Instead of watching the EuroBasket on TV, Alberto Diaz became an integral part of Spain's unforgettable title run. How did he get to this point? Three of his former coaches (Luis Casimiro, Joan Plaza, and Fotis Katsikaris) share their views with BasketNews. 

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

In the EuroBasket tournament populated by NBA stars of various calibers and a EuroLeague standout who first made headlines for his naturalization process and then for his performances, Alberto Diaz looked like an outsider. 

Alberto Diaz

Alberto  Diaz
Position: SG
Age: 28
Height: 188 cm
Weight: 77 kg
Birth place: Spain

Not a star by any means nor a player one would call a safe bet before the EuroBasket tipped off, the 28-year-old guard became a part of another Spanish NT squad that made history. If Spain's entire trajectory can be regarded as one that exceeded all expectations, Diaz is the player that best epitomizes and personifies that story. 

Until August 28, the Unicaja Malaga guard was in Andalusia after not making the cut for EuroBasket. However, the news of Sergio Llull's withdrawal due to injury was about to change everything. 

Coach Sergio Scariolo needed a guard to replace Real Madrid's leading man, and Alberto Diaz was the chosen one.

After a brief consideration, the team's head coach and the Spanish federation's president, Jorge Garbajosa, were confident about who should be Llull's replacement. The 35-year-old's leadership and scoring prowess, even at this age, would be hard to find.

But maybe, that wouldn't be necessary. After all, the EuroBasket is nothing less than a fierce knockout tournament where talent and physicality go hand in hand. 

Garbajosa reportedly called Antonio Jesus Lopez Nieto, former football referee and current president of Unicaja, on August 28. He laid out the scenario to Nieto to explain that Diaz - one of Scariolo's first cuts in August - was indispensable to the team.

Of course, Diaz didn't need much time to be persuaded to come back. He didn't think he was being considered a last-minute patch but a lucky man who was just given another chance to debut in a major tournament. 

"Sometimes, it's a matter of luck. Players get a little sensitive when they get cut and called back. It's not easy, but Alberto has an incredible mentality," former Unicaja Malaga head coach Fotis Katsikaris comments. 

"Here lies the champion's luck; a player is injured, but it turns out that the one who replaces him helps the team much more," Luis Casimiro, another ex-Unicaja bench boss notes.

"Sergio Llull is a player we all know and has great scoring ability. He's a killer. But what Alberto does is give some defensive balance to a team loaded with offensive talent. 

Alberto doesn't need to score. There's Lorenzo Brown for that, the team's leading scorer. I think the Spanish NT wouldn't have been the same without Alberto," Casimiro holds. 

In the first two games of the group stage, against Bulgaria and Georgia, Diaz did well. But the game against Turkey put him on the map for many people who had no idea who the Spanish team's number 9 was. Diaz concluded his brilliant defensive performance with a steal on Shane Larkin that sealed the outcome.

Then came Lithuania and Finland, where the Malaga-born player provided coach Sergio Scariolo with tons of energy.

Against Lithuania, in addition to the offensive foul he drew against his friend and former Unicaja Malaga teammate Domantas Sabonis when the ball was not even in play, he caused two decisive turnovers by Marius Grigonis and Ignas Brazdeikis. The latter was the game's most decisive play, as Brazdeikis himself subsequently committed an unsportsmanlike foul on Lorenzo Brown.

But Germany would be a different case. Diaz had to hold off EuroBasket's most explosive guard in Dennis Schroder. What the newly-signed Lakers guard didn't know was how much of a pest his red-haired, light-skinned defender can be.

Few things can be more annoying in basketball than being defended by a guy like Alberto Diaz. So much so that, despite the 30 points Schroder scored, he could not produce for most of the fourth quarter.

His last basket came with more than seven minutes to play, and the German star player was held scoreless for the remainder of the game. Until the very moment when Alberto made his fifth personal foul, with 23 seconds left, it was all a nightmare for Schroder, and by then, it was also too late. 

Diaz's input was hardly a surprise for those who have coached him. Katsikaris, 55, has spent the better part of his coaching career in Spain. Apart from coinciding with Alberto Diaz for a few months (during the 2020-21 and the 2021-22 campaigns) in Malaga, he's faced him several times as an opponent.

"He's a player every coach would want," the Greek tactician thinks.

