If there are two things we’ve learned about development in the NBA, they are the following: It’s not linear, and it’s certainly not the same path for every player.
Last week, I broke down Minnesota Timberwolves second-round pick Josh Minott’s game. I came to the conclusion that his athleticism is intriguing, but his complete lack of offensive skills will prevent him from contributing in the NBA any time soon.
The breakdown below — of Italian guard Matteo Spagnolo, another Wolves second-rounder — was so intriguing for me to create because Spagnolo, who has been dubbed the “Italian Ricky Rubio,” has the same timeline as Minott but for the opposite reasons. He will be a well-below-average NBA athlete, so he needs to completely master the skills he’s flashed in order to hang at the highest level.
Still, there’s intrigue here due to the combination of what Spagnolo is and what he can become. Despite turning 19 years old during the 2021-22 season, Spagnolo was productive in a large role for a professional team in a solid league, averaging 12.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 27 minutes per game per Basketball-Reference.
At the same time, Spagnolo will look like a different player from the one you see here if and when he puts on a real Timberwolves uniform. He is a likely draft-and-stash, potentially for multiple years, so the hope is that he has progressed significantly by the time he makes the jump to the NBA.
However, Timberwolves fans will get a look at Spagnolo along with the rest of the team’s Summer League roster starting Friday night against the Denver Nuggets, so here’s a rundown of his game. He wears No. 9 for Vanoli Cremona and No. 18 for the Italian national team.
The ideal, fully-realized version of Spagnolo looks like this:
His most translatable skills, his jump shot and court vision, open up opportunities for himself and others and create a good look. He seamlessly transitions from on-ball to off and back again, keeping the defense off-balance and concludes a very active possession with a smooth pull-up jumper.
Spagnolo’s most frequent role with Vanoli Cremona was as a pick-and-roll ball handler, and the fact that he was second in both scoring and assists on a per-36-minute basis for a team of grown men at his age is impressive.
The most impressive flashes in Spagnolo’s game are as a playmaker for others out of the PNR. He has a good feel for angles and timing to throw his roll man open, and he has solid size at 6-foot-5 to see over the defense and toss crosscourt dimes.
(By the way, you’ll see that Spagnolo’s teammates didn’t do him many favors — he would have averaged more assists on a better team. Vanoli Cremona’s 8-22 record obviously falls partially on him, but it also isn’t shocking with some of the missed opportunities I saw.)
He’s pretty comfortable operating in that in-between, midrange area that the best PNR playmakers dominate. As a PNR scorer, Spagnolo takes advantage of the space created by the pick and his excellent touch to make up for a lack of burst.
I particularly like when Spagnolo hits the pick with momentum, usually off a handoff of some sort. It’s not too difficult to imagine him running these sorts of actions with new Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert in a few years’ time.
The word that comes to mind when watching Spagnolo is “fun.” He’s an enjoyable player to monitor — and, I imagine, to play with — in large part because he’s a ball-mover with an excellent sense for playmaking for others.
Spagnolo has drawn some comparisons to Ricky Rubio for his passing flair, and while I believe those are optimistic, there’s definitely some pizazz to the Italian’s game. He will regularly pull a no-look or behind-the-back assist out of the hat and can pinpoint lobs from long distances.
On a more practical note, one of my favorite traits of Spagnolo’s is that he keeps his head up while dribbling, which allows him to throw quick dots. He’s got pretty good ball control in traffic that helps him find cutters in the flow of offense.
Spagnolo’s limited explosion prevents him from making a major impact in transition, but his best quality here is his passing. He waits until the exact right moment to thread passes through the defense and set up easy looks for his galloping teammates.
Versatile shooting potential
Another quality that stood out on Spagnolo’s tape was his ability to get to his spots and make tough midrange jumpers. Pick-and-roll-reliant guards must present a threat in this in-between area, and Spagnolo was capable of catching fire and nailing difficult attempts.
The ball comes out of his hand naturally, which bodes well for his chances of expanding his pull-up range out to the NBA 3-point line. Spagnolo is definitely more of a midrange maven at this point, only taking 2.7 3-point attempts per game last season, but he will need to maximize his touch at the next level.
And there’s not much reason to doubt Spagnolo can be a deadeye shooter. Last season, he knocked down 44.1% of his 3s and 86.1% of his free throws. He also has pristine shot mechanics that are unaffected when moving out to the international line on catch-and-shoot looks.
There aren’t a ton of examples of off-the-dribble 3s, but the cases we do have look seamless. If he develops into an “any time, any place” marksman, it could open up his whole game.
Overall, there’s a lot to like with Spagnolo’s offensive skill set, especially when projecting forward. It is the other areas of his game that raise questions.
This is the first and most crucial area where Spagnolo’s athleticism holds him back (he tied for the sixth-worst standing vertical and fifth-slowest sprint at the NBA combine). He does not have a quick first step, the short-area agility to required change directions, or straight-line speed, and it results in a lot of contested 2-point shots.
The inability to create space off the dribble is the biggest reason Spagnolo shoots just 44% from the field despite his 3-point efficiency. He is not an isolation bucket-getter, and given that his impact is almost entirely offensive, that’s a limiting factor.
Spagnolo also struggles to finish inside, especially against size. He’s not particularly long (6-foot-8 wingspan) and lacks vertical pop, so he can get overwhelmed at the rim.
Finally, Spagnolo’s issues separating are also a factor in his high turnover rate (65 assists to 66 turnovers on the season). Certainly a large part of this is decision-making — and Spagnolo does make some truly batty reads — but he also dribbles himself into trouble and gets passes deflected because he can’t get away from defenders.
I would chalk the ugly turnover numbers up to a teenager playing a PNR-heavy role on a bad team and expect Spagnolo to improve his ball security as he matures. Still, it is something he needs to clean up to stay on the floor.
Like I said, Spagnolo is not twitchy, but he compounds the issue with a worrying absence of on-ball instincts.
He gets blown by far too often for playing in a fairly unathletic league by world standards; one shudders to think what the quickest NBA ball handlers will do when they get Spagnolo squared up.
Spagnolo’s defensive footwork is also questionable. Sudden ball handling gets him off-balance with ease, and players who can string multiple moves together can get to their spots whenever they want.
Screen navigation is a problem area where the lateral issues show themselves. He either takes too long to get around them or gets caught on them entirely, opening up a lot of space and a numbers advantage for the opponent as he trails behind.
Simply put, Spagnolo will always be a target for NBA offenses if he makes his way across the Atlantic. He has adequate size for a guard, but he doesn’t put it to much use on the defensive end — he had just 19 steals and one block in his 25 appearances.
As you might expect from those numbers, Spagnolo is not an impactful off-ball defender. His closeouts don’t bother shooters, and he isn’t adept at getting his hands in driving/passing lanes.
He isn’t particularly strong and presents little resistance to larger players around the basket.
Finally, Spagnolo is too foul-prone, picking up 2.9 fouls per 36 minutes. He slaps at ball handlers and relies on hand-checking to stay with his man. Instead of aggressively attacking the ball, he often reaches half-heartedly.
Of course, there were always going to be questions with Spagnolo. You don’t get a finished product with the 50th pick in the draft, especially with the intention of drafting and stashing the player. However, this is a player Wolves fans should keep their eyes on because he could have multiple years to develop before stepping foot in the Target Center. The offensive skills are already interesting, and if things go right abroad, Minnesota could add a contributor down the line in the absence of all those first-round picks.