Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
Roberto Zavala had no interest in soccer. Not watching it. Not playing it.
In Mexico, where 16-year-old Zavala lived before moving to Southern Nevada last December, soccer is the sport about which most are passionate. The country partially shuts down when the national team plays, and virtually every child grows up dribbling a soccer ball.
Rather, Zavala’s sport of choice is basketball. And he’s pretty good at it. So good, his family moved from their hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico, to allow him to pursue his dream of playing in college.
Zavala is a junior combo guard at Las Vegas High, bringing a dimension to the Wildcats’ lineup they lacked in seasons past — a playmaker with a skill set to which the opposition won’t be accustomed. The season starts at the end of November, and schools have already started daily practices.
The 6-foot Zavala was part of the Mexican junior national team player pool and has experience against international competition. Las Vegas coach Jason Wilson describes Zavala’s style of play as having a European flair, saying he’s got the potential to be an impact player because of his pass-first mentality and basketball smarts.
For a program such as Las Vegas, which is always in contention for the Sunrise Region crown, getting a move-in with Zavala’s abilities make them instantly better, maybe even the team to beat in the Sunrise.
“He is a good passer, good scorer and has a great basketball IQ,” Wilson said. “On any given night, he can lead us in scoring. He knows how to play with and without the basketball. He might not be as talented one-on-one at times, but he is definitely smooth with the ball.”
Zavala moved to town after the start of last season and spent the remainder of the academic year at Global Community High School’s English as a second language program. Wilson received a call from the school’s physical education teacher singing Zavala’s praises after watching him on the court during a class.
By time the informal spring league started, Zavala was anchoring the Las Vegas backcourt. Adjusting to the fast-paced American game was easier said than done, but Zavala never lacked confidence with the ball in his hands. He frequently pushes the ball up the court and immediately looks for a teammate near the basket for an easy two points. He’s also not afraid to take the ball to the basket or pull up and hit a jump shot.
“In Mexico, we pass, pass, pass,” Zavala said. “Here in the United States, when you pass, you won’t get (the ball back). There is a lot of guys with talent and you have to be ready to defend them.”
Zavala still takes ESL classes at Las Vegas, and his English is improving daily. On the basketball court, where hand signals are mostly used to call offensive plays, there are few communication problems with teammates. He’s become popular for what he brings to their team — a legitimate chance to win the Sunrise.
“He fits in. Sometimes he doesn’t understand a lot. But he understands the game of basketball, and that’s what’s important,” said Juwan Major, Las Vegas’ senior forward and arguably its top player. “We were missing that point guard. I think he will play that spot well. He gets his points, but he likes to pass first and gives everyone a chance to get buckets.”
Zavala, who Wilson says is a low Division-I talent, aspires to play in college for North Carolina. He models his game after Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and often watches highlight videos of Rose. He tries to duplicate Rose’s moves on the court from Las Vegas.
“His crossover and his speed,” Zavala said of Rose’s game. “Here in the United States, a lot of players have talent and speed like that. That’s how everyone plays.”
Zavala knows navigating through the Sunrise Region won’t be easy because every team Las Vegas will face has athletes he is not accustomed to constantly playing against. Because of that, he said the Las Vegas High team would beat the Mexican national team of which he was part.
With Zavala leading the way, they also could beat a few local foes on the schedule.
“He makes all of the kids a lot better,” Wilson said. “He gets the balls to the guys on the right spot (of the court).”