Zarazoga talent Alocen career similar to that of Rubio
To encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
ZARAGOZA (Spain) - Ricky Rubio holds a very special place in the annals of Spanish basketball - both at the club and national team levels. And while it may seem unfair to compare anyone to the lofty standards of the freshly-crowned FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 champion and MVP, Casademont Zaragoza point guard Carlos Alocen is making his case for a similar path to success.
Alocen won't turn 19 years old until December 30, but he has already been mentioned in the same breath as Rubio in terms of accomplishments at the youth level. And the young playmaker has a promising future ahead. The 6ft 4in (1.92m) Alocen is the next top prospect in a long line of Spanish point guards - most of which, to no surprise, were the role models of a young Alocen growing up.
"I have always liked some of the Spanish point guards. I think in Spain we have a very good national team and very good national team players," Alocen said. "I really like Sergio Llull. The way that he plays, the way that he feels the game is incredible. I love Ricky Rubio too. He is at his best at the moment, and I have followed him a lot since he went to the NBA. Sergio Rodriguez is just a killer too, he has a lot of quality to play basketball."
Connection to Madrid
Alocen was born and raised in Zaragoza, but he has a strong connection to Madrid and he grew up a Real Madrid fan - for a good reason as his father Alberto Alocen played a brief time for Real Madrid.
"I always watched Real Madrid games. My dad was born there and he loves Madrid too and one of my brothers too. We only have problems with the older brother who likes Barcelona," joked Alocen.
Alberto Alocen played for Real Madrid in the youth ranks before going to Oviedo and then CN Helios and also played for Penas Heusca during his career in Spain's top flight. One of his crowing moments came in 1978 when he played for the Spanish national team at the FIBA U20 European Championship in 1978, where Spain lost to Soviet Union in the Final to take home the silver medal. On that team were some of the legends of the country's basketball past including Juanma Iturriaga, Juan Antonio San Epifanio and Fernando Romay.
The younger Alocen said his father was a major factor in his life - especially on the court.
"Overall, he has shown me his support in everything that I have done. He always told me that I have to enjoy basketball. This is the best advice that he has given me, and I'm doing it," he said.
Alocen's father became one of the top players at the Penas Huesca club from 1982 to 1990 - about 75 kilometers from Zaragoza, where Carlos was born in December 2000.
While he was a Real Madrid fan, his local team was Zaragoza and since he was about 7 years old he regularly watched the team - whether that was the second division LEB Gold until 2008 and then in 2009-10, when the club won immediate promotion back to the ACB and since when they have played in the top flight.
First major hurt
Alocen's beginnings with Zaragoza's youth ranks came when he was 10 years old. And he worked his way up the club's system. His efforts in northeastern Spain were not overlooked by the Spanish federation FEB - leading to a magical 2016.
Despite him being a year younger than the rest of the competition, the FEB chose Alocen to play in the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2016, which was being played in his home city of Zaragoza.
"It was really nice. It's true that I didn't play a lot, but playing in that atmosphere was really amazing," said Alocen, who averaged 2.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in just 61 minutes over four games.
The home fans did provide Alocen with some comfort as he went through his first major feeling of disappointment as Spain lost in overtime to Turkey in the Semi-Finals and then were defeated by Lithuania in the Third Place Game to leave the tournament empty-handed.
"It hurts a lot. We wanted to play the Final against United States, and we were so close. But we have to be proud of that tournament because we gave everything on the court," he said.
Following Rubio's champion footsteps
Alocen didn't have to wait that long to put the disappointment behind him and experience the ultimate joy of becoming a champion. The FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2016 ended on July 3 and the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016 tipped off on August 12 in Radom, Poland. Spain were not really tested for most of the tournament, winning their three Group Phase games and first three Knockout Phase contests by an average of 18.7 points. In the Final, the Spanish needed a triple-double from Usman Garuba for a 74-72 victory over Lithuania to win their fourth U16 continental title - all of them coming since Ricky Rubio's amazing performance in 2006.
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"That feeling was just amazing. I think it was one of my best moments in my life - playing basketball for sure. It was a tough tournament, but we were superior and it was incredible," Alocen said.
Alocen collected 9.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, a tournament-best 6.3 assists and 2.0 steals as he followed the footsteps of the likes of Rubio in 2006, Dani Diez and Jaime Fernandez from 2009 and Sergi Garcia, Xavier Lopez-Arostegui and Santi Yusta in 2013 - all U16 continental champions.
