Fresh from the team’s conquest in the 2016 Southeast Asia Basketball Association (SEABA) Cup as well as an appearance in that year’s FIBA Asia Challenge tournament,the PBA held a special round for members of the Gilas Pilipinas cadets pool during the conduct of the 2016 PBA Draft. This way, it would ensure that each of the 12 clubs would be able to enlist a National Team member in their ranks.
Fast-forward to the conclusion of the 2016-17 PBA season, SLAM PH takes a look at these freshmen and how they’ve fared so far after three conferences in the League.
Carl Bryan Cruz, Alaska Aces
Although his rookie season in the PBA was somehow limited as aside from splitting time between club and national team duties, the Aces also failed to clinch a playoff berth in the last two conferences. Such scenario has denied Carl Bryan Cruz of being able to fully display the wares that made him a coveted pick after a strong amateur showing in college and in the PBA D-League.
But on the few opportunities that he was able to don the Alaska jersey this season, Cruz promptly showed his all-around game on the offensive end, something that was alien to him back in his UAAP days as he was more known of being a bruising enforcer for the FEU Tamaraws before.
Through his exposure in the D-League and as part of the Gilas Pilipinas cadets, it enabled the 6’4″ Cruz to refine his offensive game without sacrificing his tenacity on the defensive end of the floor. He may have only averaged 4.5 points and 3.7 rebounds at the conclusion of his freshman year in the pros, but there are glimpses of brilliance along the way: a 20-point, 14-rebound a 2-steal statline for his PBA debut against NLEX. Heeding the call for the three stripes and the sun on multiple occasions during the season, Cruz gutted and willed his way against bigger and tougher opponents, all along flashing his deft offensive touch including a 28-point outing against Thai commercial squad Mono Vampire in the 2017 FIBA Asia Champions Cup, highlighted by 8 trifectas.
As veterans Dondon Hontiveros and Tony Dela Cruz bade their goodbyes from the team, Alaska will be looking at a core revolving around superstar Calvin Abueva. With his grit, toughness and a mean stroke from the outside, Cruz is expected to be an integral piece not only of his team’s direction moving forward but most likely of Gilas Pilipinas as well.
Kevin Ferrer, Barangay Ginebra Kings
One of Kevin Ferrer’s lasting memories during his varsity days was when he lit up the FEU Tamaraws for 6 triples in Game 2 of the 2015 UAAP Finals. But aside from having the ability to drop buckets at a torrent rate, Ferrer was as notorious a defender, being blessed with a wingspan the size of a Pterodactyl’s and having the attitude of one in messing around with opponent’s heads. Just ask Ray-Ray Parks.
This combination has made Ferrer a logical choice for Barangay Ginebra, a team that has produced some of the PBA’s toughest defenders such as the Rudys (Distrito and Hatfield), Benny Cheng, Terry Saldana and Robert Jaworski, Jr., among others. Plus, Ferrer’s shooting can be of great help to a team that is lacking on perimeter scoring to augment the towering presence of Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar in the paint.
So far, Ferrer hasn’t lived up to his billing as an outside sniper. However, he has been effective in the defensive end with his length plus a more bulkier frame in matching up with heftier counterparts. And he still disrupts the normal wavelength of opposing players (hello Glen Rice, Jr.!) A key reason as to why Tim Cone has moved him to the starting lineup several times, with him being a regular starter in the 2017 Governors’ Cup Finals so far. The rookie swingman may still have to find his stroke anew, but the intangibles that he has contributed to his team are deemed just as valuable. Imagine if his shooting finds its way back to him just like his Growling Tiger days.
Mac Belo, Blackwater Elite
The de-facto first over-all pick of last year’s draft, Mac Belo was supposed to be at the top of the class as well.
Proving that he is indeed the best among the rest of the young talents that entered the league a year ago, Belo immediately assumed the mantle of becoming the Elite’s go-to-guy after stringing several strong games while towing his team to either a victory or a close shave. He even managed to snag a Best Player of the Week citation after only a couple of games into his professional career all the while towing Blackwater to a franchise-best 2-0 start. That’s how special a player Belo is.
Just when the Elite were beginning to roll with their prized greenhorn out of FEU leading the charge, things then took a nosedive when Belo went down with a torn meniscus on his left injury. Being sidelined for three months however took its toll on the multi-faceted forward as he struggled to get his bearings back upon his return to action. In the 7 games that he saw action in the season-ending Governors’ Cup, he only averaged 5.1 points and 2.4 rebounds, going scoreless in two of these matches.
The good side, however, is that Belo possess the kind of work ethic that made him from a virtual unknown recruit in the Palarong Pambansa to one of the country’s foremost amateur stars while playing for the Tamaraws and Gilas Pilipinas. This kind of mentality ensures that Belo will bounce back next season, with Blackwater being groomed to be one of the PBA’s more exciting squads with the abundance of young talent in its fold. No doubt, Belo is part of that movement going forward.
