By Karl Batungbacal
Thirdy Ravena is one of the best UAAP players of his generation. Three-time champion, three-time Finals MVP. The King of Highlights. A proven commodity who has left his haters speechless.
Imagine the relative lack of surprise we had when Thirdy decided to go to Japan to further his basketball career. He was already expected to be a solid player when he started dunking all over people back in high school. He was good, but coach Tab Baldwin helped him evolve into an international-level player.
But that now begs the question of which players are most likely to go abroad. Let’s take a look at which home-grown players have the best chances of playing overseas after Thirdy.
Kobe Paras, UP Fighting Maroons
Kobe Paras rocked the UAAP landscape when he announced he’ll be joining the UP Fighting Maroons in hopes of furthering his basketball career. Paras proved that he was more than someone who could dunk for the highlights. Massive credit goes to the UP coaching staff for making him the centerpiece of their offense. Though the team had Bright Akhuetie, Ricci Rivero, and the Gomez de Liano twins, the Fighting Maroons chose to roll with Kobe as their number one option.
Kobe’s 6-foot-6 frame puts him at a great advantage over most of the UAAP’s shooting guards and small forwards. He’s able to physically out-maneuver whoever is assigned to defend him on the perimeter and he has the finesse of a guard when it comes to finishing in the paint. His shooting percentages leave a lot to be desired but it’s never too late to make that MVP-calibre leap even in his final seasons in the UAAP. His stint in UP has shown how valuable his skills are. When their Akhuetie pick-and-roll action is stopped, the ball almost always ends up in the hands of Paras.
What makes Paras an intriguing candidate to play overseas is that the talent and physical gifts are there but the focus doesn’t seem to be, at first glance. This is not meant to be a shot at him but merely an observation of the public’s perception of him. Kobe drew flak for starring in a famous brand’s commercial prior to the start of Season 82 that led to ridiculous rumors of the commercial being the main reason for his injury before the season started. He silenced all the doubt in his debut as he was named the Player of the Week for the stretch of September 18-22 against Adamson, National University, and the University of the East.
He has at least another year remaining with the Fighting Maroons to prove that his skills can make him worthy of being called upon to be an import to another league.
Dave Ildefonso, Ateneo Blue Eagles
The prodigal son has returned and the Ateneo Blue Eagles are yet again in prime position to continue contending for even more UAAP titles as he has two years left on his eligibility after the residency rule. When he’s available to play in Season 83, he’ll be running alongside fellow Blue Eaglet teammate and high school best friend SJ Belangel to form a formidable one-two punch reminiscent of Matt Nieto and Thirdy Ravena.
The 6-foot-5 younger half of the Ildefonso brothers plays the combo guard position really well and is more polished compared to most of the wings in the UAAP. A great perimeter scorer who has one of the sweetest shooting strokes in recent memory, he can play off the ball well enough to warrant a constant defender be placed on him. He was the main man for the NU Bulldogs in the past two years but failed to lead them to at least a Final Four berth. He has the skill set that any college coach would love to have as his versatility will make him a great decoy for certain offensive sets that the ADMU coaching staff will see fit for him.
The perceived knock against Ildefonso, however, is that he hasn’t proven himself to be a contender at the collegiate level despite all his talent. But just because he’s putting up solid numbers on a non-contending team doesn’t make him any less of a great player. If that’s what people are reasoning against him, then it’s exciting to see them proven wrong once he plays with the Blue Eagles. Heck, rumors might go around that he’s being courted by an international league as early as Season 83.
Calvin Oftana, San Beda Red Lions
The 6-foot-5 forward was named the MVP of the 95th Season of the NCAA and this guy is something special. Despite being a reserve early in his collegiate career, he got over the hurdle and made the leap towards becoming the main guy for the San Beda Red Lions. Pundits have taken note of his potential during Season 94 but when he was given the keys to the Beda offense, that’s when he truly went off.
