Updated: Jun 11
To kick off the 2021-22 season, the nation’s largest prep event, ZG Prep Classic, brought over 60 elite prep programs together under one roof at the Dana Barros Basketball Club in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Pro Insight was on hand to cover the three-day event. Shortly after, we caught up with Rafael Martinez of Williston Northampton School (MA).
A native of Geneva, Switzerland, Martinez has already put together an impressive basketball resume. After initially looking to play soccer professionally as a youngster, Martinez switched over to basketball after seeing an NBA game on TV. His rapid climb up the local ranks propelled Martinez from clubs in Switzerland to JDA Dijon in France, where he played two seasons before coming to the United States to play for Williston Northampton in an effort to reach his collegiate and NBA goals. With the ZG Prep Classic being his first official action on U.S. soil this season, Martinez did not disappoint. Standing all of 6’7” with a strong 215-pound frame, Martinez highlighted his two-way versatility in front of a number of college coaches.
As part of the Pro Insight Q&A series, Martinez discussed his unique basketball journey, his love of learning, what motivates him to work hard, his recruitment update, what he brings to a team, and much more.
For the next installment of the Pro Insight Q&A series, we present 2022 prospect Rafael Martinez, from Geneva, Switzerland:
Pro Insight: How did you get to where you are today?
RM: So I started playing basketball at 13 years old. I stopped playing soccer and was like ‘I want to start playing basketball’ after watching an NBA game on TV. Things went really fast. I went to a club in Geneva, Switzerland, because that’s where I’m from. I did one year at a small club, then I went to a bigger one in Geneva and then they created an academy for Geneva’s prospects. So every year I changed clubs and after my third year, when I was 15 years old, I got recruited by a French club, JDA Dijon, where I played for two years. But since my third year in Switzerland, the goal was to play D1 basketball. So I signed [with JDA Dijon] for two years so when I graduated I could directly go to college. So I graduated last July so I could go directly to college, but because of COVID-19 I couldn’t play much last year. So the guy I was working with told me to take a post-grad year and go to Williston. I had a meeting with Coach Farmer — who is a super coach — we have a good connection and I really like the way he coaches. We had a couple zoom meetings and I said, “yeah, let’s go.” I felt good with it. I love it, it’s been three months since I’ve been here and I’ve really improved a lot with basketball and outside the court. It’s a good place with good people, so that’s how I got here.
PI: To clarify — you were hoping to be in college by now but COVID caused you to pivot to post-grad?
RM: Yeah, I had multiple interests and still have interest now. The thing is the game I played was in October and the recruiting process started in April/May so it was kind of late. Because the games I played were in October, they didn’t have enough information so they asked me to do a post-grad here and that’s why I’m here. Everything has been good here so far, my second game was a good performance, I set my record for three-point shots made [smiles]. Yeah I feel really good here. I was going to go early to college, but didn’t make it because of COVID-19. I think it was a really good choice to come here and play as a post-grad.
PI: So you were playing soccer and switched to basketball after watching an NBA game on TV?
RM: It’s actually a fun story. I was sick, so I stayed home and they had these NBA replays on the sports channel, so I watched. It was the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James against the San Antonio Spurs with Tony Parker. I watched that game and I was like, “yeah, basketball seems fun,” and my dad wasn’t happy at all with me stopping playing soccer because I was good. I was a striker and leading scorer. So, yeah, I stopped [playing soccer] and started playing basketball from one day to the other and it worked. I had really nice people and good coaches that made me go further every time and that’s how I started. Just one NBA game on TV and now I’m here.
PI: How did you get your start with a club once you decided you wanted to play basketball?
RM: I’ve always been tall, so I was like 6’0” or 6’1” at 13 years old. So I arrived at a practice and asked if they were doing tryouts and they said, “yeah, we’ll see how you play, but obviously you’ve never played before so maybe we’ll put you on the second team.” But they immediately put me on the first team because I was athletic and I ran fast. After a few games, I was in the starting five, I played power forward and center for the first two years and when I moved to France I played the shooting guard and small forward. Now I play the two-through-four, I can play most every position. It helped me to extend my game playing all of those positions.
PI: Did your parents or other family members also play basketball?
RM: Yeah, I’m from Argentina [as well], I have both passports, Switzerland and Argentina. My dad is a big soccer fan so he made me play soccer since I was three years old. He wanted me to be a professional soccer player, but I’m the only athlete in the family. I have a cousin who was a professional boxer, but that’s pretty much it. But yeah, I’m pretty much the only athlete in the family and his only hope of a soccer player was only me and on the day I said “no,” he was so angry he didn’t talk to me for like a week [laughs].