Von Pessumal, San Miguel Beermen (Drafted by Globalport Batang Pier)
It would’ve been understandable had a lot of heads were shaken when the Batang Pier chose Von Pessumal with their selection in the special draft. After all, being a proven scorer on the perimeter during his amateur career, how can he exist on a team that has voluminous shot-takers and dominant ball-handlers in Terrence Romeo and Stanley Pringle? Then again, with the game evolving into a more up-tempo, pace and space style in which marksmen are given premiums, perhaps the sharpshooter from Ateneo will be able to carve his niche in the rotation.
Alas, it didn’t took long before Globalport management that the rookie won’t be able to cut it in a Romeo/Pringle backcourt and was shipped to the San Miguel Beermen for fellow Gilas neophyte Arnold Van Opstal. While he has yet to render his statement game in the PBA, Pessumal’s 35.6% clip from rainbow territory despite playing an average of 13.5 minutes a night shows that he can still light it up from the outside. The thing is that he is once again on a team loaded with scorers and gunners such as Alex Cabagnot and Marcio Lassiter. Once Leo Austria figures out the rotation and provides him the burn that he deserves, Pessumal should be guns ablazing from deep in the team’s upcoming campaigns.
Russel Escoto, Mahindra Floodbuster/KIA Picanto
At the onset of the 2016-17 Philippine Cup, things began to look bright for Mahindra after Russel Escoto start to render solid numbers in his maiden PBA conference. This moment proved to be short-lived however, when a season-ending injury derailed Escoto’s rookie season after only seeing action for 10 games in the Philippine Cup.
But when he’s healthy, the 6’6″ slotman can definitely fill up the dearth in scoring that the franchise sorely needs. In the 9th game of his PBA career against the Alaska Aces, Escoto rendered a perfect game as he went 7 out of 7 from the field that included two triples. Though it ended in a loss, Escoto registered a career-best 16 points plus two boards and a steal.
Still, while having the makings of someone that can help Mahindra elevate its level of play, it can be said that Escoto’s status with the Floodbuster is as stable as the franchise’s moniker that has now made another reincarnation as the KIA Picanto. With his team serving as one-stop shop for player trades, exchanges and everything else in between as of late, it won’t be that surprising anymore if the former FEU Tamaraw switches sides by the time the new season opens shop.
Ed Daquioag, Rain or Shine Elasto Painters (Drafted by Meralco Bolts)
After an impressive Philippine Cup outing in which he tallied 8.8 markers in 11 matches for the Bolts that included back-to-back 23-point outings against sister squads NLEX and TNT KaTropa in only the second and third game of his pro career, Ed Daquioag was poised in becoming the primary scoring option in a Meralco backcourt that included Baser Amer and Chris Newsome.
How quickly things do change, though, as the ex-Santo Tomas combo guard was only able to hit double-figures twice in the Bolts’ next eight assignments in the conference wherein the team finished second to last with an 3-8 slate at the end of the elimination round.
The succeeding Commissioner’s Cup would not be kind to Daquioag as well. Despite the Bolts making the quarterfinals, his performance dipped even further as he was only able to render 2.5 points in 11 matches during the elimination round. In the playoff series against Barangay Ginebra, he only saw action in the last game of the quarterfinal tussle, tallying 3 points in Meralco’s loss.
His tenure at the Bolts’ camp would come at an end after two games in the Governors’ Cup in which he was traded for fellow Gilas teammate Mike Tolomia. With this fresh start to his PBA career, Daquioag will be looking to revive Rain or Shine’s backcourt play that has struggled at times following the departure of erstwhile floor general Paul Lee.
Alfonzo Gotladera, NLEX Road Warriors
Tapped by NLEX to shore its frontline that has depended on veteran Asi Taulava, Fonzo Gotladera instead found himself in Yeng Guaio’s doghouse for most of the season, seeing action in a mere 9 contests for the Road Warriors.
Given that Guiao’s penchant for the moment is more of an up-tempo game starring the combination of veterans Cyrus Baguio and Larry Fonacier with young studs Kevin Alas, Juami Tiongson and Carlo Lastimosa on the floor, there is little chance that Gotladera will get to play significant minutes unless he tweaks his offense by adding a consistent mid-range game that could very well extend beyond the arc.
Matthew Wright, Phoenix Fuel Masters
One of the more decorated rookies to enter the league having balled in the US NCAA’s Division 1 and starting his professional career in the European circuit, Wright started like a house on fire in his initial foray in the league by averaging 17.9 points for Phoenix in the elimination round of the 2016-17 Philippine Cup to help tow the squad to a playoff spot.
