Throwback Thursday: Finding the Future

This article was originally published in SLAM #178

SLAM PH gathered Metro Manila’s best high school ballers for a skills showcase. But this wasn’t just any all-star game. This felt more intense. This felt more fun. As soon as I walked into the Gatorade Hoops Center for the 2014 SLAM Rising Stars Classic,

I knew I was in for something different.

By Polo Bustamante

Players were decked in matching uniforms. Team Punks arrived in fresh black while Team Hype played in neat white. The kids rocked the latest KBs and KDs. Their sock games were on point. DJ Ace Ramos dropped beats while both teams warmed up. On a leather couch placed in one corner of the court, the #SLAMFam – that community of basketball evangelists and PBA stars – converged to watch the future of hoops.

First Quarter: Hustle vs. Flair

Although blue chip recruits Arvin Tolentino and Prince Rivero gave Team Hype a huge size advantage over the smaller Team Punks, it was Mike Nieto and Clint Doliguez who grabbed my attention in the first period.

Mike started the game playing out of his natural position. Rather than play in the paint as a power forward, Team Hype Head Coach Jamike Jarin played him at small forward. This was a smart move by Jarin as it showcased Mike at the position he most likely would play at the seniors level. The bulky Blue Eaglet did not disappoint. He played intelligent defense against his former teammate Thirdy Ravena. Mike stayed between Thirdy and the basket. Mike didn’t gamble. He just played tough, hard-nosed D.

If “Big Mike” was the defensive rock, Clint was the supercharged pogo stick. It seemed like he was playing at a crazier pace compared to everyone else. The Hope High School alum played the passing lanes, protected the rim and was snatching up all the loose balls he could get. It was fun to watch his boundless energy. He was all over the court, in a very good way.

These utility guys helped Team Hype build a 9-point lead in the opening quarter, 27-18. They extended possessions with their hustle and worked their asses off on defense.

Team Punks’ biggest advantage, on the other hand, was their speed. They tried to push the pace to get easy baskets in transition. Thirdy and Renzo Subido were getting to the basket. Their fancy lay-ups, however, were rimming out.

Luckily for Team Punks, they had Ven Diputado. Ven wasn’t as flashy as Thirdy or Renzo. But Ven’s game was Lock and Lock tight. He kept Team Punks from getting blown out by carrying the load offensively. The former Red Cub used his explosive dribble to free himself up for pull-up Js and step-back threes.

Second Quarter: Attack of the guards

When both teams finally settled into a pace they were more comfortable with, the guards finally came out to play. For Team Punks, Ven and Renzo connived to try and get their team back into the game.

Renzo was a thrill-maker. During one sequence, he got the ball on the right wing and called for a pick on his left side. He moved, ever so slightly, towards the pick-setter to trap his defender. Then with one quick dribble move, he exploded towards the basket, splitting the D in the process. He had a clear path to the basket. Fearing that a shot blocker would go up to block his shot, he shifted his body so he could finish on the right side. The crowd cheered.

Renzo actually missed the shot but it was one of the most memorable plays of the game for me. He was, in a word, dazzling. There was something amazing about this kid with the slicked back hair and an even slicker game. He could finish with either hand, on either side of the basket. He has a variety of moves once he gets in the lane. But the best thing about him was how relentless he was even at 5’9”, 135 pounds.

On the other side of the court, Radge Tongco and Hubert Cani kept Team Hype on top, 53-46 at the half.

Radge was a no-frills type of player. The flashiest thing about his game was his haircut. But his jumper was wet. Taking advantage of the attention his teammates were getting, Radge found open spots on the floor and dropped Js in the second quarter.

Hubert was likewise impressive. He was like Neo in the Matrix. It was as if the game slowed down for him and he was able to see movement on the court in slow motion. Everything was calculated, controlled. He was deceptive too. With one swift pivot, the former Bullpup could suddenly drive and finish floaters in the lane. The UAAP juniors MVP used this unexpected explosion to score repeatedly over Team Punks’ surprised bigs.

Third Quarter: Time to get serious

From playing at a fun, freewheeling all-star pace in the first half, players switched to a more deliberate pace in the second half. Both teams were getting serious.

I heard undeniable proof. Coach Jamike repeatedly hollered at Prince to seal his man and was begging the guards to feed Prince at the post. Team Hype wasn’t joking around anymore. They were going to use their size advantage and pound the ball inside.