PI: What are your current measurements?
RM: I’m between 6’7'' and 6’8” and I weigh around 215 pounds. My goal is to get to 225 pounds and still be really athletic. My wingspan is around 6’9” or 6’10”.
PI: Where do you get your size from?
RM: Really, I don’t know — my dad’s 6’1” and my mom is 5’9”, but my mom has cousins that are like 6’5” or 6’6”. So maybe it comes from that side, but I don’t really know [laughs]. My brother is like 6’4”, so we’re both pretty tall.
PI: Describe your game — what are some of your greatest strengths?
RM: I can do everything, that’s why I play small forward. I mostly shoot threes — catch-and-shoot threes are my main thing, but I also drive to the basket in a few dribbles. Just one or two dribbles, not a lot, just dribbles to get to the basket and score. I can pass, set screens, play in pick-and-roll, etc. I’m pretty versatile, so I do it all on the court. I push the ball, run fast breaks, etc. But my main thing is shooting and driving.
PI: How would you describe yourself as a defender?
RM: Yeah, I can play defense from two-through-five. I can defend the whole court with guards, defend the low post on centers, I can “no middle,” that’s what I was taught in France. I have defensive highlights from the game and getting beat on defense is not really what I do. I always stay in front of my man and that’s my job, actually. France taught me how to learn to like playing defense. So now I like to play hard defense. I always talk — communication is key — so I’m trying to be a leader on defense and offense. It works during the games, so I’m just going to keep doing it.
PI: Elaborate a bit more — how did your time in France make you a stronger defender?
RM: So with JDA Dijon, the DNA of that club is defense, so almost every day at practice we had one-on-one full court defense which was really tiring [laughs]. I didn’t like it, I never liked it, but I knew it was going to help me later because I want to play professionally everywhere. So I knew it was going to help me for my personal career, so just go and do the job. Now I see how it works here and how I played defense on that guy [recent matchup] and he didn’t score that much, so it worked. Practices were really focused on defense and that’s where I got tougher and practiced my defense on guards.
PI: Where do you feel like you can improve the most?
RM: You’re never going to get perfect at handling the ball. So I would say handling the ball and my court vision. I can do no-look passes and analyze the game, but I still have to work on it. I want to be really good at it. Like anticipating things…those are the main things I want to improve, the handling and vision.
PI: What would you say is an underrated aspect of your game?
RM: I would say when I arrived in the game no one thought I could shoot, so when I started shooting right away, like within 30 seconds I scored a 3. That’s when the defense started to come up on me a little bit, but I was still pulling up in their faces [smiles]. When they started to really come up on me, I started driving the ball. Something that’s underrated is how I explode to the basket, like my first step is really fast, so that’s really when people tend to go easy on defense on me and I just pass them. That’s where people sleep on me a little bit — then I punish them by scoring on their faces. That’s pretty much what I do [laughs].
PI: You’re a captain on the Swiss National Team, correct?
RM: Yes, I’ve been the captain of the national team since 2019. It was the beginning of my third year of basketball. After my second year of basketball I was a rookie on the national team. I did the European Championship, I was in the starting five, but I was the youngest one on the team in U16. Then I was captain for the second year because of my experience and the way I talk. I try to bring everybody together, like in Switzerland we speak four different languages [including English]: we have the Italian, German, and French parts. As we arrived for the camp in April, I started to really talk to everybody and make everybody talk to each other. The coach noticed and he wanted me to be the voice for that team on and off the court, which worked because we had a strong performance at the European Championship and this past summer, too. So yeah, it worked.
PI: You speak four different languages?
RM: We speak English on the national team, but I speak four languages. French and Spanish are my main languages, then I studied German for nine years in school and English since I was 13 years old.
PI: Describe your time playing with the Swiss National Team — what has that experience been like?
