By Artau Pascual

On this day last week, the U18 European Championship came to an end with Serbia being crowned as the European Champion after winning the final game against Spain, the NT that won the two last U18 events. Nikola Topic headlined his team and controlled the whole game. 

The tournament was, overall, the best one we’ve seen so far this summer in terms of prospects upside and competitiveness. One of the players who shined the most in Nis was the number 1 in the new Eurohopes 2006-born ranking, who also was the first-ranked player in the previous edition: Hugo González. The 6’6 Real Madrid wing earned a place in the All-Tournament Five and established himself on the NBA radar.

An unconventional star

Everyone in Europe knew about Hugo González’s game before the U18 European Championship. The U17 World Cup performance put his name on the map, and his season with Real Madrid has been outstanding in terms of awards and exposure, so there was no secret about who he is and what he does. The point is that, in all these teams and tournaments, including the recent U18, he hasn’t cemented his status as a primary ball-handler role with the green light to make high-risk decisions. He has been more of an elite role guy who has turned into the best player in the margins of the game. Kind of a jack of all trades who has shown improvements event after event on almost everything. Real Madrid was Jan Vide’s team in the crunch time, and this Spanish NT was oriented to Aday Mara and gave a prominent role to Lucas Langarita because of his chemistry with the brand-new UCLA big. This makes his case even more fascinating because, while we are still waiting to determine how high his ceiling is, we can already project him doing a huge amount of valuable things at an elite level.

During the whole U18, Hugo played with a relentless motor on both ends of the court. He was the first guy to hustle back in transition, he didn’t hesitate to put his body on the line to draw charges, and he embraced contact and physicality from the very first moment. In the most difficult moments for the Spanish NT, he was the guy who set the tone for the rest of the roster. We are talking about an NBA-caliber athlete. If we add to the mix the level of engagement he had both cheering for his teammates and communicating on defense or talking to himself in in-game situations, the result is a player with a really high floor at age 17.

Hugo González on the offensive end

Hugo González is a slasher. He puts an insane amount of rim pressure because of his size and athleticism and has the tools to be a high-level driver and a reliable finisher. While he still has to polish his handles and footwork to create his looks in tight spaces, he’s already nearly unstoppable when the defense is not set or when he can start the drive in the open court. His productivity in straight lines jumps off the page because he has the burst, speed and strength to get past everyone. 

Without the ball he also finds ways to produce in the paint. He’s an above-average offensive rebounder for a player of his size due to the mix of feel and willingness he has to follow every shot, and he’s also an active off-ball cutter with remarkable instincts to cut and relocate. This is a big reason why his floor is so high: it’s easier to find ways to produce in high-level environments if you have the habit of being active without the ball and want to grab the board more than the other nine players on the floor. The spot-up shot is still a work in progress: it’s one of the parts of his game that is clearly streaky, but during the season we’ve seen some consistent stretches where he’s been efficient from the 3PT line. The shooting mechanics look way better than last season: it’s not a textbook shot, but he feels confident and comfortable with it and it looks like it will be translatable to the next stages.

Hugo has many ways to go as an on-ball creator. We must separate two things in this area: on the one hand, he’s been able to handle slight usage increases when he’s been asked to do it. He’s a smart player with good courtmapping skills and fine touch to pass. On the other hand, we still have not seen him in the position of having to consistently make decisions from a standstill or create offense out of nowhere, which is a key area to determine his potential. He can handle the ball with either hand -he’s done some huge improvements during the season with the left hand-, he’s not stiff at all and turns directions well. He can also change the pace and eventually will be able to decelerate because the game will slow down in his eyes. As of right now, he’s not good enough either to create his pull-ups off the dribble: his pullback dribble isn’t fluid enough, and he could do a few adjustments to speed up his mechanics and square process to unleash it. 

We can see his scoring prowess when he creates a previous advantage moving off the ball. He’s good at coming off screens and makes quickly the right read. In his tenure with Real Madrid, as well as with the Spanish NT, we’ve seen him producing a lot in curl situations both squaring up for the shot or feeding the roller. He takes the screen very well and gets a key distance from the defender because of his speed. His feel to operate in the mid-range in these situations is good: he can shoot, throw a lob or dribble and finish in the paint. This will be even more valuable when he finally becomes able to find the three-point line in these actions and starts interacting with wider spaces in better levels of competition. 

Hugo González on the defensive end

That’s what fuels his game right now. While on the offensive end, we can see some short-term value skills and easy improvement paths for different areas, on the defensive end Hugo González is a leader and a game-changer. He thrives as a weakside defender, and he’s as active and pesky as it gets against ball handlers.

Standing at 6’6, Hugo is an outstanding leaper with great jump timing and technique. This, added to his lower body activity when he’s off the ball, establishes him as an incredible weakside defender specialist. He understands perfectly how to rotate and provides rim protection and versatility. The amount of ground he covers, added to his ability to recover distances, is a difference-making factor. We also have to talk about his contribution in helps, an area where he has received many comparisons with Real Madrid’s player Rudy Fernández: he’s great at jumping passing lanes, bumps bigs when they are rolling to the paint and anticipates the offense not only because of his athletic attributes but because of how quick he processes what’s happening. His athleticism could make it up for his own mistakes, but at this point, it’s more of an emergency solution to resolve collective issues than something oriented to his own game.

Hugo was the main on-ball defender in the Spanish NT. His exciting energy, high-level lateral quickness and willingness to slide screens or minimize the effect of the switches were incredibly valuable for Spain’s scheme. He did a great job mirroring ball handlers both in wide or tight spaces, played well with the distance against crafty guards with a lower center of gravity and recovered well to deter or block jumpers. It’s difficult to create separation against a player with Hugo’s spatial control and athletic attributes.

Hugo has the tools to be a great defender. At this point, and considering the tools are already on the table, it all will be about how he’ll be able to implement them to the next level and how he’ll interact with more talent and better spaces. The main reason to be optimistic about this, as well as about all the other question marks, is that he’s always adjusted his game to the bar and requirements of every level of competition he’s been at. Real Madrid will have to find the happy middle of giving him a prominent role as a ball-handler in the U18 team and providing him with much-needed playing time with the Senior team.