By Artau Pascual

Last week Eurohopes was in Ulm, Germany, to get a close look at Ratiopharm Ulm’s facilities, as well as to attend the games the local team played against Crailsheim Hakro Merlins and Zacharie Risacher’s JL Bourg. One of the players we had the chance to evaluate live was 2004-born Spanish PG Juan Nuñez.

Nuñez, 19, is probably the funniest player to evaluate in Europe this season. He’s a unique passer and a fierce competitor who, while undeniably still growing and merely scratching the surface of his game, shows an impressive level of maturity and self-awareness. He has already turned into the main ball handler and director of operations of one of the high-end teams in Germany -as well as a Eurocup contender-. This is, probably, the only possible outcome a player who has walked his path could end up getting. When we discuss Juan Nuñez, we discuss a player who’s as used as a 19-year-old basketball player could be to the pressure. He just likes embracing responsibilities and loves finding new challenges to reach the next stages of his game. His best strength, in fact, is he’s been able to adjust to every level he’s been at; that’s impressive considering he has usually competed at every competition being an underage player.

Read the full interview here.

Juan Nuñez didn’t play his best game of the season against JL Bourg. However, he was able to impact the game in the way he uses to do for some stretches. He also turned into a big reason why Ulm had a chance to win the game down the stretch after erasing a +20-point deficit.

Nuñez’s floor and ceiling as an advantage creator

Juan Nuñez’s biggest trait as a basketball player is his prowess at creating advantages. He can put any of his teammates in a favorable spot to score. As a passer, Nuñez is elite at mapping the court and has what it takes to turn every decision he makes into reality. It’s common to see players at this age being able to dominate 2vs2 game or 3vs3; in fact, that’s what most of the best Guards in Europe do, but the Spanish product will make you pay for any minimal defensive gap by recognizing the position of every one of his four teammates.

Nuñez’s skillset for pick&roll offense includes every attribute a ball-handler needs to establish himself as a difference-making passer. Better than with the typical sentence about playmakers “there’s no pass he can’t do”, we should refer to him as “there’s no pass he can’t see”. He can go either direction dribbling because of his ball control with both hands, and his ability to manipulate the scheme by using the eyes is out of the charts. Finally, he has the fluidity to keep the angles alive when he gets to the screen, and the above-mentioned courtmapping and quick-scanning talents do the rest of the job. He has all the cognitive talents to translate his decision-making to any level he plays at.

Now we also have to add to the mix his scoring growth. As Nuñez insisted many times in our interview, one of his main focuses on developing has been the improvement of his scoring ability, and this is starting to translate in the game. During the season he has solidly demonstrated his strides as a shooter: he’s able to shoot the ball fluidly off the pullback dribble, his lower body looks consistent shot after shot and his mechanics now always look the same.  Erasing from the sample the forced shots, his off-the-dribble results in the span we’ve seen of the 2023/24 year are good. We have a deep breakdown done by himself in the above-attached interview, so let’s focus on his development as a finisher.

So, at this point, one of Juan Nuñez’s go-to moves for scoring is the layup high off the glass. That’s a logical outcome for his building: he’s a well-framed, 6’4 Guard with elite touch and high-level footwork, who has to adjust to having average athletic tools by optimizing the ones he has and understanding how he can add them to his game. This leads him to rely a lot on how well he’s able to choose the pace of the game when he’s the one handling the ball, and, especially, on his ability to turn the corner. He can stop and go, get the defender wrong by hesitations, or pick up low the dribble to make it tougher for the defender. Let’s add to the mix he’s good enough at changing directions and rejecting the screen. This finish, the high layup off the glass, is also about quickly identifying the defensive scheme and finding ways to produce on the drive without the need to get to the restricted area. When he does so, we can also find out how good his body control and balance are.

As for passing, unpredictability is also the main strength of Nuñez’s scoring repertoire. Efficiency is already a work in progress -this point of sharpness doesn’t come as natural to his game-, but this attribute is essential to make it up for any other lack at the highest stages. Juan Nuñez can finish with the above-mentioned layup high off the glass and has elite fundamentals to finish with the inside hand. He also finds solutions to operate with the same foot-same hand finishes -a fairly good Ricky Rubio impersonation- and protects well his position in both overhand or underhand finishes.

The next step for him as an offensive threat is, undoubtedly, finding his game in the mid-range area. He already meets the technical requirements to create differences there. Nuñez is the type of pick&roll handler who could end up being able to play in that range like guards in the elite do as soon as he makes some slight in-game improvements as a mid-range scorer. That’s what will unleash a new passing dimension for him. He explained clearly in the interview he’s putting a ton of work during Summers on adding some counters to his game inside the perimeter, and results will show up.
That’s something I’ve been working on a lot in the last two or three Summers when I trained with Raúl López. Getting past my defender, holding the advantage freezing him or snaking, waiting to figure out what the big will do and then deciding if it’s better to finish with a floater or pass the ball. I know that’s something I have to focus on, but I’m also happy about my development in the last year or so.

Juan Nuñez’s defensive impact

A fun part of Juan Nuñez’s development is he’s probably taken a leap on defense this season. The word to define this leap is not exactly “unexpected”, but It’s clearly something that didn’t figure on the radar.

Nuñez will never be a point-of-attack defender. He has a good lower body for European standards which helps him a lot to build his offensive game on his strengths. It’s as true, as it will likely not be enough to turn him into a player who can guard the opponent ball handler. However, the fan part of it is that this isn’t even the defensive area where he can impact the game currently. 

As special as Nuñez is as a ball handler, he also shares some traits with some other ball-handling stars: quick hands, reactivity, and anticipation. Probably the best description of his defensive status was made by himself:
I think I’m an intuitive person. This sometimes makes you commit mistakes, but I like paying attention to second helps and staying engaged in the game when I am guarding off the ball. Being a ball handler also helps me to understand what the opponent will do and which passing lanes I’m willing to give. This is also risky and can lead you to give up some mistakes.

At this point, Nuñez makes good use of his strength in the sense that he
doesn’t gamble too much.He’s at the right spot at the right time, and his foot is always active and under tension to rotate if that’s needed, so if he doesn’t get the steal he doesn’t expose the defense.

A big part of his performance against JL Bourg, however, was no other than two on-ball defenses he did against another NBA prospect: Zacharie Risacher. In these two possessions, Nuñez took advantage of Risacher’s issues at turning the corner with the ball. The possession in the corner is about the appropriate stance, not losing ground and quick and active hands. In the one in the 45-degree area, we see how he’s able to keep the distance and doesn’t allow the French 2005-born gem to get past him using size or speed. It’s not that those sequences are something he’s going to completely translate and use consistently as a main reason to make him stay on the court at the next level. However, it demonstrates his lower body and defensive on-ball awareness should be neither a glaring liability.