RM: It made me improve my mental toughness, because when I was a rookie [with the National Team], I had only played two seasons of basketball in my life and being here I played against Serbia and they were all like 6’10” and 100 kilograms. I was 6’5”, but really skinny and I was playing the power forward and center [positions] and I had to defend these big people and I was getting walked on. That really improved my toughness because I never give up, that’s not something I do. So I really tried to fight and fought so bad that I got five fouls and fouled out [laughs]. Playing against other national teams, Switzerland is like an underdog team in the tournament, so having to have that mindset of proving to others that we can play is really something that made me improve my mental toughness. Everybody was looking down at us, so we had to prove them wrong. Even though it was hard, we never gave up. That’s kind of the mindset about Switzerland — everybody thinks we suck and then we show them we can play and it’s basically the mindset I have now, ever since my game against Serbia my first year [with the team]. That game made me realize that I had to put some weight on, go to the weight room and eat, because physically I wasn’t ready. Then I started playing physically and it worked. Getting prepared and all of that stuff, the extra work that you have to put in in Switzerland makes you better at basketball, but it’s not enough if you want to play internationally. So the extra work I put in made me perform way better at the European Championship.
PI: What’s the story behind joining Williston? What led to that decision?
RM: It was kind of late, like the beginning of July, and I had to go to the National Team, so for like a month I wouldn’t really be able to be on the phone and talk to schools. The guy I work with knows Coach Farmer, so they talked and the way he [coach] presented his school and the way I’d be playing in his game, the role I would have, I really liked it and said, “yeah, let’s go.” I didn’t want to waste or lose time talking to schools I would never go to and I felt really good with it. I was meant to come here and play for Coach Farmer at Williston.
PI: How long have you been in the states?
RM: Exactly three months today [note: interview was conducted on 12/7/21]. I feel like it’s been way longer than that because fall was really long, we just started practicing two weeks ago. Fall was a really long time just working on my skills and my game, but I feel like I’ve grown my game more here than I did in France in two years. So I really enjoy being here.
PI: In what ways has your game grown since being here?
RM: My shooting form. I had a little hitch in my wrist, so it was bending like this [bends wrist far back], that’s why I didn’t score much, but since I fixed it my shot is…I wouldn’t say perfect, but the form is way better. It worked. I’ve never shot seven threes and scored five in my life, so I would say it really worked. I would [also] say my confidence in my game. Before the European Championship I wasn’t really dribbling the ball, I was passing or just one or two dribbles. Now since I got back from the European Championship I don’t hesitate to just take the ball and bring it up on offense. Be the “PG.” So yeah, my confidence and my shot are the main things that have improved here.
PI: What has the adjustment been like from a competition standpoint?
RM: In France I wasn’t only playing with their U18 teams, but I was practicing with older people, we call them “whole teams.” Some guys were playing on first division professional teams in France, so they were really tough matchups. Having to play against D1 prospects is not really new to me because the European Championship or France are kind of the same level. The thing that took me the most time to adapt to was motion [offense]. In France you have like 20 sets and you know your role, even though I was playing two-through-four, I had to know every set for three positions. Having to come here and rely more on creativity was really new. The first game, on Friday, I was kind of lost. Saturday I played against Bridgton Academy so my adaptation was kind of quick I would say [scored 25 pts on 5-7 from deep]. I tend to play way better against good teams with a lot of expectations. When we expect the game to be “tough and difficult” that’s when I play the best. So I was expecting a really tough team on Saturday and that’s why my “killer mindset” was on.
PI: Elaborate more on your killer mindset — is that something you’ve always had?
RM: No. When I was playing soccer, I wasn’t like this. Maybe it was when I left my family, I would say. Since I left Switzerland it’s like I got thrown in a cage with a lot of lions that just want to eat me. In France. the mindset is like “you’re alone and if you give up then you’ll give up; but if you don’t, then it’s just going to be hell for you.” Two years in France was kind of hell for me, but it was what I needed to be here right now. I’m never going to give up. I’m always going to be full of energy, always going to talk on defense, and always going to give 100-percent of everything. I jump on every ball on the floor and during the games [over the weekend] I did this multiple times. I’m always talking, trying to get my teammates in the game mentally, like to be ready, be tough, be physical, etc. I’m not scared to do a hard foul to show my team like, “hey, we have to play physical and get into the game.” That’s basically what I do in the European Championship — some guys take like a quarter before they start to play. So in the first quarter sometimes I would just commit a big foul and just [claps hands] scream at my guys like “let’s go! Let’s wake up and start playing basketball. Stop being scared!” Because I’m not scared of anything. So that’s basically it, the killer mindset, anybody in front of me…he’s dead. He’s not going to perform against me and yeah that’s pretty much it.
PI: So you like to infuse your team with energy from the jump?
