need to keep working and stay in my lane.”