And even though he had to split time between his club duties and his commitment to the flag, the Filipino-Canadian wing remained consistent with his play for the Fuel Masters on both ends of the floor. Not only did Wright lived up to his billing as an elite scorer by raking in 15.7 points per as a rookie, but he also made good use of his 6’4″ frame by grabbing 6.5 caroms to go along with 3.7 dimes and a steal per ballgame.
These numbers would’ve been enough for him to earn the accolade of being the PBA’s top rookie. But Phoenix’s record hurt his chances of nabbing the award especially with the team ending its 2016-17 campaign on a sour note by failing to make the playoffs of the Governors Cup after two consecutive quarterfinal finishes.
Given that Phoenix is one of the teams lacking in ceiling hence the need for Wright to exert his presence on the glass and defend heftier opponents at times inside the shaded lane. Should the team be able to tap a post presence that will sag off Wright’s responsibilities on defense, then look for him to become even more aggressive in carrying the Fuel Master’s offensive load for next season.
Mike Tolomia, Meralco Bolts (Drafted by Rain or Shine Elasto Painters)
Touted to plug the hole in the Elasto Painters backcourt with Paul Lee moving to the Star Hotshots, Mike Tolomia has at times struggled with his role for the Elasto Painters. This was bared during the Commissioner’s Cup in which he was held scoreless 6 times and had two DNPs to boot during the team’s 11 assignments in the elimination round.
Traded to the Bolts for fellow combo guard Ed Daquioag the following conference, Tolomia enjoyed a resurgence of sorts as his scoring touch returned similar to his performance in the Philippine Cup. Averaging 7.4 points for Meralco’s last 5 assignments in the elimination round, one of Tolomia’s more remarkable games in his rookie year came during the stretch in which he dropped 24 points against the Alaska Aces, missing only once from his 9 attempts from the filed while going flawless from the three-point area and the stripe as well. Another scoring option in the backcourt is a welcome sight for Norman Black and the Bolts, and Tolomia may just very well be the surge that they need.
Arnold Van Opstal, Globalport Batang Pier (Drafted by San Miguel Beermen)
Similar to Gotladera, Van Opstal hasn’t experienced that much action on the PBA floor over the course of his freshman season. In fact, most of the attention he received centered more on his hair style of choice rather than his style of play, that is if he was able to get some significant burn.
Still, the man is a two-time PBA champion thanks mainly to the part that the Beermen stomped their class in the first two conferences of the 2016-17 PBA season. Now with Globalport, it’ll be interesting to see how the coaching staff utilizes the young pivot. After all, not every roster in the PBA has a 6’9″ tower in its fold and height is still might in this game.
Jiovani Jalalon, Star Hotshots
Getting drafted by a team which has a logjam at the guard spot may have initially placed Jio Jalalon in a quandary, especially with two senior and former Gilas Pilipinas guards in Marc Barroca and Paul Lee in the mix.
But credit Chito Victolero for ensuring that Jalalon’s talent would not go unnoticed in his rookie season in the PBA, as the Star Hotshots taskmaster centered his blueprint on the team’s strength which is its backcourt.
Pairing up with Lee, Barroca and with Justin Melton on the floor on multiple occasions, Jalalon promptly displayed his floor leadership that made him one of collegiate basketball’s top point guards during his time with the Arellano University Chiefs.
Though he was shaky at times and still needs to refine his decision making when orchestrating the offense, Jalalon’s defense became his calling card as he never backed down on opposing backcourt players regardless if they were more grizzled or had a few inches on him. And his offense wasn’t bad either, hitting an efficient 47.1% clip from the floor en route to averaging 9.8 points per for the Hotshots in 29 games. After a 2016-17 campaign that banked on its solid guard play, expect Star to continue this scheme in the conferences ahead with Jalalon an integral part of such.
Roger Pogoy, TNT KaTropa
Due to the agreement that the selection and presentation of draftees will be alphabetically-based depending on their drafted team’s name, Roger Pogoy turned out to be the last pick of the special draft.
At season’s end, however, Pogoy would emerge on top as this batch’s best rookie largely in part to his ability to generate buckets for a KaTropa squad that has greatly relied on do-it-all playmaker Jayson Castro for their scoring needs. This was proven true when he lit up the Beermen for 27 built on 5 triples as his squad captured Game 1 of the 2017 Commissioner’s Cup Finals.
Ending the season with averages of 11.5 points, 4.1 boards and 1.3 assists in 30 games for TNT, Pogoy has emerged as TNT’s alternate scoring option in the backcourt in case opposing defenses clamp on Castro. Together with Troy Rosario and Moala Tautuaa, the three make for a nice young nucleus for KaTropa in the seasons ahead.