One of the most pleasant surprises early on amongst NBA prospects in the EuroLeague has been Rafa Freire of Unicaja Malaga. After playing sparingly for Unicaja's senior team last season, the Brazil-native has earned a much more prominent role in Head Coach Aito Garcia Reneses's offense. Coming from a family of basketball players, Freire has made a successful transition from the LEB to the Euroleague in a very short period of time after settling a controversial citizenship dispute that held him in the EBA for some time.
Now seeing consistent minutes in the absence of the injured guard Terrell McIntyre, Freire has functioned as Unicaja's backup point guard, logging virtually all of is minutes as a primary ball-handler. Despite being more comfortable at the shooting guard spot in junior play and playing that position during much of his stint with the senior team last season, Freire has handled his duties as a floor general admirably. Though he still makes some mental mistakes, as any 18-year old playing in the top division in Europe would, he shows some very promising attributes that could earn him quite a bit of attention down the road.
Freire is, in a word, aggressive. Constantly pushing the tempo with his dribble, the young guard has excellent athleticism, a strong frame, and nice footspeed for the European game, and seems to be learning how to play at different speeds a major development for a player who has an extra gear compared to most of the guards he matches up with. Able to distort defenses with his quick first step, showing a knack for driving in either direction, and exploiting the space Reneses's offense creates for him to get into the lane; Freire clearly has accepted his role as a facilitator. He doesn't force many jump shots, focusing his attention on setting up his teammates first, getting to the rim to create his own offense when possible, and playing exceptionally pesky defense.
Considering that Freire is just 18 years old until February of next year, it is hard not to be impressed with the progress he's made over the past year and a half. He certainly will need to cut down on his mistakes and become a more reliable perimeter shooter and all-around scorer against high level defenders to reach his potential, but he has plenty of time to work on his game. It will be interesting to see how Freire fits into Unicaja's rotation when all of their players are healthy, as his ability to change the pace of the game could factor heavily into his minutes later on this season.
Recently, Freire has refused to report to the Brazilian National Team despite his family's history with the national selection. How Freire spends his summers will play a key role in his ability to solidify his draft stock, as we've seen numerous players use the World Championships and Olympics as a springboard into the NBA draft. Freire openly states that he believes his style is better suited to the European game, but if he continues to improve at the same rate, he will receive his fair share of NBA attention as he gets closer to becoming automatically eligible for the draft.