Manu, Melo, and Bebe: Here Are Our Picks For a Latino NBA All-Star Team

Lead Photo: Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press
Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press
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The NBA’s All-Star Weekend festivities are descending into New Orleans starting Friday night, filling the Crescent City with stars and wall-to-wall action for three days. The crown jewel is, of course, the All-Star game on Sunday night, pitting the best of the West against the beasts of the East. Instead of breaking down each event and predicting winners, we thought we’d have a little fun, and imagine what an all-Latino All-Star team would look like. With players like Manu Ginobili, Al Horford, and Karl-Anthony Towns, the past, present, and future of the NBA are all covered, and the league is sure to have some Latino flavor for years to come. After all, the amount of players from Latin America has slowly been rising over the last decade, along with the popularity of the sport in Latino countries.

The list below of Latino players makes up a core of 12 that would form a strong team, low on star power but high on fit and complementary skills. And, of course, they’re all members of nuestra gente, so they get bonus points there. As a note, to qualify, players had to have some form of connection to Latin America, and they had to have played in at least one game in the 2016-2017 NBA season. Let’s get it.

Backcourt: Manu Ginobili

What can you say about Manu that hasn’t been said before? He’s clearly the greatest NBA player born in Latin America ever, and he has a claim for being one of the best foreign players, period. His unorthodox lefty style is only matched by his moments of superhuman flair. That Manu landed on a team intelligent enough to make the most of his talents (by moving him to the bench as the greatest sixth man to ever play) while letting him break the rules when he saw fit is nothing short of cosmic.

With Manu, stats and accolades never told the story, even though they are excellent in their own right: 4 NBA titles, an Olympic gold medal, a Sixth Man of the Year Award (although it should have been more), and 2 All-Star Appearances. It was more about the joy of watching the Argentine wizard take what was expected and shift it 30 degrees to the left; it was about no-look passes, off-balanced 3-pointers, and off-kilter careens into the lane. We’ll never see another Manu, because we’ll never see someone who flourished inside a rigid system just by being weird. For that, he’s not just a member of the Latino All-Star team; he is the captain.

Backcourt: Leandro Barbosa

Brazilians haven’t made a splash in the NBA for long, but as part of the first wave of brasileros to make it to the big time, Barbosa deserves a starting spot on the Latino All-Star team. In his prime, Barbosa could lay claim to being one of the fastest players in all of basketball; to watch him sprint past defenders on those fun-as-hell Suns teams of the mid-2000s was to watch adrenaline personified. Since his explosive introduction to the league, he has continued to bring his athleticism and nose for scoring to a variety of teams, most recently winning an NBA Championship with the Golden State Warriors. Now, he’s back in his first NBA home in Phoenix as a veteran statesman, but on certain days, you can still see the speed that made him one of the best Latino scorers ever. Just don’t blink.

Frontcourt: Carmelo Anthony

Yep, Carmelo Anthony is a Latino player. His father is Puerto Rican, and was actually part of the Young Lords in the 60s and 70s, a fact that helps explain Carmelo’s passion for social activism. On the court, he’s one of the best pure scorers in NBA history, a machine that can put the ball in the basket from anywhere on the floor. Despite never making it past the conference finals, he has also shown a penchant for clutch performances, and some of his best games rank up there with any of the greats (his 62 point explosion back in 2014 is the highest scoring total at Madison Square Garden). While Melo has not been known for his defense, this is for an All-Star team, where no one plays defense, so he’ll fit right in. He has plenty of experience when it comes to star-studded exhibition; this year will mark his 10th appearance at the NBA All-Star Game.

Frontcourt: Al Horford

Al Horford has been underrated for so long that you wouldn’t fault someone for thinking he’s overrated now. But that’s simply not true: the Puerto Plata native is everything a modern big man should be. He can defend both frontcourt positions, he can score in the paint, and he’s learning to chuck 3s this season, after making the move north from the ATL to Boston. In his years on the under-achieving Hawks, Horford was never the player you expected to let you down. He was always good for a near double-double and stellar defense, and to see his consistency and talent rewarded on a bigger stage will be one of the best parts of the NBA Playoffs this season. As the more technical and agile of the Latino All-Stars big men, Horford would fill a spacing role that he is extremely familiar with already.

Frontcourt: Nene

You also need someone to bang the boards and soak up possessions on offense. Enter Nene, the other Brazilian on our starting 5. While it feels like Nene has been around forever and on a variety of teams, the former Maybyner Rodney Hilario (he legally changed his name to Nene, like a boss) has only practiced his craft in the high-altitude confines of Denver and in our nation’s capital. In both places, he’s been known for his ability to score in a variety of ways down in the paint, and for providing a toughness not normally associated with his fellow Brazilians in the NBA. Not the most technical or skillful big man in the NBA, Nene has carved out a role by instead being impossible to ignore on the court. From his trademark dreads to some vicious dunks throughout the years, you could do worse than keeping your eye on the near-7-footer from São Carlos.