He finished the elimination round with 15.6 points while averaging 8.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.2 blocks to capture the MVP award and he’s not about to look back. Oftana’s calling card is his ability to defend the point guard all the way to the forward, and he did it astoundingly. Using excellent footwork to prevent the ball handler from getting into the paint and his length to swat away entry passes, he’s everything that a coach would want to lead the team. Even though his offensive game developed later, you wouldn’t even notice it. With his patented half-spin fake, Oftana gets his buckets quite easily. Not to mention that when he drives in the lane, be prepared to get sidestepped. He’s a crafty enough scorer in the paint and he can also stroke it from deep.
Oftana might be a surprising addition to this list but his game is readymade for overseas basketball. There’s little lacking in his game, except maybe his assist average, but even that’s not a knock on him. The assist numbers he put up last season is indicative of how San Beda prefers to play as a team instead of relying on just one guy to get them wins.
Rhenz Abando, UST Growling Tigers
A lot of people would say that Abando, in his maiden season, hasn’t shown the skills needed to be worthy of being a team’s cornerstone just yet. Fair point, but we’re betting on potential here.
Abando has had one of the most phenomenal rises to being a household name as he hung 22 points on the UE Red Warriors in his first game and capped it with a gutsy win over UP. The kid can jump out of the gym, stop you on the wing, disrupt the offense, but he’s maintained that probinsyano level of humility, while flexing his talent on the court. However, he’s still one-dimensional in the sense that he relies a little bit too much on his athleticism. Abando uses his athleticism not to attack the rim but to create space, receive the ball, and shoot a three. Call it the “Anti-Thirdy”, as there was a time when he couldn’t make an open jump shot to save his life but he sure can dunk that ball. Rhenz also has to take into account that he can’t just be a pure scorer. Yes, he can succeed in the UAAP as it is but he has a lot to work on if he wants to become UST’s number one guy.
Not many are projecting Abando to be an international prospect this early into his career but if you go beyond his lack of experience in the UAAP then you can see that the foundation is there. It just needs to be refined. The man was even being called as the Gilas Pilipinas replacement of Gabe Norwood. He has a lot to improve on before he even considers going pro but if he continues to improve and takes that massive leap forward, don’t be surprised if rumors begin to hound the probinsyano.
Lebron Lopez, Ateneo Blue Eaglets
If we’re purely talking about potential, Francis “Lebron” Lopez is it. The 17-year old is essentially betting on himself with his highlight-reel athleticism. You’ve most likely seen the Instagram posts of him dunking all over his high school classmates and that is essentially what he’s bringing to the table. Pure, unadulterated athleticism. This cannot be denied of him. He can take the ball from one end of the court and score two points on the other that quick. There’s a reason why he calls himself “Lebron” in the first place.
He’s a raw prospect with improving basketball IQ and maturity, but his talent has been shining through as a high school sophomore. Alongside Forthsky Padrigao, he’s held the ship afloat after the 7-foot-2 Kai Sotto departed for the greener pastures of the US. His final outing this year as the Blue Eaglets were knocked off the step-ladder Final Four had him put up 13 points and seven blocks. Head coach Reggie Varilla and the rest of the coaching staff have placed their faith in him and that spells greatness for him on the collegiate level.
He’s the youngest player on this list and he belongs here. Standing at 6-foot-4, he still has plenty of room to grow before he steps into the seniors’ tournament. In the meantime, it would be nice to keep an eye on him as early as now.
Thirdy Ravena’s decision to go abroad set off a domino effect of players being allegedly targeted by overseas leagues to join their teams as an import. Even Calvin Abueva is rumored to have been fielding offers from a Japanese team. This just shows that the PBA is not the “end all, be all” league that it once was. The PBA can only blame itself for that after enacting rules that most people found to be restrictive and confusing, in the least. Players also have the right to choose what path is the best for their personal careers. These five players have the most potential of playing abroad and it would all be for the betterment of Philippine basketball as a whole since they’ll comprise the core of the future Gilas Pilipinas teams.
Here’s to hoping that our future remains bright.