Alocen would soon have another date with destiny in terms of Garcia and Rubio. The U17 World Cup and U16 European Championship were just the latest confirmations of Alocen's talent. One of the first highlights of 2016 came in April when he played in the International Game at the Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn.
Record-breaking ACB debut
The next highlight in the year came on October 30, 2016 when he made his ACB debut for Zaragoza against Real Madrid at 15 years and 10 months - or 5,783 days to be exact.
"I remember that I was so nervous, and I missed some normal shots, but it's normal. Now that feeling is different. But to have the chance to be the youngest player in this club is a dream come true," said Alocen, who topped Sergi Garcia as Zaragoza's youngest player in history.
While he missed one shot and turned the ball over one time in 1 minute against Madrid, Alocen became the third youngest player to debut in the ACB after only Angel Rebolo at 5,578 and … wait for it … Ricky Rubio, who played in the ACB for the first time at 5,473 days or 14 years, 11 months and 24 days. And Alocen was 122 days younger at his debut than another player who played in that game - Luka Doncic, at 5,905 days.
"To be compared with these players is incredible. I know that level is so far, and I have to work a lot, but to be in that group makes you feel so proud," Alocen said.
Learning from veterans
Alocen played in two ACB games that 2016-17 season and appeared in four ACB games for Zaragoza the following campaign. In June 2018, while still 17 years old, Alocen penned a four-year deal with Zaragoza. And little did he realize at the time just how much playing time he would get in the 2018-19 season. Alocen had prepared himself. He didn't play much during the 2017-18 season, but he got to watch on a daily basis Latvian veteran Janis Blums as well as Gary Neal, who led the ACB in scoring at 34 years of age.
"I practiced with them some days and I was lucky to play some games with them. It was really nice to watch players like Janis or Gary. Overall, Gary was amazing how he played here," Alocen said.
Then last season Alocen played all season alongside established veteran European stars like Bo McCalebb and Renaldas Seibutis.
"I learned things that you have to do if you want to be a basketball player: things like being at the arena before the practice, stay after shooting or with the physios, and a lot of things in the game that they control easier," remembered Alocen, who also got to learn from Spanish veterans such as Fran Vazquez and Nacho Martin.
Alocen admitted he did not have high expectations going into last season.
"I knew that the play in this league is very tough, and I was so young. I only wanted to get better each day and be able to play good minutes. In the end, I played many more minutes that I expected to," said Alocen, who averaged 5.5 points, 1.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists for the season.
Spanish national team debut
A couple months into the season, Alocen got a phone call he will never forget. On February 12, 2019, he was told that he would be with the Spanish senior national team for the final window for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers.
"When they called me to tell me that I was in the list I didn't believe it. I was on the street and I went running home to tell my father. It was a very special moment that I will never forget," he recalled.
Ten days later, Alocen played the final 2:21 minutes of the first half against Latvia in Riga - becoming the fourth youngest player to play for Spain after only Carlos Sevillano, Juan Antonio Corbalan and … you guessed it … Ricky Rubio.
"It was a dream come true. All kids dream of some day playing in the national team of their country. Having the chance to play some minutes in your country's shirt was unforgettable," he said about playing against the Latvians.
Giving Latvia new feeling
It seemed fitting that Alocen made his senior national team debut in Latvia - as it gave him a chance to forget what happened there the last time he played in a Spanish jersey. Spain cruised through the Group Phase of the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018 with three wins - by 30, 23 and 51 points. But Alocen and co. were bounced in the Round of 16 by Montenegro with an 83-78 loss that meant Spain would miss out on the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2019.
Carlos Alocen in one of his worse defeats - the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018 Round of 16
"This was really, really hard," Alocen admitted. "It was a very bad game for us, and Montenegro were much better than us. And we lost the chance to play a World Cup, and that's hard too."
Looking back, Alocen, who averaged 12.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1.4 steals, said the biggest lesson learned was you are never unbeatable.
"I think we learned a lot from that loss. In this type of tournament all of the teams can beat you," said Alocen, who helped his country to three more wins and a 6-1 record and ninth place.
