Dave Ildefonso came home so that he can spread his wings even further

If you can’t beat them, join them.

That’s how fans reacted to the new of Dave Ildefonso’s transfer back to Ateneo. Some even went as far as to compare the move to Kevin Durant’s free agency move to go to the Golden State Warriors in 2016. An elite player moving to a dominant team in the hopes of winning a championship. It was understandable that people felt this way.

Unlike the Warriors who were fresh off a Finals loss, the Ateneo Blue Eagles are coming off their third straight championship. They are a dynasty in every sense of the word and their new challenge now is to eclipse unattainable excellence once again. They aren’t simply chasing championships; they’re chasing absolute domination over collegiate basketball.

On the surface, by moving to the Blue Eagles, it looked like Dave was taking the easy way out. He wasn’t just getting one championship; he was probably going to win multiple with the program. While Ateneans celebrated the transfer, fans from other schools scoffed and called him names. Snake. Traitor. Weak. The opposite of his MVP dad.

Dave was made to look like a ring chaser, someone who couldn’t achieve greatness with a developing program in NU. And that’s where the problem of this entire rhetoric lies.

In Dave’s letter announcing his move to the Blue Eagles, he mentioned this line: My biggest basketball dream has always been to represent the country in major international meets and I feel this is the best path to that fulfillment of my dream. It may feel like mere PR for Dave to say something like this, a throw-in statement to lessen the blow for NU fans. But given the context of his career thus far, there’s plenty of truth to what he was claiming.

Coming out of High School, Dave was projected as one of the top recruits of his class. He wasn’t number one, but he was definitely in the top five. The expectation was he’d produce immediately for the NU Bulldogs, especially given their lack of a go-to scorer.

That expectation he lived up to. During his rookie year, he exceeded whatever what was expected out of him, unleashed as NU’s main gun. He showcased fans strength that was made for a veteran and an offensive game that was so polished you’d think he was a graduating senior. That was only the start, as he surprised Filipino fans even more after an impressive FIBA U19 World Cup stint. He showcased his full offensive arsenal with averages of 16.6 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game, and 3.7 assists per game during the tournament.

Dave had taken a leap. He wasn’t just a top highs school recruit anymore. He straight up looked like one of the cornerstones of Philippine Basketball moving forward.

He followed up his FIBA World Cup run by averaging 17.1 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game for the NU Bulldogs in Season 82. He was producing at high levels while playing for NU, so why the need to transfer if his end goal was to represent the country in major international meets? Wasn’t his current trajectory enough to convince him he was going to be a National Team player?

The beauty with collegiate basketball, especially in today’s player empowerment era, is its focus on the individual basketball player rather than the team. Yes, basketball is a team sport, but players still need to look out for themselves in the hopes of developing themselves into the best athletes they can be. The pressure to succeed isn’t as immense in the collegiate level compared to when you are a pro. College is the best opportunity for athletes to focus on their development so that once they make the leap to the pros, they put themselves in the best shape possible to have a fruitful career.

This is proven taking a look at the players in the PBA. Some of the best players in the league today didn’t even get to win a ring in college. Players like Paul Lee, James Yap, and even June Mar Fajardo weren’t lauded for being key players on dynasties. They were drafted because they were very good basketball players coming out of college. They were only able to attain that level of success because they allowed themselves to be trained by programs which put a premium on their development over anything else.

That’s where the shift in narrative is important when looking at Dave’s transfer. He’s making a move that will help him improve as a player. The championships are a nice, added bonus.

More than championships, Coach Tab Baldwin has built a program that produces really good basketball players. He transformed once lost soul Thirdy Ravena into a potential international basketball professional. Matt Nieto went from third string point guard to lottery pick in the PBA. Issac Go was once a raw, chubby big man. He turned into the top pick in the 2019 draft after his time with Coach Tab.

Coach Tab has put a premium into player development and it has made life easier for him in building a good basketball team. Good players build good teams, right?

Dave is already a good player but he can be better. While he produced awesome numbers with Batang Gilas and NU, he showed a number of bad habits which hindered his overall productivity. Big time numbers don’t always mean the best results. Sometimes producing less, especially in team sports, can actually mean more in the long run. That’s what Dave can learn when playing for the Blue Eagles.

Dave had a tendency to rely on isolation plays during his time with NU and at times, with Batang Gilas. While he definitely had the skill to score in such situations, he relied on it a bit too much. At the end of the day, basketball is a team sport. Isolating makes your offense predictable and it makes life for defenses easier. Instead of doing more with less, why not do less with more? 

Dave has achieved the most success whenever he’s played as the second or third option for very good teams. With the Season 80 champion Blue Eaglets, he was their secondary/tertiary option behind SJ Belangel and Kai Sotto. With the first Batang Gilas U18 team to make it to the World Cup, he was the second option behind Kai. While he was able to put up points, the difference was how he was putting up these numbers up.

Instead of isolating, he’d often get opportunities to attack off the bounce and off the catch. Instead of using all of his energy on meaningless dribbles to get around defenders, he used that energy to find good positioning around the court and attack when the defense is imbalanced. Dave was even more of a killer when he found the opening given to him by his teammates.

While there was an effort to play Dave as a point guard in NU, it’s clear Dave is still a born scorer. That doesn’t mean he will be boxed in as a mere wing during his time with the Blue Eagles. That’s the entire point of going back home; so he can develop in an environment where he can expand his game even further.

Take for instance another Blue Eagle wing man. During Season 79, Thirdy was never tasked to explicitly play as a point guard. Even during Season 80 and Season 81 as well. Season 82 was no exception. However, his ability to create plays for his teammates, and even control an offense, were developed. This then allowed him to look like he could be the primary playmaker of the Blue Eagles. 

That’s the thing with playing under Coach Tab. He never boxes a player under one specific position. It isn’t about playing as a point guard, or a shooting guard, or whatever the five positions there may be in a basketball game. It’s about one important role for Tab; the job of being a basketball player. With Ateneo, Dave has an opportunity to become an even better basketball player, even if he’s a monster on the court already.

There will continue to be discussion about Dave’s loyalty and his toughness as a player. Different adjectives and titles will be given to him, just like what happened to KD when he transferred to the Warriors.

But there’s a key difference between Dave and Durant was that Durant needed a ring. He was already a professional then whose legacy was being talked about based on the number of championships he had in the NBA.

Dave doesn’t need a ring. He’s only starting to build his own legacy now. The discussion surrounding Dave should be on what he can be in the future. What he needs now is the best program possible to help him develop, so he can be the best possible basketball player moving forward.