Argentine basketball is long past the Generación Dorada (Golden Generation) days of the legendary team that won the Olympic gold medal at Athens 2004. The Albiceleste’s last claim to glory was as the runners-up finish in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. However, that was more a pleasant surprise than a realistic expectation, and four years later Argentina failed to qualify for this year’s men’s tournament.
While former greats continued to unleash heavy criticisms about the country’s performance, Argentina quietly reached the quarter-finals of the 2023 Under-19 FIBA World Cup, finishing fifth overall with big prospects coming through the ranks.
The Herald met with Mariano Marcos, the head of Youth Teams for CAB, the Argentina Basketball Confederation, and Raúl Ruscitti, a journalist specializing in youth basketball, to discuss how Argentina is looking for the next golden generation.
“The main focus is the potential,” said Marcos, who has 32 years of experience working in youth basketball. “Sometimes you come across a player who can score 40 points in their age group and people say ‘they should be in the national team,’ but you have the eye to know how a player could develop. Across national teams, we don’t select the best players for their age group, but those we believe will be the best when they reach the top.”
Since young players make their debut in international tournaments which happen every two years, their start can be delayed depending on when they reach 17 years old. The main competitions are the under-17 World Cup and the under-19 World Cup. That means that players born in even-numbered years start later, disqualified from both youth tournaments because they are either too young or too old when they roll around.
“We do the Federal Development Plans to avoid that delay,” said Marcos. “They’re training camps done all over the country where we look at the different players’ talents and their biotype (body shape characteristics).”
“We work in conjunction with the EDAs (Argentine Sporting Schools, a government plan for sports initiation) across the country, working with 12 or 13-year-old kids. Coaches send us reports, so we can follow up on them from an early age.”
There have also been changes in identifying promise in a young player. For a long time, height was seen as one of Argentine basketball’s biggest disadvantages, and the development programs in the country placed a big emphasis on it, but that’s no longer the case.
“It was important at the time, to get clubs and provincial federations to pay more attention to tall players. Today we put a bigger focus on talent, mentality and potential,” Marcos said. “We look at kids who can turn into international-level players. Although we don’t have a crystal ball so we aren’t always right.”
“CAB does a lot of work on the national stage,” said Ruscitti. “The Federal Development League and the Argentine Championships (tournaments played between provincial teams) are played across all ages. This provides a massive volume of players for national team coaches to analyze and select.”
With that large talent pool and fresh off its fifth-place finish in the 2023 Under-19 FIBA World Cup, Argentina has a number of players coming up through the ranks.
Perhaps none has garnered more attention than Lee Aaliya, who recently declared for the University of Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA, the United States college athletics league. Aaliya was also chosen to be part of Argentina’s men’s national basketball team by head coach Pablo Prigioni, among other young players.
“Those opportunities are important”, said Marcos. “Players often finished their development process with the Under-19 team and then lost their link with the national teams until they were called for the senior team aged 20, 22, or even 25. It’s important they keep a connection with the national team staff.”
Aaliya is not the only new talent coming up the ranks. Ruscitti pointed to younger players Felipe Minzer, Ivan Pratto and Tyler Kropp who follow closely behind and “shone in the FIBA Under-16 Americas Championship.”
Minzer came through at Santa Paula de Gálvez and is now playing with Casademont Zaragoza, where he became the youngest Argentine player to debut in the Spanish league. Pratto, for his part, came through at Villa María and is now part of Pallacanestro Varese in Italy. Luis Scola, former Golden Generation basketball player, is part owner and director. Meanwhile, Kropp was born in the US to an Argentine mother and chose to represent Argentina while playing for Olentangy Liberty High School in Ohio.
“It will depend on how hard they work,” said Marcos, for whom the job is far from done. “Development is a continuous process.
“It’s also important that parents are supportive, and allow players to enjoy this stage in their careers. They’re developing not only physically and technically, but also psychologically.”
New career trajectories
Going to the NCAA, like Aaliya, is a relatively unusual career path for Argentine players, who have had more luck in the European leagues. However, Marcos pointed to the varied trajectories of national players over the years as proof that success in basketball doesn’t follow a single course.
“We all have a favorite path, but that doesn’t mean we’re right.” he told the Herald. “The talented players will always make it, no matter which road they choose.”
In the days of the Golden Generation, there were many Argentine NBA players, which is often regarded as the best basketball league in the world. Now, with the departure of Facundo Campazzo, Luca Vildoza and Leandro Bolmaro, there are no remaining Argentines in the US league. However, Marcos and Ruscitti agree it’s not a cause for major concern.
“It’s understandable due to the big exposure the NBA has for the average fan,” said Ruscitti. “The gap between the Euroleague and the NBA has shrunk [and] there are top European players who decide not to move to the NBA, because it’s a different style of play.”
“I’m not sure [getting more players in the NBA] is a goal to aim for,” said Marcos. “Clearly if we had more players in the NBA we’d be a stronger team, but then again maybe you can’t call them up and you miss out on your objectives. Our goal is that our players are always improving, and if that happens, the NBA will come.”