Bench Guard: J.J. Barea

Before the 2011 NBA Finals, J.J. Barea was regarded as a bench spark plug, good enough for spot duty and the occasional start, but never good enough to be a pivotal cog on a contending team. That was before he helped the Dallas Mavericks beat the Big Three Miami Heat in the latter’s first trip to the Finals as a superteam. Barea bullied the Heat, who couldn’t cope with his speed and toughness all over the floor. One of the iconic images from those Finals is Barea getting posted up by LeBron James but refusing to back down from the massive King. The diminutive Puerto Rican’s 32 points in Games 5 and 6 combined helped ice the win for Dallas, and the fact that he’s still plugging away, scoring points in bunches, is proof positive that big things can come in little packages, even in the NBA. If the Latino All-Star team needs some big points from the bench, it could do worse than turning to Barea and letting him jitter his way to the basket.

Bench Guard: Greivis Vasquez

While Venezuela isn’t known as a basketball hotbed (the sport takes a backseat to baseball and, to a lesser extent, soccer), it has produced a small handful of NBA players. In terms of on-the-court impact, Greivis Vasquez takes the top spot in a walk. The lanky point guard has bounced around the NBA (and is currently a free agent after a short stint with the Nets earlier this year) due to a lack of shooting and lateral quickness for defense, but he has shown the ability to run an offense adeptly. He also has had his clutch moments, both at the University of Maryland (where his performance sank #4 Duke) and in the NBA (his off-balanced three-pointer against Oklahoma City is one of the best awkward shots in basketball history). For a calming presence off the bench, the Latino All-Star team could do worse.

Bench Forward: Karl-Anthony Towns

Despite being in just his second year in the NBA, Towns can already stake his claim as the Next Big Thing; playing like an evolutionary version of Kevin Garnett, The Big Kat can score from anywhere, dribble from anywhere, and defend every position. Simply put, there has never been a player as both big and fast as Towns in NBA history. The Edison, New Jersey native has already represented his mother’s homeland in the 2012 Centrobasket tournament, where the Dominicans took gold. There are no sure things in the NBA, but counting on the Minnesota big man to become a star feels as safe of a bet as there is in basketball; that he’s foregoing playing for the United States to rock it with the DR might also make him the first Latino-presenting MVP in league history. Stay tuned.

Bench Forward: Luis Scola

The less-celebrated member of Argentina’s long-reigning duo of stars, Scola is as much of a weirdo on the basketball court as his more famous counterpart. His shot never evolved past its awkward jiltedness, but it worked in its own way. His defense was, most generously, described as “turnstile,” but his plus-minus numbers were always stellar. In short, he never made much sense as an upper-tier NBA player, and yet, your team was never worse off if they employed Luis Scola. It’s a shame that he was never able to join the Spurs, the team that drafted him but had to trade him for financial reasons; if anyone could have truly elevated Scola into elitedom, it would be San Antonio. Regardless, Scola has had one of the best front-to-back careers for a Latino player, and he’s a worthy addition to the Latino All-Star team.

Bench Center: Anderson Varejão

Before he was a semi-permanent fixture on the injury report, Anderson Varejão was a beast in the paint. While he was never the flashiest player, nor did he fill up the stat sheet, as a complementary piece in LeBron James’s first run in Cleveland, he did the dirty work to let the King shine. Varejão was never afraid to step into the lane in the face of an oncoming attacker, which led to a few highlights (Dwayne Wade’s dunk on him is one of the most brutal in recent memory) but more than a few charges and contests. That dichotomy exemplifies Varejão: he may not have the highlights that fancier players do, but when something needed to be done for the good of the team, he was the first one up. The fact that he has the best hair on the Latino All-Star team sure doesn’t hurt.

Bench Center: Tiago Splitter

If there’s an overused theme on this team, it’s that most of these players have some form of connection to the Spurs. Their international scouting is second-to-none, and Tiago Splitter might be the perfect example of that scouting at work. As a role playing big man, Splitter will never take over a game, but under the tutelage of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, he was able to develop into a sweet-passing cog in a spread offense. That’s where he finds himself now in Atlanta, backing up Dwight Howard and soaking up bench minutes for a Hawks team that is lacking talented players. Splitter continues to do what he does, helping move the ball around, and scoring efficiently around the basket. He never developed into a modern big man by any means, and his defense is slow-footed enough to be a negative against faster forwards and centers, but for a reliable 12 minutes off the bench, Splitter fills his role better than most.

Bench "Utility": Lucas Nogueira

While “Bebe” hasn’t earned a spot on the All-Star team by virtue of his still-blossoming game, he deserves a slot for sheer entertainment value. Between his trademark big hair and lanky build, he’s visually stunning to watch, and this season, he’s been given more of a chance to shine on a Raptors team headed for greatness. The brasilero might not drop 30 points, but you can probably count on him for a rim-rattling dunk or two, some pinpoint outlet passes, and definitely some mighty blocks. For a 12th man on the roster, you can’t ask for more.