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Shortly before he began his first NBA practice, Facundo Campazzo admittedly felt nervous.
But the reasons had nothing to do with how he would adjust to the NBA after starring both with Real Madrid and the Argentinian national team. The reasons had more to do with whether his new Denver Nuggets teammates would feel comfortable with how he plays in practices and in games.
“Should I not be as aggressive or should I push these guys?” Campazzo asked Nuggets coach Michael Malone. His answer: “Don’t change.” Malone also stressed, “I want you to make their lives hell every day. That is only going to help them, you and us moving forward.”
It sure has. Nearly six months after the Nuggets signed him to a two-year contract, Campazzo has shown maturity as an “NBA rookie” for reasons beyond his relatively advanced age (30).
The Nuggets have touted him as a candidate for a place on the NBA’s All-Defensive First team. Amid injuries to Jamal Murray (left ACL surgery), Will Barton (strained right abductor) and P.J. Dozier (strained right abductor), Campazzo has been the Nuggets’ starting point guard in the team’s first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers. And just like in his first practice, Campazzo has energized teammates and flustered opponents with his infectious energy.
“I never envisioned he would be the starting point guard in the playoffs. You never envision the injuries that we’ve had, but he’s not afraid, ” Malone said. “You can see that from afar. But when you’re in a foxhole with a guy and you see him everyday, you see his work ethic, his preparation and his toughness.”
The reason why Campazzo plays with such passion seems simple.
“I like to practice how I play. I try to play at 100% in every game. So I like to play at 100% in every practice,” Campazzo told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m glad that coach lets me do that as well. We have a great team, and we work so hard as a team. So that makes my job easier.”
Learning to compete in NBA
Yet, consider how Campazzo admitted feeling when he played for the Argentinian national team during the 2012 London Olympics.
When he faced Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, Campazzo admitted that he “watched them with my eyes open like a little kid.” After all, Campazzo often watched their highlights as well as those of Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Jason Williams and Vince Carter.
“Stop it,” Argentinian teammate and former NBA player Luis Scola told Campazzo. “They have the same jersey as you. They play with the same basketball. So let’s compete.”
Unlike in the 2004 Olympics, the Argentinians were no match for Team USA both when Campazzo played in the 2012 and 2016 Games. But in his second Olympic stint, Campazzo said he felt much less nervous and starstuck.
By then, Campazzo already won gold medals with Argentina in the 2012 FIBA South American Championship and the 2014 South American Games. Shortly after that, Campazzo helped Argentinia to a silver medal in the 2019 FIBA World Cup while also leading Real Madrid to two Euroleague titles (2015, 2018) and three Spanish League championships (2015, 2018, 2019). He also collected MVP awards with Euroleague (2018-2019) and Spanish ACB SuperCup (2019-2021). During those stints, Campazzo said he made serious changes to his diet (no pasta & no sweets) and sleeping habits (no electronics in his room) that he attributes strongly to his development as a high-octane playmaker and defender.
Therefore, Facundo was not considered an unknown commodity in NBA circles. But after going undrafted in 2013, Campazzo remained unsigned with an NBA team because of his more attractive contract with Real Madrid. That changed last offseason after Campazzo weighed potential deals with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver. He found the Nuggets more enticing for two reasons. He had a relationship with Nuggets scout Martynas Pocius, a former teammate. Campazzo also found it intriguing that the Nuggets’ two stars are also foreign-born players, including Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and Murray (Canada).
“I didn’t have any real offers in the NBA. When the real offer came, I had no doubt about taking it,” Campazzo said. “I always had that confidence I can compete here. But I never had a real offer.”
Campazzo represents only one of 13 Argentinians to play in the NBA. But within that group, Campazzo has had a handful of mentors that include a four-time NBA champion (Manu Ginobili), a defensive specialist (Scola) and a former NBA player turned assistant coach (Pablio Prigioni).
Campazzo said all of them prepped him on the rule differences between FIBA and the NBA in court size (91’10” X 49’ 2.5; 94’ X 50’) and 3-point distance (20’ 6.1”; 23’9”). The Nuggets informed him about the need to play both on and off the ball after becoming used to being Real Madrid’s primary ball handler. And at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, Campazzo also tried to compensate for matching up against bigger and stronger NBA players with his speed and aggression.
Flustering his opponents
“It’s really hard because they’re so dangerous and can score in so many ways,” Campazzo said. “They can score off the dribble. They can spot and shoot. They can dunk. So I just try to be focused, be smart and do what the coaches tell us.”
With that approach, Campazzo has also made life difficult for those NBA stars and others.
According to NBA.com's tracking data, Campazzo has held Lillard (26.7%), Boston’s Kemba Walker (33.3%) and Utah’s Mike Conley (33.3%) to low regular-season marks. Campazzo downplayed those numbers considering he has struggled against Curry (44.4%), Atlanta’s Trae Young (60%), Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball (66.7%) and Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving (66.7%). In the Nuggets’ first-round series against Portland, Lillard (45%) and C.J. McCollum (60%) have still shot well against Campazzo.
Through the successes and failures, the Nuggets have credited Campazzo for flustering those opponents.
“I try. The defense’s job is to guard as hard as possible on every player and not make his job easy,” Campazzo said. “If they are frustrated or angry, I think it’s a good sign.”
Both Campazzo and the Nuggets have laughed off the charges that he flops too much.
“No, he’s just playing hard,” Jokic said. “People get frustrated with him, but he’s using his passion and aggression and lack of focus to be there the whole game.”
Therefore, the Nuggets are just as enamored with how he runs the offense. NBA.com’s tracking data shows that Campazzo connects frequently with Jokic (56.4%) while involving other role players in Aaron Gordon (14.8%), Austin Rivers (12.1%) and Michael Porter Jr. (10.1%). When he’s not doing that, Campazzo scores with both a knack of flair and knowledge of the fundamentals.
“He’s a European player, so he knows how to play with anybody on the floor,” Jokic said. “He’s the one sharing the ball and playing with team basketball. It’s easy to play with that type of guy.”
It has become easy for Campazzo even with playing in a foreign country. He has found his Nuggets teammates welcoming even with minimal opportunities to bond outside of practices and games because of the league’s restrictions during the pandemic. He also moved to Denver with his wife (Consulo) and 19-month-old daughter (Sara).
“It’s great. Without my family here, nothing is possible,” Campazzo said. “They are big support for me. I’m glad they can be here in Denver with me.”
The Nuggets have said the same thing about Campazzo.
“I always had a tremendous amount of respect for his passion,” Malone said. “That was always on display whenever we watched him, whatever setting it may be. That has definitely carried over to the NBA.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nuggets' Facundo Campazzo goes from international star to NBA success