This article appears in SLAM 215, out now in all Titan outlets and major bookstores.
The 2018 SLAM Rising Stars Classic was a pop hit with a twist: a guest verse, a faster tempo, a killer encore. The fifth iteration was a chart topper, a number one with a bullet, a true Classic.
By Polo Bustamante
In 2014, SLAM set out to do something that had never been seen before. They wanted to put on a showcase that featured the best high school players in the country – in a way that only SLAM could do. Born out of that idea was the SLAM Rising Stars Classic. That first all-star game was entertaining, competitive and frankly, very cool.
The list of Rising Stars alumni is a list of the brightest stars in college basketball. ROYs, MVPs, National Team players, Champions. All of these college stars have contributed a highlight or two when they took the court. They blazed the trail for this year’s batch of players.
Eager to put on a show, the 2018 Rising Stars unknowingly combined all of the past year’s highlights into this game. This year’s Rising Stars Classic featured the greatest hits being performed by the game’s future stars.
Red Cub Rising
We’ve seen someone like Evan Nelle before.
Back in 2015, another graduating Red Cub used the Rising Stars game as his swan song at the high school level. Andrei Caracut flashed his full offensive arsenal in his final game before moving on to the DLSU Green Archers. He nailed shots from beyond the arc, hit fadeaway jumpers and dropped floaters in the lane. Andrei top-scored for Team Hype in a losing effort.
A year after Andrei put on a show, Evan had his first Rising Stars Tour of duty. He did well in his first try, scoring 15 points to help his team win. Everyone assumed that he would be a shoo-in for the 2017 Rising Stars game. Unfortunately, Evan’s numbers slipped that season and he wasn’t part of the select group.
Evan worked hard to get back to the level he was at in 2016. There was one difference. He wasn’t just a high-scoring guard anymore. He raised his game to become one of the best playmakers in high school. He steered the ship for the Red Cubs and led them all the way to the Final Four. Evan had full control of the team. He brought that same mentality to this year’s Rising Stars Classic, his last game before becoming a Red Lion.
Point guards don’t always have to lead by deferring. They lead by taking advantage of every opportunity given to them. Evan came into this year’s looking like he wanted to make up for missing last year’s game. He got to his spots on the floor by using screens and his crafty ball handling to navigate the court. When he did have a shot, he didn’t hesitate to let it fly.
Evan scored 10 points in the first quarter, setting the tone for an awesome first half by Team Punks. Fellow guards RJ Abarrientos and Vincent Cunanan took the cue of their point guard and fired at will as well. Late in the first quarter, Evan drilled a long bomb from straight away to give Team Punks the biggest lead of the game at 16.
We’ve seen someone like CJ Cansino before.
Just last year, the UAAP MVP took control of the Rising Stars game to lead Team Hype to a win. Juan Gomez De Liaño drilled a Harden-like step back jumper under a lot of duress. That was the dagger, as it extended his team’s lead to seven points with less than two minutes left in the game. Juan nabbed another MVP award for his clutch performance in last year’s game.
The comparisons between CJ and Juan end with their winning the UAAP MVP and deciding to stay home for college. Juan is a shifty lefty that finds creases in the defense to score. CJ creates the creases himself by attacking the defense head on.
Team Punks built a double-digit lead in the first half and they weren’t letting go. With Team Hype undermanned, everyone turned their attention to the UAAP MVP to lead the comeback.
CJ finally woke up in the second half.
Team Hype tightened their defense in the third quarter getting a hand on shots and passes in the paint. The game sped up and CJ looked right at home in that setting. He looked comfortable attacking the basket in the open court, using his strength and athleticism to finish tough shots. He scored nine points in the third quarter alone, including an acrobatic reverse layup midway through the quarter to cut the deficit down to just three points.
Team Punks’ double-digit lead was gone as the game headed to the fourth quarter.
We’ve seen someone like John Galinato before.
The names included in the 2016 SLAM Rising Stars Classic were staggering. The Gomez De Liaños, Tio, Rivero, Abadeza, Nelle, Melecio. So someone like John Lloyd Clemente could get lost in the shuffle.
He made sure though, that no one would forget him. John Lloyd looked like Larry Fonacier 2.0. He was a smooth criminal off the ball, getting to his spots and drilling spot-up jumpers. His team may have lost the game, but John Lloyd made an impact, leading Team Hype in scoring with 23 points.
The names in this year’s game were staggering too. Cansino, Gozum, Gonzales, Amsali, Nelle, Ildefonso, Sotto. So someone like John could get lost in the shuffle as well. So he made sure everyone knew who he was by the time the game was over.
His game has been compared to PJ Simon, quiet but deadly. Just like the Scoring Apostle, John spread points like the Good News. He looked like every bit the scorer he was advertised to be coming into this game. He quickly found his range in the second half, swishing shots from almost every spot on the floor.
What was once a blowout game became a back-and-forth between Team Punks and Team Hype. The score was tied heading into the final seconds of regulation. With the game on the line, Team Hype called on John’s number.
