By Frankie Serrano

Coming into UAAP seniors play, Justine Baltazar was just another 6-foot-7 prospect who was tasked to do one thing alone: protect the rim. At all costs.

Rim protection is not a shabby job. It is one of the most important for you are stopping the other team from putting the ball through the hoop. And in case you aren’t aware, in basketball, whoever puts the ball through the hoop more wins.

But back to Balti. You have a piece of charcoal at your hands when you consider how he was coming out of the Nazareth School-National University Bullpups program ran by then-coach Jeff Napa. He had all the tools in the world to be a dominant big but he was raw. Rawer than the rawest sushi you can ask for. All he knew was block and box out and put up his arms to get the ball. After all, it was not his job to score as that was on his then-teammate John Lloyd Clemente.

For context, Big Mike Nieto and Shaun Ildefonso pummeled Baltazar mercilessly during the Ateneo Blue Eaglets’ title run back in Season 77. And those guys barely stood 6’3” each. As wild as it is, Baltazar is still a big man while Nieto and Ildefonso now parade as uber-batak wingmen.

When La Salle gave Baltazar a roster spot, it coincided with the entry of Cameroonian superman Ben Mbala. Heard of that dude? He was bad, man. The baddest UAAP player I’ve ever witnessed. Brute power, finesse, speed, athleticism, and the body of a superior athlete. Balti looked like his toothpick out there for crying out loud.

But Aldin Ayo saw something else. He had a piece of charcoal he can sharpen into a pencil with which to draw beautiful art with, or something he can put under the pressure of a molten lava to produce the most-expensive jewel known to mankind: a diamond.

As a rookie, Baltazar had to take on Ben Mbala AND Leonard Santillan on his own. Ben Mbala was already a headache. But to add Dodong Santillan, a player who boasted of a very high basketball IQ and tireless motor? Jesus man, I don’t know what Balti did to Coach Aldin to warrant that kind of punishment.

Instead of wilting and crumbling to ash, Justin Baltazar took in all the air his frame could muster, pulled up his big boy pants, tightened them around his waist, and went to work. Practice after practice, seal after seal, box out after box out, armbar after armbar, Justine Baltazar pushed back on Ben Mbala and Leonard Santillan as best he can.

What else does he have to lose? His dignity? Come on it’s practice. His slot in the team? Hardly. Aldin Ayo saw something and he made sure that Baltazar will be the finest arrow the De La Salle Green Archers can let loose on the UAAP once Ben Mbala and Dodong Santillan have used up their eligibility.

Slowly, surely, the charcoal in his hand cooked. It was starting to shed its pitch-black nature and was shining through the cracks. It started dribbling confidently from the top of the key, breaking down the starting frontline of the Green Archers to swoop for layups. It started boxing out with sharper elbows, and gaining lateral vision when sealing. All of a sudden, it was confidently pulling up from 18 feet when Mbala or Santillan’s hands were down. The bone-crunching picks are still there, but the high IQ read on the roll or slip was entirely new, even to a surprised Ayo.

It was sad that the forger never got to utilize the best weapon he ever created, as is with blacksmiths handing their finest metalcraft for someone else to use.

It was Season 80 when Justine Baltazar suddenly became more than a defensive player. He was a two-way star. He was the biggest two-way star the Green and White hopeful have prayed for with the exit of Ben Mbala.

No one expected him to be doing things that weren’t suited for bigmen. He was shooting threes, he was taking people off the dribble, he was attacking off curls, euro-stepping with grace, as well as pumping that one handed floater Aldin Ayo drilled in him.

Balti was so thankful to Ayo and Mbala that he roasted UST in their games last year. As he put it, it was showing his old coach how much has changed and how that charcoal is now a diamond in the rough. The pressure has finished its job and now, the jewel only needed polishing and buffing.

One season later, no one expected Balti to be this good. He’s holding his own against FSAs regardless of their size or length disadvantage.

Probably, if Baltazar never got to play with Ben Mbala, he’d continue being a beanpole whose only job is to secure rebounds and block shots. He won’t be the monster Ange Kouame is but Balti can surely hold his own.

All those practices, of him trying to stop a runaway train, or smashing a wall named Big Ben, have paid off.

Justine Baltazar is the best arrow at DLSU’s disposal, a diamond in the rough no more.