"He has an incredible mentality as an athlete. He always plays at 110% and does not know how to practice at a slower pace. I think he's one of the best, if not the best, perimeter defenders in Europe," he goes on to underline.

"Without being particularly explosive or quick, he relies on his space perception, especially when it comes to putting his body in a position to draw offensive rebounds (something that had become the subject of debate in Spain a couple of years ago) against anyone.

His professionalism is at 1000%. Without being particularly creative as a playmaker, he will always perform from 6 to 9 (on a scale from 1 to 10) and will rarely be a liability."

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To the defensive brilliance that Diaz showcased against the EuroBasket hosts, he added 10 points in a game that went down to the wire. With him on the court, Spain boasted an impressive plus/minus balance of +25.

After the match, the Spaniards' offensive hero, Lorenzo Brown (29 points), praised his teammate for his "impressive defense against Schroder in the last quarter."

That +25 in just over 16 minutes on the court is incredible on its own, but if you also compare it with the -20 that the team accumulated in the remaining time, it looks amazing; an adjective another of Diaz's former coaches, Luis Casimiro, would rather avoid. 

"It didn't surprise me. I was aware of his virtues and strengths," says Casimiro, who was Diaz's first coach at the professional level.

However, many people in Spain were indeed rubbing their eyes in disbelief upon watching a role player, who doesn't belong to one of the country's powerhouses, become an important factor in a EuroBasket semifinal.

"Alberto Diaz always had a secondary role at Unicaja. The club would always sign an American point guard with some scoring ability, and Alberto would be a role player," Casimiro confirms. 

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The relationship between the Spanish coach and the newly-crowned EuroBasket champ began in 2012. Casimiro, now 62 and currently coaching Coosur Real Betis, recalls that when the 2011-12 season started, he needed a point guard for the first team because Kristaps Valters had a problem.

Just the day Alberto turned 18 on April 23, 2012, Luis Casimiro asked him to practice with the first team. Unicaja were going through a very shaky period, and Casimiro was facing the challenge of leading the team to the ACB playoffs so that they could also maintain their EuroLeague spot.

"I told the youth team coaches that I wanted two point guards for the first team. Then, they gave me Pepe Pozas and Alberto Diaz, who was 17 years old. He had been practicing with me for a couple of weeks before we played an ACB game in Bilbao," Casimiro remembers. 

Looking back, the former Unicaja Malaga play-caller remembers that Diaz's defensive and passing skills singled him out from players his age. 

"He was thinking more about defending and passing the ball than scoring or shooting. There were enough shooters and scorers on the team. That's why he managed to bring some kind of balance. He defended very hard, he had a big heart and finished the season playing in the first team," Casimiro adds. 

That was the stepping stone that the young guard needed at the time. However, there was an obstacle that all parties involved had to overcome. Diaz's parents were initially very reluctant to hand their son over to a professional basketball club.

Diaz was still a student at the Rosario Moreno school in Malaga, although he had dreamed of becoming a professional player since he was a child.

Thus, Alberto's parents requested a meeting with the president, Eduardo García, and Casimiro himself. Basically, they wanted to know if the boy would play or just fill in because they were very worried about the academic issue.

Diaz was about to take his final high school exams while aiming to study Physical Education and Sport for his Bachelor's degree.

"I was already missing classes because of the trips with Unicaja's second team. My parents saw me more as a student than as a player because they thought you can't combine basketball and studies," the Spanish point guard said in an interview five years ago. 

"His parents told me, 'If you're going to take him because you're going to put him in the game, we agree; but if you're doing it just for show-off and he doesn't play at all, we prefer that he keeps focusing on his school.' And I said, 'No, I'm going to play him.'

His family helped him a lot," Casimiro acknowledges. 

It all worked out for the best. Diaz got his degree at 23 in 2017, the same year Unicaja Malaga won the EuroCup title. Diaz was the Finals MVP, albeit posting 'regular' numbers (9.5 points, 3.5 assists, 2.0 steals) in his side's 2-1 over Valencia Basket.

That was probably the first time he had his name heard outside the Spanish borders. 

Unicaja's coach at the time was Joan Plaza. The Catalan tactician stayed in Andalusia for five seasons, collecting a total of 43 wins over four EuroLeague campaigns. Plaza lays claim to have been the coach to render Diaz an integral and steady part of the first team since he took over in 2013. 