With 22 seconds left in the final quarter, Team Hype ran a play that started with an LJ Gonzales drive. LJ used his explosive first step to get past his defender and suck in the defense. Once he got deep in the paint, he fired a pass to the left corner where John was waiting. The Team Punks defense tried to recover but by the time they got there, the shot was already out of John’s hands.
He nailed a three-pointer to give Team Hype a three-point lead. That was the biggest shot of the game… at that point.
We’ve seen someone like Dave Ildefonso before.
In the very first SLAM Rising Stars Classic in 2014, another Blue Eaglet had the chance to tie the game to send it into into overtime. Thirdy Ravena missed his chance. He bobbled the ball as the defense smothered him on his game-tying attempt.
Dave faced the same kind defense for his game-tying attempt three years later.
With 15 seconds left in regulation, Team Punks needed a three-point shot to send the game to OT. Dave initiated the play by driving towards the basket. He then dished it out to RJ who was waiting in the wings. Dave immediately popped out to the right corner expecting a pass from RJ and an open look to try and tie the game.
But Dave’s former teammate Jason Credo read the play well. He immediately followed Dave to the corner. Dave faked a drive, and then, instantaneously, stepped back out to beyond the arc. Jason jumped to contest the shot. Dave faked again, took a step to the side and launched over the outstretched arms of Jason. Nothing but net.
Where Thirdy failed, Dave succeeded.
Just like Thirdy, Dave is a bruising, multi-talented forward. Even though Thirdy faltered in the end, he was responsible for getting Team Punks back in the game. He scored eight straight points in the fourth quarter, all on relentless drives to the basket, to give his team a chance to win it.
Dave opened overtime with a similar move. He got the ball on a fast break and didn’t slow down. Like a freight train with no breaks, Dave slammed into LJ, erasing him from the picture. He then swing the ball up over his head as he side-stepped for a strong layup.
Team Punks had the nail on the coffin. They just needed someone to hammer it down.
We’ve never seen anyone like Kai Sotto.
The SLAM Rising Stars Classic has had a lot of talented big men come through its ranks. In 2014, Arvin Tolentino and Prince Rivero teamed up to lead Team Hype. In 2015, Mark Dyke and JBoy Gob battled in the paint. 2016 and 2017 featured Justine Baltazar, Will Gozum, Carlo Abadeza, Sam Abu Hijleh and Rhayyan Amsali.
But none of those big men compare to Kai.
Standing at 7’1”, he easily took the distinction of being the tallest player in SLAM Rising Stars history. His height is the draw. But his constantly-developing skills are what’s gotten the whole country excited. Kai has rapidly improved to become the best big man at the high school level. He’s been branded the Future of Philippine Baketball. He was the reason there was added buzz in the Gatorade Hoops center that afternoon. The stands were packed with fans, coaches and fellow players all looking forward to watching Kai play up close.
Early in the game though, Kai was chill. He was content to let the rest of his team get theirs. He had his moments. In the first quarter, he nonchalantly dunked with two hands. That was only the second dunk in SLAM Rising Stars history. But to Kai, that was probably his nth dunk that day alone.
When Team Hype put the pressure in the fourth quarter though, Kai came alive.
Team Punks was down by two and needed a sure basket. Evan drove to the hoop and found Kai for the shovel pass. He scored on an easy layup to tie the game and set up the final sequence by John and Dave.
It was in overtime where Kai asserted his dominance. There were no more easy shots for Team Hype in the extra period. Kai manned the paint like a predator. He pounced on every shot that was in his area, altering several and blocking two.
Kai was the hammer Team Hype needed.
With 36 seconds left, Joem Sabandal got the ball on the break and drove straight to the hoop. He jumped up for a layup and at the last second passed to a waiting Kai. There was no nonchalantness in his second dunk of the game. He rose up with the ball firmly in between both hands, cocked it slightly back and powered home the dagger.
Kai hung onto the rim, a bit just, to emphasize that the game was done. Team Punks took home the 2018 SLAM Rising Stars Crown.
The 2018 SLAM Rising Stars Classic was mixtape of all of the most memorable moments in Rising Stars history. Because of that, it turned into something we’ve never seen before.
It featured the first overtime in the five-year history of the showcase. Kai finished with a huge double-double of 16 points and 13 rebounds. Evan led Team Punks in scoring with 21 points. Both were named co-MVPs of the game. John set the Rising Stars scoring record with 27 points, breaking the previous record of 23 points held by Thirdy and John Lloyd. CJ scored 20 and didn’t miss a single shot, another first in Rising Stars history.
Just like the Rising Stars alumni, this year’s batch will most likely move on to achieve great things in college. The path is set for Evan, CJ, John, Dave and the rest of batch 2018. ROYs, MVPs, National Team players, Champions.
Kai is on a separate path though. He could achieve all of that, and more. He’s blazing his own trail. Kai is setting out to do something none of us have ever seen before.