Improved in return
After his stint with the senior national team, Alocen returned to Zaragoza with a renewed sense of confidence, which was evident in his numbers. In the 17 games before the February window, he averaged 4.4 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 13.3 minutes. In the 14 games in the ACB afterwards he collected 6.6 points, 1.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 17.7 minutes. And those numbers went up even more in five playoff games with 6.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 23.6 minutes.
"I gained a lot of confidence, and it was really important for me," he said. "The second part of the season was really special because the team was playing great too."
Alocen ended up also taking home the ACB's Best Young Player award.
"There were more young interesting players in the league last year, but in the end they gave it to me. It was really special."
2019: Another special year
The 2019 calendar year only continued to provide Alocen with one highlight after the next. He played one year up at the FIBA U20 European Championship 2019 and helped Spain roll undefeated to the Final, where they lost to hosts Israel 92-84.
"Winning a medal in this type of championship is so difficult, and we know that. Obviously we wanted the gold but Israel was a very talented team. It was hard to beat them and they deserved the gold more than us," said Alocen, who averaged 11.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.0 steals and was selected for the All-Star Five - while also matching his father's U20 continental silver medal from 1978.
Big deal with Real Madrid
Just four days after the U20 European Final, Alocen had his next dream come true as he signed on a five-year contract with Real Madrid.
"Of course, it meant a lot for me," he said. "I have always liked Real Madrid since I was young and to be able to sign with them is just amazing."
El @RMBaloncesto hace efectiva a cláusula de @carlosalocen, quien jugará cedido la temporada 2019-2020 en Basket Zaragoza— Casademont Zaragoza (@BasketZaragoza) July 24, 2019
📑+info https://t.co/Z4GfyevjtS#SomosEquipo | #ZaragozaIsBack🦁 pic.twitter.com/WFhsA8NI29
When the deal was made public, it was also announced that Madrid would allow Alocen to stay with Zaragoza for this season on loan - a move that the young playmaker believes makes the most sense.
"It was important for me keep playing and keep improving in my skills. If you want to play in a team like Real Madrid you have to be ready, and I think that at least one more year here with Zaragoza is going to be good for me," he said.
Another season with Zaragoza also meant a first season of playing in a European club competition for Alocen, who has shown his quality in the Basketball Champions League.
"I'm happy because I have a lot of confidence from the staff despite being only 18 years old. I want to keep playing good because I want to grow with this team and improve day by day," Alocen said of his individual performance for Zaragoza.
"The biggest challenge for me is be better each day. Obviously I want to play at as high a level as possible, but I know that it's not enough with this. There is a long way ahead," said Alocen, who is averaging 6.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 0.8 steals through six games.
On top of playing in arguably the best domestic league in Europe and in the Basketball Champions League, Alocen is also studying marketing online.
"Sometimes it's hard because we practice a lot and when you arrive home some times you are tired. But I think if you are consistent, you can do both things. If you want something, you go for it," Alocen said.
Unlike some of his former Spain teammates such as Golden Dike and Santi Aldama, Alocen turned down a chance to go to college in the United States - having an offer from Gonzaga.
"I think that college is an amazing opportunity for young players, and it's true that I had the offer to go to Gonzaga, and it was really interesting. But finally what I wanted most was to play with the team of my city, Zaragoza. Then my heart told me to stay and until now everything has gone really good," said Alocen, who turned down the college offer in March 2019.
Captain oh my captain
Another special aspect of this season for Alocen is that he is serving as Zaragoza's captain - again, as a youngster who will not turn 19 years old until late in the BCL Regular Season.
"That's an amazing feeling. For a player from the city who has played a lot of years here it's the best thing that can happen to you."
Zaragoza have collected a 3-3 record thus far in the Basketball Champions League and the goal definitely is to make the Playoffs.
"The BCL is a very tough competition and we are new here, but we want to go as high as possible, keep growing as a team and go game by game," Alocen said.
And to accomplish that, the young captain said: "We have to be patient. We started good and we are happy but we want more. So we have to work a lot and be a team."
While it would be crucial to grab some more wins in the BCL, there is one ACB highlight waiting for Alocen - on December 1 when Zaragoza will be hosting Real Madrid.
"Obviously now it is more special, but we know that they are a very tough team and we have to be very good if we want to win," Alocen said.
Along with his marketing studies online, Alocen is learning some good diplomatic answers. Soon enough he will be taking lessons in winning games as a favorite - just like Ricky Rubio.
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