The two-time (2007, 2017) EuroCup winner points out that he feels very proud to have contributed to Diaz's formation as a person and his career as a basketball player. Plaza, 58, thinks that the Wikipedia entry about Alberto Diaz Ortiz should read the following:

"An example of a good person and an even better teammate. A hardworking and humble player who, through a lot of effort and progress, was able to reach the European basketball elite.

Alberto's weapons were his tenacity, willingness to sacrifice, and talent. He never ceased to be ambitious and never stopped trying to improve. On the contrary, he always accepted the role assigned to him and made sure he didn't miss a single practice session. 

A player coming straight out of Malaga and one of the few university graduates among professional basketball players who puts the team's success above his own. Someone who doesn't treat anyone with 'no' for an answer is very supportive of the causes entrusted to him and will hardly lose his smile, no matter how serious the reason might be."

Credit Juan Navarro/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

After getting his degree in Physical Education Sciences, Diaz pursued a master's degree in Sports Management from the University of Salamanca and completed courses in teaching Programming and Digital Competence.

While gathering more knowledge and skills off the court, Diaz kept wearing Unicaja's jersey. However, the team never made a EuroLeague comeback since the 2017-18 season and didn't even come close to winning another domestic or international title. 

When Casimiro, the 1998 ACB champion with Manresa, returned to Malaga for the second tenure in 2018, Alberto Diaz had already consolidated himself as a pro. 

"I got to enjoy even more a player whose greatest virtues are his legs, his intuition to steal balls, and the way he uses his hands, but above all, his big heart. From 2012 onwards, he improved a lot as a 3-point shooter, especially in catch-and-shoot situations," Casimiro stresses. 

While the improvement that Diaz has shown through the years can't be denied, the player's overall trajectory begs the question: How come none of the big Spanish, or EuroLeague clubs has never made a move for him?

Casimiro thinks the main reason is Diaz's identification with Unicaja.

"He was born and raised there. That boy has improved a lot since 2012, but other teams haven't noticed because he has always been a role player and identified himself as a defensive-minded player.

His points always come from open shots, he has very good pull-ups, but has always held a secondary role on a team standing in the middle of the ACB table," he observes. 

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Katsikaris points out that every year, all the coaches are looking for an American guard who can also score a lot.

"For a player like Lorenzo Brown, who has different characteristics than Alberto," he indicates. "Alberto has a pretty hefty contract at Malaga, and I don't know whether Real or Barca were ever interested in adding him because they never had big problems in the point guard position," the former Greek NT coach thinks. 

However, that narrative could soon change. Katsikaris notes that Diaz is currently "at his best age, he's matured, and he has improved his outside shot, which was a problem until a few years ago.

"I remember everybody was playing him under at the pick-and-roll, and he wasn't confident. He's a player who changes the game flow, even though not with his offensive talent; he's also a terrific teammate because he plays with passion," Katsikaris adds.

Following Spain's semifinal win over Germany, Diaz made an emotional statement on Spanish television.

"All of this is incredible. The team has welcomed me as one of them. It's like a dream. Many people support us and give everything so that we are here," he managed to articulate between tears. 

"He wouldn't have been there had Sergio Llull not been injured. It was the moment when he realized what he had achieved," Luis Casimiro interprets his former player's reaction. 

Ultimately, the player from Malaga came to epitomize Spain's success: with him on the court, 'La Roja' scored 52 points more than their opponents since the Round of 16.

Diaz has also been decisive in freeing Lorenzo Brown in the final minutes. And, to top it all off, he's had the personality to shoot when he was open, despite not being an accomplished shooter.

"It looked like as time went by, Sergio (Scariolo) found chemistry and a way to match Alberto with Lorenzo Brown so that Spain could win gold," Fotis Katsikaris observes.

"The roles were very clear for all the players, and in terms of the rotation. Alberto can guard anyone from the 1-3 positions, which gave his team a huge advantage. He managed to take some weight off Brown's shoulders and, although he is not a pick-and-roll player but merely a spot-up shooter, he helped Spain grow as a team within the tournament."

Katsikaris maintains that stealing the ball from Larkin in the game against Turkey "was the detail that made the difference" for Diaz in the tournament.

