The logo of the Soles de Mexicali is a bit of a fever dream — the word Soles (Spanish for Suns) spelled out in black, only with an basketball replacing the O. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that the basketball also has angry-looking eyes and clenched teeth, plus a trail of flame meant to evoke the team’s mascot but that really makes it look like a cartoon fish.
The Soles were founded in 2005 and have won four championships in the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional (LNBP), the top league in Mexico, including in 2020 — and until a year ago, Stefan Gonzalez had never heard of them.
But this fall, Gonzalez, who spent most of his childhood in Pocatello and graduated from Highland, will be donning their jerseys — cartoon basketball and all — after signing his first professional basketball contract with the Soles last week.
“It feels really good, to be honest,” Gonzalez said. “I was working my butt off this whole last year trying to wait for my opportunity, and now I’ve got that opportunity that I’ve been waiting for.”
The reason Gonzalez is heading down to Baja California to start his pro career is because of the unique dilemma he faced a year ago.
He was one of the best prep players in Pocatello’s recent history, helping lead the Rams to a 5A state runner-up finish in 2014-15 before going on to play collegiately at St. Mary’s and UC Davis.
But despite finishing the 2019-20 season, his senior year at UC Davis, as the most accurate 3-point shooter in Division I (47.7%), he knew he was unlikely to be drafted or catch on with an NBA team as an undrafted free agent.
His choice: Try to make a G-League roster, which wasn’t a sure thing but might have him one step away from potentially making the NBA; or go overseas and play for a foreign team, with a guaranteed contract and at least some sense of what his playing time would be.
It’s a choice faced by hundreds of graduating seniors every year. For these players, making the NBA is like playing the world’s biggest game of plinko — there are plenty of potential paths, but no way to tell which one is going to be the right one.
What made Gonzalez’s choice unique — and even more murky — was the COVID-19 pandemic, which ended the college basketball season prematurely. By the time he finished the school year, the question wasn’t what was going to get shut down — it was what were things going to look like when they came back?
For the G-League, it was an 18-team, 15-game bubble in Orlando in February and March. And that meant players like Gonzalez, who turned down overseas interest to try to make the G-League, were out of luck. No injury replacements in the bubble meant his best chance of getting an opportunity was no longer an option. And with only 17 of the G-League’s 28 teams participating (plus the G-League Ignite, a team of high school prospects), roster spots were limited anyway.
“Once that didn’t happen for me, all the overseas leagues had already started and they were near halfway through their season, so they weren’t really looking to pick any more guys up at that point in time,” Gonzalez said. “So I knew I was gonna have to wait for this upcoming year.”
That meant a year of individual workouts for Gonzalez, partly at Hansen Athletics in Pocatello and partly at a facility in Las Vegas.
It’s not quite right to call it a lost year — Gonzalez likes the improvements he made in the gym — but it certainly wasn’t the best way to start a potential pro career.
Signing with the Soles gives him a second chance at it. The team is one of the most successful in the LNBP. They reached out last year to try to sign him, so he already knows they like him as a player. And being in Mexico will give Gonzalez, who has dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship through his father, a chance to work on his Spanish.
Most important, though, is that the LNBP season will end in November. If he plays well, that will give him the chance to come back to the U.S. — and maybe, if things work out, sign with a G-League for the rest of the season.
If there’s anything Gonzalez has learned in his first brush with the hazardous climb to the NBA, it’s that keeping your options open is a good thing.
“Now I’m trying to take a longer route to see if I can work my way back over here to the states,” Gonzalez said. “It’s dependent on how I do over in Mexico, and then whatever comes after that. ... But you know, I think that with how hard I’ve worked this last year, it’s made me an even better player. I’m excited to show that on the court here, coming soon.”