Player Spotlight: Juan Nunez - manufacturing the youngest ever MVP
PODGORICA (Montenegro) - Spanish point guard Juan Nunez, who just turned 18 years old last June, became on Sunday the youngest ever player to claim FIBA U20 European Championship MVP honors, following his team's triumph over Lithuania in the Final.
Thanks to his passing wizardry, Nunez has long been regarded as one of the best prospects in his age group. Following his excellent performances throughout the tournament in Podgorica, it's time for FIBA contributor Marius Flachenecker to take a look at his performances, his skillset and his potential.
OFFENSE – PASSING MAGICIAN
Juan Nunez might be the best passer in youth basketball worldwide, reminiscent of European greats like Milos Teodosic, Sergio Rodriguez and Luka Doncic in terms of his passing skill, vision and flashiness. The 18-year-old reads the game rapidly and displays tremendous passing vision. He consistently finds open teammates all over the court, regularly reading multiple help defenders in the process.
He's also astonishingly creative, often throwing fancy passes and showing the ability to hit the open man from various angles and with either hand off the dribble. Furthermore, he impresses with the accuracy and velocity of his passes. His dimes surpass opposing players before they even know what's happening, and often land right in his teammates' shot pocket.
While his passing is exceptional, there are remaining questions about his ability to pressure defenses as a scorer. Nunez is an average athlete and struggles to create advantages in one-on-one scenarios. He's terrific at using screens to create driving lanes by curling tight around the screener and putting defenders on his back. to maintain the advantage.
The young Spaniard picked apart opponents in Podgorica every time they played drop defense against him in the pick-and-roll. When he gets into the paint, he shows a soft lefty floater and good touch with either hand, even if he lacks the bounce to finish against contact. Against switches, however, he struggled to get by bigger players and therefore had his effectiveness as a passer stifled in those moments. Eight total free-throw attempts in 143 minutes are also a sign of a lack of rim pressure. His style of play is very well-suited to the European game, but he'd have to improve as a scorer to become an impact player in the NBA.
One way to achieve that could be to improve his jump shot. Historically, Nunez is a below average shooter, who only attempts jumpers at a low frequency. This tournament was a step in the right direction. While he still only attempted shots from distance when he had to, he knocked them down more consistently and it was his main weapon for attacking switches throughout this year's FIBA U20 Championship. His shooting mechanics are slightly unorthodox: there's a pause at the top of his shot, during which his body turns to the side – a potential tweak in the future. While Nunez is ways away from being a knockdown shooter, he certainly showed potential in Podgorica, which lends hope for the future.
DEFENSE – ACTIVE AND SMART
Nunez was also able to make a positive impact on defense. Defending the ball, he cut off driving lanes consistently and did a solid job of preventing his matchups from getting to their spots in the pick-and-roll by forcing them away from screens. Still, there's plenty of room to improve: at times, he allowed players to slip by him too easily and he struggled in certain matchups, because of his limited physicality. Like any 18-year-old, he still needs to get significantly stronger to handle the athletes he'll face at higher levels.
Off the ball, Nunez influenced the game as a help defender at the nail and by making plays in passing lanes. As a nail help, he displays impressive timing to catch drivers off guard and often caused trouble with his quick hands. In passing lanes, he showed impressive anticipation and regularly swooped bad passes out of the air.
Importantly, however, the newly crowned MVP is a risk-taker. He regularly over-helped or roamed around off-ball in an attempt to gamble for steals. While this was rarely punished by opponents during the tournament, he will have to get more disciplined as he faces professional competition.
Juan Nunez played an excellent tournament in Podgorica and was deservedly rewarded with the MVP trophy in the end. With his exceptional passing skills and ability to run a team, the 18-year-old has a case for being the most talented player in the whole competition.
If he continues to develop well, Nunez should thrive at the European level long-term: he can become a staple in the top club competitions as well as for the Spanish senior national team, which will be looking to ring in the next generation of Spanish guards after the legendary era of Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sergio Llull or Sergio Rodriguez.
Regarding his projection as a potential NBA player, concerns remain about his ability to pressure the rim, his jump shot and how his tools and athleticism translate, especially on defense. If there's one type of player you don't want to bet against, however, it's the one with an exceptional understanding of the game.