RM: Yeah I use my voice a lot. Like if you watch the whole game I’m always screaming or talking. Even when I’m on the sideline I’m like talking, more than the coach sometimes. I’m the coach on the court, if I can say it like that.
PI: What has the adjustment to the states been like off the court?
RM: Yes, as soon as I arrived the coach was there and gave me a tour of the city. Then I had orientation activities where I got to know a lot of people and made friends really quick. I have some really good people that really help me, teachers and stuff too. Everybody here is like a family, teachers are really helpful and they understand I come from Europe and it’s my first time really learning English. They really helped me to adapt, so it was really smooth. I feel like my adaptation from France to America was a lot smoother than from Switzerland to France. Switzerland to France was hell [laughs] and now I feel really good here. I really love America.
PI: What sort of advice would you share with other international players thinking about playing in the U.S.?
RM: I would say to be mentally ready because playing here, a lot of players trash talk, so if you’re mentally weak you’re just going to play their game and they’re going to get into your head. Coaches push a lot to our limits too, so mentally be ready and never give up. Just be confident and have that mindset like “I never give up and I will always give my best day after day,” because it’s a process. You’re not just going to play for like a month, you’re at least going to be here for a year. I knew it was short and I knew I had to get to work early, so I switched my mindset. I said, “as soon as I arrive on campus, it’s time to work” and that’s basically what I did. Yeah, the mindset. I feel like mental health is really the most important thing. If you’re good mentally, then you’re good physically. If you’re not good mentally, then physically you’re going to have problems, too. It goes together I feel like and I always make sure my mental health is good so physically I also feel good. When you feel ready, you feel good…you feel ready to work, to destroy your body when you lift…whoa I’m going far [laughs], but be ready mentally and be tough. “Never give up,” is pretty much it.
PI: How have you been able to strengthen yourself mentally over the years?
RM: I’m a Christian [shows cross necklace], so everytime something goes wrong I’m the type of person that believes God has a plan. Like “God has a plan, it’s His plan,” so then it boosts me up and I feel like it’s all good. Like maybe this is what’s meant to happen — so I’ve got to go with it or go through it. If I have an obstacle or challenge I’m not going to turn around and just continue my life, I’m going to go through it and just fight to solve the problems. That’s pretty much how I work. I would say my faith is really what makes me stay good mentally.
PI: You had a strong showing at the ZG Prep Classic — what do you feel like you showed college coaches and scouts in attendance?
RM: That I can do everything, which is what I wanted to show. I shoot the ball, can dribble the ball, pass the ball, etc. I play defense a lot, I play tough, I play physical, I won’t hesitate to use my body to push people and make my way to the basket. Just show my skills, I can do it all on both sides of the court. Scoring threes and not being scared to take my shots is basically what I wanted to show and it worked so I’m happy about it. And show my leadership. I’m always trying to improve my leadership, that’s why I read books in my free time [smiles]. Books about leadership and how to be a good leader for my team and in life in general because I feel like it’s what I’m meant to be. I feel like leadership and the fact that I can do everything on both sides of the court is what I wanted to show and it worked.
PI: What’s the latest with your recruitment?
RM: Interest. I have Drexel University, they came to Williston today to talk to me and we had a really good talk. The guy I work with who handles everything, he talks to the schools. I talked with the University of Tennessee-Martin back in April, but since then I’ve been focused on my season. I’m going to let this recruiting process [work itself out]...but now the season started, so I’m going to be more focused on this.
PI: So stay focused and make a decision towards the back half of the season?
RM: I want to be committed soon, because I’ve been thinking about it non-stop since I was 15 years old. Seeing videos of all of these people committing and stuff, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I would like to verbally commit around February so I don’t have time to lose [smiles]. I have to perform, I have to keep going like I played on Saturday and yeah that’s pretty much my plan. I want to commit as soon as possible when I feel like the university that offered me is the one I feel the best with. A school that can prepare me the best for playing professionally later at the highest level and having the best career. As soon as I feel that, I’m going to commit.
PI: Did you have any dream schools growing up?
