Student-athlete Santi Aldama becomes first Loyola NBA first-round draft pick
Basketball player shares his experiences finding a home at Loyola and then with the Memphis Grizzlies
The news of a 6-foot-11 basketball player with guard-like skills who might come to Loyola sent many people scrambling for an atlas.
Where is Gran Canaria, exactly? What country is that a part of?
As the crow flies, Santi Aldama’s home in Las Palamas sits less than 150 miles off the northwestern coast of Africa. Gran Canaria is an archipelago of seven main islands in the Atlantic Ocean that are a municipality of Spain.
When we got to campus, I knew that I wanted to be there. Looking back at that, I couldn’t be happier with my decision, and I am so proud of that.
The area is not exactly a hotbed for basketball recruiting, but Loyola men’s basketball staff, in particular Head Coach Tavaras Hardy and then-Assistant Coach Ivo Simović, knew what they had found. Through connections as a European coach and club director, Simović knew Santi Aldama’s father, Santiago, a former Spanish National Team player and professional athlete. This connection led to recruiting a player who would become the University’s first-ever player to be selected in the NBA Draft’s first round.
But first, Aldama would visit Baltimore and the Evergreen campus and see if Loyola was a fit.
“I listened to Coach Hardy, saw Ivo again, and after the first day, I told my dad, ‘I think this is my spot,’” Aldama, who is now in his second year playing with the Memphis Grizzlies, said. “When we got to campus, I knew that I wanted to be there. Looking back at that, I couldn’t be happier with my decision, and I am so proud of that.”
Aldama’s preternatural basketball skills were soon on display in practice. He could handle the ball like a guard, shoot like a wing, and defend and post like a traditional big man. A minor knee injury sidelined him for all but the last 10 games of his first year in 2019-20—and yet he averaged 15.2 points and 7.6 rebounds in those contests and earned Patriot League All-Rookie honors.
We knew that he had NBA-level skills and would be a tremendous player on the court, but as important was who Santi is as a person. He was extremely dedicated to his studies, and he fully bought into the culture we have created around Loyola basketball.
His transition on the court was made easier by feeling at home on the Evergreen campus.
“Especially as an 18-year-old, you go home, and it’s normal to feel homesick. I never felt away from home. Loyola was my second home,” he said.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the beginning of his sophomore year, Aldama’s name increasingly became part of NBA Draft conversations during the 17 games he played in 2020-21. He led the conference in scoring (21.2) and rebounds (10.1). He earned All-Patriot League First Team honors and was named to the Academic All-Patriot League squad with a grade-point average north of 3.6.
“While recruiting Santi, it was evident he was the type of student-athlete we wanted to be a part of our basketball program,” Hardy said. “We knew that he had NBA-level skills and would be a tremendous player on the court, but as important was who Santi is as a person. He was extremely dedicated to his studies, and he fully bought into the culture we have created around Loyola basketball.”
When I heard my name, I had an out-of-body experience. It was an emotional moment having so many people there. The next day, when I had time to relax and sit down with my family, I said, ‘Wow, this just happened.’
Notably, his dream of playing professionally was tangible as he was squarely in the sights of NBA front offices. Aldama declared for the NBA Draft after that season and, following months of working out in his native Spain, he sat with his parents, brother, family, friends, Hardy, Simović, and others to watch the NBA Draft on July 29, 2021.
With the draft taking place in New York, it was nearly 3 a.m. on July 30 in Gran Canaria when a hush fell over the room. The Utah Jazz made the final pick of the opening round. Knowing that the pick was going to be immediately traded to the Grizzlies—a team that had expressed high interest in Aldama—the anticipation was high.
“When I heard my name, I had an out-of-body experience,” said Aldama. “It was an emotional moment having so many people there. The next day, when I had time to relax and sit down with my family, I said, ‘Wow, this just happened.’”
Aldama immediately flew back to the United States and headed to Memphis to begin his professional career. He debuted in the NBA Summer League and then saw action in 32 NBA games as a rookie. His first full offseason brought a chance to work out full-time with coaches and staff, refining his shooting and defense—measures that have paid off greatly in the 2022-23 season.
Through almost 60 games in his current season, Aldama is averaging more than nine points and almost five rebounds per game while playing a key role in the Grizzlies’ rotation as they sit near the top of the NBA Western Conference standings.
“Taking what I have learned from my minutes at Loyola and with the Grizzlies, I focused on my shot and my defense, and that has helped me contribute to this team,” Aldama says.
“Confidence is probably more than half of what you’re doing. The mind is a very powerful weapon.”