His floater is feared in arenas across Europe, yet with just one season of NBA play in his storied career Juan Carlos Navarro remains an off-radar property to anglophone Basketball fans. Ahead of London 2012, Emmet Ryan looks at the offensive master who will be Spain’s best hope of taking gold.
It’s one of sport’s everlasting clichés. Late in a big game is the time great players are expected to deliver. Friday night, in Istanbul, the closing stages of this Euroleague Basketball semi-final were turning into a duel between Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos and Juan Carlos Navarro of Barcelona. Despite playing with a fasciitis injury, Navarro had carried Barcelona through an ugly first three quarters. La Bomba has lost his explosive touch but that veteran awareness was still there, with brief glimpses of what he could do in the first half. Playing through the pain Navarro drove through the lane twice to score and then nailed a three-pointer to give the Blaugrana their only lead of the game in the second quarter.
The shots however were not falling, at least not with the reliability needed to carry his team-mates on an off-night shooting. Navarro would nail his second, and only other, three of the night in the fourth to bring Barcelona within reach of Olympiacos again. A 2 of 8 night from beyond the arc however was not enough to compensate for the lack of offensive production from those around him. With 18 points and 3 assists, the guard was an offensive weapon but not an army of one. Boni NDong, with 10 points, was the only other Barcelona player to score in double-digits as the Blaugrana lost 68-64.
The talent around Navarro in London will be greater but he will still be the offensive focal point. This golden generation of Spanish Basketball is loaded with defensive bulk. The brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and even Rudy Fernandez. All NBA veterans, and men who have proven they can make big stops on the grandest of stages. Despite all four proving effective offensive weapons in their own rights, the man who Spain turns to for big scores shunned the NBA after just one season. Even his lone year there, with the Memphis Grizzlies, looks an aberration on Navarro’s resume. La Bomba was originally brought in by the Grizzlies in an attempt to cater to their star forward, Pau Gasol.
“Gasol and Navarro were best friends, and Memphis believed the chances of Gasol committing to the team were greater if his friend was also on the roster,” says Scottie Beattie, who writes under the handle of ForeignFlopper at Straight Outta Vancouver*. “Once Pau was traded, it kind of negated the entire reason for bringing Juan in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that management and the coaching staff were high on JCN, but he lost his value as a bargaining chip,” says Beattie. “I still think the front office would have liked to bring him back simply because he was a good player, but the impression that I got was that Navarro never really enjoyed living in the US and playing in the NBA.
*For the uninitiated, the Grizzlies played in Vancouver before moving to Memphis in 2001.
Coming off the bench for the most part, Navarro posted a respectable average of 10.9 points and 2.2 assists in that 2007/08 season in Memphis. It was ability to do something remarkable without warning that quickly won over the Grizzlies’ faithful. “I recall one of the live games that I attended where he attempted something like 10 shots and missed all of them. On the other hand, when he got hot, he was just unstoppable. I think his eccentric shooting style and his streakiness was part of his charm,” says Beattie. “In that particular game that I referred to earlier, Casey Jacobsen also missed a ton of shots and the crowd booed for him to taken out. Nobody booed when Navarro missed a shot because we just assumed that he could catch fire at any given moment.”
When he delivered it was dramatic. In one game against the New Orleans Hornets he went 8 of 9 from beyond the arc. Ultimately his style would leave Navarro uncomfortable in his role in the NBA. Beattie believes La Bomba could have grown into the type of role Jason Terry occupies with the Mavs, an elite sixth man and major scoring threat off the bench. Navarro’s signature floater, a shot where he appears to almost step up into the air, however was not getting the job done in the NBA. With Pau Gasol traded to the Lakers, Navarro returned home where he appears to still have that shooting touch.
That big shot spearheaded what would ultimately be a second half comeback where Barcelona won Basketball’s equivalent of El Clasico. Having been a sixth man in the US, Navarro is unquestionably a star in Spain and Europe. With Barcelona he has claimed six ACB titles in Spain and two Euroleague crowns along with a cabinet full of individual honours.
Its his success with Spain’s golden generation however that stands out. This group, which also featured Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon of the Toronto Raptors, first tasted gold at the European Under 18 Championships in 1998, followed by the World Under 19 title a year later. Three European senior titles and, most notably, the 2006 FIBA World Championship, followed but they fell short in their first shot at the ultimate prize. Coming off the bench in the 2008 Olympic Final, Navarro excelled with 18 points but the USA would eventually overcome Spain 118-107.
Come the next Olympic cycle, Navarro would develop from contributor into leader on the Spanish team. His MVP performance at EuroBasket 2011, saw Navarro outshine a horde of NBA superstars to lead Spain to another continental crown. That triumph secured Spain’s place at the 2012 Olympics, locking the Basketball world’s eyes on one date. Should things go to form, and given this sport’s propensity for upsets that’s far from a given, the 12 of August will see Spain and the USA go head to head once more with the gold medal at stake. Pau Gasol and Navarro will both be 32 by that stage and Calderon will be 31. This will be the golden generation’s last shot. La Bomba might only need one to make the difference.
Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.