No matter how much of a role player the 28-year-old guard has grown accustomed to being, he's still an ACB player. For Katsikaris, that's a significant advantage. 

"Many people may not notice, but those guys have been shaped by playing in Europe's most difficult league. Hence, Alberto is forced to chase down the opponent team's best guard in every game," the Greek coach says. 

He might have made the 12-man squad at the last minute, but Diaz earned every minute he spent on the court in Tbilisi and Berlin. His excellent tournament isn't reflected in his numbers (5.7 points, 1.4 assists) but in the words of the players and coaches who worked with him. 

His former Unicaja teammate and current Betis point guard, Pepe Pozas, revealed that Diaz didn't take his initial rejection lightly. 

"When he was cut, he didn't have a good time. He had worked hard, especially with Unicaja's trainer," Pozas told El Mundo

One of the first things the local media of Malaga mentioned after Spain won the gold medal was that Diaz has a contract until 2024. It was a reminder that any team who would try to sign him would have to sort things out with Unicaja. His former coaches think his status is definitely changing, but Diaz's character will remain intact. 

"I think he can play anywhere but keeping the same role," Katsikaris contends.

"Whatever team you put him on, he will be able to perform the same because he has tremendous confidence. If you feel strong on defense, anything else you do on the court is a plus. Self-confidence is built from the defense when you stop an opponent.

Alberto never tried to change his game to become a scorer. He is prudent, cooperative, understands his weaknesses, and tries not to expose himself. All these elements are very important for a coach."

Credit Javier Borrego / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images

Casimiro remembers vividly and fondly the period when Diaz was trying to balance his studies with his basketball career.

"He's a guy who has set his goals straight. After starting his professional career, he didn't interrupt his studies and kept being close to his family," he says.

"To what extent can this success change him? I think it will not change anything on a mental and personal level. He is a very stable person. For him, being in Malaga is like fulfilling a goal," Casimiro explains.

It's clear that the EuroBasket was like a showcase for Diaz in terms of his position in the European market. Casimiro thinks that when his contract expires, more teams might reach out to him.

"If I were Unicaja, I would be a bit more worried compared to the past years. When I was there, I knew what kind of player I had. Alberto has been a very important player for me. When you have someone so close to you and then watch them play at the top level, you sometimes realize that you might undervalue them," the veteran tactician remarks.  

In a tournament where the so-called favorites, like Slovenia, Serbia, and Greece, didn't even make the semifinals, Spain triumphed against all odds. NBA stars can level up any team, but ultimately, what all those three squads might have lacked is a player like Albert Diaz. At least, that's what both Casimiro and Katsikaris believe.

"Sure, without any doubt," the latter firmly utters. "This Spanish team with Lorenzo Brown, who's a creator and a scorer, would be in big trouble without Alberto, who - along with Lopez-Arrostegui - were the keys for Spain to have a tied-up defense.

Neither Jaime Fernandez nor Dario Brizuela has the body to back it up. Spain played fantastic team defense," Katsikaris emphasizes. 

Credit FIBA

"I'm sure those teams were missing someone," Casimiro says.

"I watched many Slovenia [games], and of course, they lacked a player who can inject others with that defensive spirit. One who defends the opponent point guard full-court, transmits enthusiasm and energy, breaks the screens, makes steals, and isn't afraid to fall on the floor."

Although Vasilije Micic, Kostas Sloukas, Nick Calathes, Luka Doncic, and Goran Dragic are some of Europe's top guards, a defensive stopper that would cover some of their weaknesses could have made them all shine brighter.

That's what Alberto Diaz did, and that's why his name has become a synonym for defensive efficiency. 

"In Spain, whenever a player draws an offensive foul like the ones Alberto draws, we call the action 'making an Alberto Diaz.' He's regarded as an example of intelligent defense and a player who can give balance to any team," Casimiro reveals. 

Katsikaris, EuroCup Coach of the Year in 2013, has worked in Spain for nine years. Although he knew how complicated Scariolo's venture would be, he also saw that the Italian coach had some advantages to draw from. 

"No one expected this team to go that far. In Spain, they were talking about a new cycle after a series of successes. But the guys who played in the FIBA windows became a cohesive group and formed the basis of the national team.

Of course, Brown's entrance changed everything. Success is a matter of many circumstances and combinations," he concludes. 

Alberto Diaz definitely knows something about that. 

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