RM: My first dream school was the University of Oregon, “the Big O,” because I loved the court and the fact that Nike was doing a lot of things with it. They were playing good and I don’t remember his name, but they had this player that had so much bounce and I was like, “wow.” I was watching all of the highlights of Oregon. Then I switched to just watching high majors, like Big East, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12, ACC — those are the conferences I watch the most, because they play the toughest basketball I would say. So yeah I had like Ohio State, Georgetown, etc. These universities I wanted to play for because I saw a lot of professional players in Europe who were from Ohio State. Seeing the way they played I was like, “ooh, if I go there I would be so good coming out of it.” So I was like, “yeah, Ohio State, UCLA, Georgetown, all of these schools.” Once I was in class and we were watching a movie that was kind of boring [laughs] and I was like listing all of the universities I knew and wrote like 100 names in like an hour [laughs]. But yeah, D1 has been in my head non-stop for the past three years.
PI: What are you looking for in your school of choice?
RM: Academics are really important also, so I want a school that will give me a safety plan because I want to study business. I would say a school that could provide me with a good business degree and that could really prepare me for the best career I could ever have in basketball. So having both would be perfect. Ohio State is in the top-50 for academics and if I could play there that would be so good [laughs]. Seeing basketball there, they’ve always been a really good program. So I would say having both academic and athletics that are good and well known, that would be perfect.
PI: What are some things you bring to a team off the court?
RM: I would say bringing everybody together. At the beginning of the year with new people there’s always groups, like people being alone on their sides. I feel like since even before I was the captain of the National Team, even in the classroom I would try to talk and joke with those who were introverts and not really talking. I’ve always, not like introduced, but given these people more confidence so they can really talk to everybody and not be scared of talking. So bringing people together is basically what I do with every group because I don’t like to see people on their sides and scared to talk to the main group. Basically I would say that and jokes, I always do jokes [laughs]. The younger guys, I’m trying to not struggle…but like rookies, give them my backpack and stuff like that [laughs]. On the National Team, I did that a lot.
PI: Are there any players you model your game after?
RM: Yeah, Jayson Tatum [Boston Celtics]. I watch his highlights pretty much every day. He’s definitely my favorite player. During Christmas break I’m going to go see the Celtics game so I can’t wait to watch it. I always analyze his game, like the way he works out, and I try to do the same. He’s a small forward and he can shoot and do everything and I do everything so I’m kind of like putting my game and his game together. Trying to do the same, so he’s an example to me. I wear the same number that he had in high school, #22 [smiles].
PI: What motivates you to work hard?
RM: I would say having a family later, the family I’m going to have later…I wouldn’t say money is my motivation, but having a family and a lot of money would be the perfect life for me. Also having a positive impact on people. I know in basketball a lot of people look up to you. Having this and being an example on and off the court would be a way to have the biggest impact in my life. So I would say having an impact on people later as well as being a good husband and dad. Those are my motivations. My goal is to be the best version of myself in every aspect of my life and I think it’s the best goal because you’re never going to reach it. It’s a full life process because you’re never going to be perfect. So you’re always going to try and improve something and that gives you motivation. Life is not boring when you have goals to achieve, so I would say my motivation would be to be the best at having a positive impact on people.
PI: What is some of the best advice you’ve ever received?
RM: There are some simple ones like, “one day at a time” and “always try to work harder than you did yesterday.” This one I receive every year, my dad always asks me to work harder and he kills me sometimes in some workouts. He tells me, “you’ve got to go harder” and we stay for five hours shooting. I would also say, “be better than you were yesterday” and “be an example.” Not living like everybody is watching you, but like always be an example in what you do. Always show a good attitude. Like if young kids were looking at you, what would you do? How would you react to this or that? Those are basically the two pieces of advice…one was from my mom and the other from my dad. My mom is more about behavior and attitude and my dad is more about hard work. They’re the ones who give me the most advice and since they saw I wanted to play professionally, they really gave me advice to help me later and it helps me. It sticks in my mind so I never forget about it.
PI: Your dad initially wanted you to play soccer professionally — how supportive has he been with your basketball pursuits?
RM: So when I stopped playing [soccer], I was really starting to be recruited by good teams for soccer. And as soon as they talked to me, one week later I was like, “I don’t want to play anymore” because I had been playing for like 10 years, so I was kind of done with it. Him being mad at me…the first year he didn’t come to my games, my second year I was getting better and more people were coming to the games and I was getting more watched/known. He was still like, “yeah but he still plays in Geneva,” so he didn’t really care. When he saw I was getting recruited and my career was progressing super quick he really started to be more supportive. When I got recruited to go to France he was like, “okay that’s serious” and that’s when he really started to be more supportive, I think. Then COVID-19 hit and when I came back home he was like, “let’s go workout, I’ll get your rebounds” and I was like, “oh okay”. I