WORDS by Miguel Caramoan
The name on the back doesn’t faze RJ at all, because he has what it takes to back it up.
There is no secret about how good and prominent Johnny A was for Philippine basketball and RJ Abarrientos got the memo. It would definitely take a lot to edge out or even match the things his tito did on the hardwood, yet he is embracing the lofty expectations and would rather focus on getting better for himself.
“‘Yung pressure wala na sa akin, kasi simula nung high school ako, ine-expect ko na once maglaro ako, si tito ay hindi na mawawala at kung gaano kabigat ‘yung dinadala ko. Hininga ko na lang at hindi ko na iniisip. Nakatulong pa nga si tito kasi he always prepares me mentally sa mga games ko and lagi siyang nandyan,” Abarrientos said.
No wonder this mindset has propelled the younger Abarrientos to thrive in extreme pressure representing the flag and country.
Having not played a single college game in his career, Abarrientos still impressed in his first stint with Gilas Pilipinas. He provided a different jolt to the Gilas’ offense coming off the bench with averages of 8 points on 58.8 TS%, 1.6 rebounds, and 3 assists in 14 minutes per game through five games in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers and Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
One of the aspects of Abarrientos’ performance that stood out was how well he meshed with Kai Sotto. Their familiarity with each other, which stemmed from different camps they have been a part of, became key to their splendid chemistry on the court.
“‘Yung connection namin ni Kai, hindi na ako nagulat. On and off the court, sobrang close namin ni Kai kasi may mga sinalihan kami na league like the Nike Camp and Jordan Camp. And halos sabay pa kami ipasok off the bench, kaya makikita mo ‘yung eye-to-eye connection namin.”
To further understand their effectiveness, here are some clips of them executing play calls like fist pick-and-roll and a single high pick-and-roll at the top. Through Abarrientos’ high basketball IQ to make reads, either to use the ball screen to create space for the outside shot or maximize Sotto’s height to finish inside the paint. Something that opposing defenses in the UAAP must be wary of.
Playing for the national team was indeed a great experience to jumpstart a bright future ahead of the 22-year-old guard. Being exposed to the Philippines-Korea rivalry, going up against one of his idols Miloš Teodosić, and being guided under the wing of an organized system filled with veterans, Abarrientos had to soak all in these learnings as he gears up for his rookie campaign with the FEU Tamaraws.
“Dati pinapanood ko lang ‘yung rivalry ng Gilas at Korea, pero ngayon kasama na ako and I consider as a highlight in my career. Kaya nung kinausap ako ng coaching staff na papalaruin nila ako, ni-ready ko lang sarili ko mentally and physically. Against Serbia naman, one of my idols is Teodosić, so s’yempre na-starstruck ako before the game and with Boban pa,” he said.
“Ang na-adopt ko talaga is leadership lalo kung paano maging vocal sa team kahit na ako ‘yung mas bata sa team. And ‘yung system ni Coach Tab, lagi niya pinapaalala that basketball is a 5-on-5 game, kaya mas naging ready kami as a team. Ito ‘yung dadalhin ko kung saan man mapunta ang career ko,” Abarrientos added.
We’ve seen the talent, and now he is equipped with experience playing for the national team. It should be common knowledge to say that Abarrientos is one of the most anticipated rookies this season, especially with what he was able to show on the big stage. And just like his loose and relaxed demeanor, RJ does not bother to ponder about any type of pressure and rather focuses on how the team develops cohesion towards the upcoming UAAP season.
“Ine-enjoy ko lang muna ang every moment. I wish na mas mag-gel pa ‘yung team dahil ilang weeks na lang before mag-start ang UAAP and sana magbunga lahat ng pinaghirapan namin sa training,” Abarrientos said when asked about his and the team’s preparation for the UAAP Season 84.
Abarrientos will enter a collegiate program that has been a constant Final 4 contender, holding the longest active streak of seven years. Factor out the fact that FEU has also produced a large number of elite guards, which garnered success in the pro ranks. Now being plugged into this current iteration of the Tamaraws, he will just take it one step at a time towards achieving greatness.
“Alam naman natin na parang may factory ng magagaling na guards ang FEU, kaya kung ano muna ‘yung role na ibigay sa akin for a specific day, ayun muna ang gagawin ko. Kung ano lang muna ‘yung maitutulong ko para mas maging better ‘yung team and kung paano ko sila mae-encourage, doon muna ang focus ko,” he mentioned.
To provide some refresher, an Achilles heel for FEU back in Season 82 was their offense, which ranked second-worst among the league with 88.5 points per 100 possessions, as per Stats by Ryan. So if there could be a possible role where Abarrientos can make an instant influence, that would be serving as the offensive punch that the Tamaraws need, right?
We already know the ability of Abarrientos in being a good operator of the pick-and-roll. Let’s now dissect other facets that the rookie guard can contribute to the Tamaraws’ cause:
With a dribble-drive oriented offense of Coach Olsen Racela, it is of great importance to have a player that would generate scoring off the bounce. Since it is a good system to implement for early offense, Abarrientos’ quick decision-making and elite shot-making in isolation situations would fit the mold. Take a peek:
Also essential to a dribble-drive set-up is rim pressure, especially with FEU being the third-best perimeter scoring team in Season 82, with 31.8 points per game. So what is rim pressure? It is an aggressive pursuit to attack and score at the rim, which can also attract attention from the help defense that opens up the opportunity for wide-open shots. With Abarrientos’ uncanny ability to penetrate with ease, proven on the international stage, it would open up space for the Tamaraws’ shooters to get optimal looks.
For the ones who have seen the development of Abarrientos from his 3×3 and high school days, this should not surprise you at all. The upside is real. But now that he has put everyone on notice with his spectacular debut outing with Gilas Pilipinas, hopefully, you’re on board with us and have bought a good chunk of stocks.
And the good part is that UAAP Season 84 is upon us. Better watch out for RJ Abarrientos. Wishing the other seven schools good luck in guarding this guy.
(Videos from FIBA; Art by Ekong Caruncho)