PORTLAND, Ore. -- It has been said what a difference a year makes. In this case, ten.
Sergio Rodriguez is returning to Portland on Thursday as a veteran point guard on the Sixers. It is the same city where he started his NBA career in 2006, only back then he was a wide-eyed rookie from Spain trying to get acclimated with a new life while proving himself in a new league.
"As a kid growing up, my dream was to play in the NBA," Rodriguez said. "I knew as soon as I got an opportunity, I would try."
Rodriguez, who went pro as a teenager, was playing for Estudiantes when he began raising eyebrows overseas. After participating in workouts, he felt there was enough interest to make the jump to the NBA. The Suns picked him 27th overall in the 2006 draft and sent him to the Trail Blazers.
Rodriguez was selected two weeks after his 20th birthday. He moved to the United States with an unfamiliarity of the system and language. The challenges of the transition were worth it, though, for basketball.
"I knew that it was going to be a difficult adjustment because I was coming from a different league," Rodriguez said. "I was just 20 years old. My English was not very good. It would be a whole big change for me. But I took the opportunity as an experience to be better, to grow, and to enjoy it, too, playing against the best in the world."
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Welcome to your new home
Portland isn't exactly known for its tropical climate. Growing up in the Canary Islands, that's what Rodriguez was used to.
"That was the hardest part," Rodriguez said of the weather. "Portland is a great city, I love it there, the people are super nice. But the weather is not as good as it's supposed to be. Especially in the winter time, it gets dark very early. In the summertime it's beautiful, but we don't have any time there. It was kind of difficult to handle. But at the same time, you have different things that make it worth it to live in Portland."
Rodriguez was also faced with a language barrier. As a point guard, his position demanded communication. Rodriguez started off with a tutor and worked to maintain his language skills on a consistent basis. That was a challenge when he left the country in the offseason. He made it a point to speak with English-speaking players in Europe to keep it up.
"[I learned] day by day," Rodriguez said. "It's not easy because sometimes you count a season as a year, but you've really been here for seven months. After every end of the season I went back to Spain, you lose sometimes the perspective and the language."
And then there was the obstacle of, well, a totally new life.
"[The biggest challenge was] the adjustment to everything," Rodriguez said. "Not just basketball-wise, being by myself, a different country, trying to organize my life and my routines every day. Obviously playing, it was a totally different situation that I had been through before."
Rookie learning curve
Rodriguez joined the Trail Blazers in a rookie group headlined by Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Rodriguez took a reserve role, averaging 12.9 minutes.
"You are playing against the best every time you step on the NBA floor," Rodriguez said. "I was trying to get to know my teammates, trying to get to know the pace of the team. At the same time, I was trying to feel comfortable playing and to make my teammates comfortable."
Even though Rodriguez wasn't a focal point, he made an early impression in practices as a rookie.
"He's a professional. You can tell he started playing early," Zach Randolph said. "He had passion, handling. … He's the real definition of a true point guard."
Rodriguez's minutes dropped to 8.7 per game in his second season. The Trail Blazers added Steve Blake who, along with Jarrett Jack, accounted for the majority of the playing time at point guard. Rodriguez's statistical production was nearly cut in half to 2.5 points, 1.7 assists and 0.8 rebounds.
"I think our system was different, I think our league was different back then," Channing Frye said. "In that system, we were playing with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus, who had their hands on the ball a lot. We were pretty stacked at the point guard position."
Rodriguez's teammates recognized the challenges he was facing in learning how to run a different type of system. Still, Rodriguez maintained a positivity that James Jones described as an "easygoing, happy-go-lucky, child-like spirit."
"It was tough for him," Jones said. "Sergio came from a style of play where it's team-first. … It's kind of difficult when you adjust to the NBA and have star players and the ball has to go a certain place. You just don't have that freedom.
"He was his toughest critic. In practice, during film, when he was working, he was always pushing himself. He was a young guy fighting for position. You could always tell he was about precision. He wanted his passes to be in the right spot, his timing to be impeccable, he paid attention to the details, which is amazing when you talk about point guards."
A change of scenery
Rodriguez played his third and final season with the Trail Blazers in 2008-09. He appeared in a career-high 80 games and earned more playing time, doubling his minutes back up to 15.3. He averaged 4.5 points and was third on the team with 3.6 dimes per game.
That summer, the Trail Blazers traded Rodriguez to the Kings. After half a season in Sacramento, the Kings dealt Rodriguez to the Knicks in February of 2010. Rodriguez compiled his best scoring average (6.6 points) with 3.2 assists in 15.9 minutes between the two teams.
When the season ended, Rodriguez left the NBA. While many of those who had played with Rodriguez were surprised by the decision, others saw why he returned to his native Spain.
"I didn't understand why he went back," Randolph said. "He's definitely an NBA player, legit."
On the flipside, Frye said, "I think it just wasn't the right opportunity for him in Portland. … The minutes weren't there. I think him going overseas, he developed that leadership role a lot better. To me, I think he could have stayed, but he made the right decision. He went back home, won a couple championships, did what he had to do, and now he's back."
NBA: Round 2
This past summer, Rodriguez returned to the NBA, signing a one-year deal with the Sixers. He came back with a resume that boasted the Spanish Olympics team, a Euroleague championship and Euroleague MVP honors. The circumstances felt right to Rodriguez.
"When I left, I wasn't thinking about [returning to the NBA]," Rodriguez said. "When you are in the situation and you are happy like I was when I was in the NBA, you don't think about going back to Spain.
Then when I went back to Spain, I was happy with the decision I made. The Spanish League and the EuroLeague, I competed in those leagues and I won everything. That was a big accomplishment for me and it was a great time, a great decision. It makes me feel very proud about what we did in the last years."
This time around, Rodriguez isn't that 20-year-old learning how to live in a new country by himself. He now is 30, married with a young child.
"I'm bringing my family, it's a different time in my life," he said. "Basketball-wise it's totally different after 10 years playing professional basketball. I can see things that at times were more difficult. I'm more patient. I work differently. My routines are different. I'm getting my shots at the same time, trying to control what you can control, being ready every day to whatever happens."
Rodriguez has assumed a veteran leader role on the Sixers. He took Dario Saric under his wing when the rookie came to Philadelphia from Europe this offseason to help him through similar hurdles. Those who have played with him in Spain during his hiatus from the NBA appreciate what Rodriguez can offer a team in this phase of his career.
"He has better poise. He runs the team a lot better," Marc Gasol said. "He can bring experience. He's a guy who played in many big games. He always has a very positive mindset. He makes everyone around him have fun and play better and have better shots. He's an unselfish guy."
The meaning of Portland
Rodriguez's run with the Trail Blazers, in the grand scheme of his career, was brief. He didn't post his best numbers during that span and had struggles along the way. None of that, however, diminishes what his three seasons in Portland still mean to him 10 years after his NBA career began there.
"Sometimes it's not easy, but I loved my time," Rodriguez said. "For me, it was like college being here. I take that time with a lot of pride and love by the things I did here."