Again and again, Prince went to work. He bodied up against the taller but slimmer Jay Javelosa. In one of his post-up possessions, the future Green Archer showed his full range of skills. Prince got the ball on the left bock and leaned back on Jay. Once he felt that Jay was overplaying him on the left side, he turned into the lane and, in one smooth move, finished on the right side of the rim with a strong reverse lay-up. It was like a post-up move in NBA 2K14. With a flick of the control stick, Prince left his defender in the dust.

It wasn’t the shot that impressed me the most. It was the footwork that I found juicy. In Prince, I saw a young Ranidel De Ocampo. He could finish in the post, score off a jumper that even extends up to the three-point line. He’s a scary prospect. Prince’s dominance in the post was the main reason Team Hype built their lead up to 12. It was their biggest lead in the game.

Team Punks, however, dug down deep defensively. They also used their quickness and speed to aggressively pressure the post and ball handlers. This defense set up by Team Punks coaches – legendary PBA guards Olsen Racela and Johnny Abarrientos – surprised Team Hype and led to several turnovers.

JJ Domingo and Diego Dario were having difficulty getting their looks in the half court sets. But once they started running, they finished repeatedly in the open floor. Finally playing to their strengths, Team Punks kept Team Hype within arms length, not allowing them to pull away, keeping the deficit at single digits, 74-68.

Fourth Quarter: Thirdy against the world

Just when it seemed like Team Hype had full control of the game, Thirdy happened.

Coming into the game, everyone knew Thirdy was Kiefer’s athletic younger brother. The knock on him was that sometimes, he was a little too “showtime” for his own good. This was the Thirdy that was on full display in the first half. He was trying turn-around-fade-away-Js, fancy reverse lay-ups and alley-oop finishes.

But for a stretch in the fourth quarter, during winning time, the UAAP Juniors MVP left his utility belt on the bench and came out fighting. Let me tell you: a locked-in Thirdy Ravena is an awesome player. He was disruptive defensively, using his length to bother his man or help by doubling at the post. He would help Team Punks force the turnover and he would be the first guy down the court, ready to finish the break.

Once he got the ball on the break, Thirdy was no longer going for fancy lay-ups or slam-dunks. He was finishing strong, with a purpose. After converted field goals, he would sprint back on D and assume the defensive stance, ready for another chance to stop Team Hype. He scored 8 straight points to bring his team within one, 85-84. By the end of his personal run, he was huffing and puffing. He had gone all-out to bring his team back. But his job wasn’t done yet.

Team Hype answered back with Cani leading the way. It wasn’t easy finding open lanes to the basket anymore but he continued to surprise everyone showing off the range in his J.

Thirdy and Hubert traded baskets. Team Punks’ superstar would attack and get two. Team Hype’s star PG would ironically hit a very Kiefer-esque fade-away J to keep his team up.

Down four with less than 30 seconds left in the game, Thirdy would fire a tough, pull-up trey, with a defender right in his grill to bring his team within one. Clutch free throws by Arvin would bring Team Hype’s lead back to three, with five seconds left in the game.

Team Punks had one last chance to end the game in a tie. Thirdy asked for the ball after the inbound and raced up the court. Three defenders crowded him once he got into three-point range. The ball was tipped, it hit Thirdy’s knee and rolled within the three-point line. Buzzer. Game over. Team Hype outlasted Team Punks, 93-90.

In the aftermath of an exciting all-star game, Hubert Cani brought home best player honors with a 19-2-and-2 stat line. Thirdy Ravena became the game’s top scorer after dropping 23 big points. Team Hype raised the trophy and celebrated at center court.

The 2014 SLAM Rising Stars Classic not only gave everyone a glimpse of the future. It also allowed incoming college players to break stereotypes and myths. Hubert Cani isn’t just a heady point guard but a killer scorer as well. Thirdy Ravena isn’t all about showtime: he is a hungry winner just like his brother and dad. Guys like JJ Domingo, Ven Diputado, Diego Dario, Matt and Mike Nieto, are not just high school stars but also solid pieces for college teams.

For many of these players, it would be their last high school game. This was their final chance to get a W before moving on to the seniors level. Upon seeing Thirdy crumpled up in disappointment on the floor after his game-ending fumble, after witnessing how Team Hype celebrated at the end of a thrilling contest, I saw, vividly, what this game meant for everyone.