Welcome to The Rewind, where the Humblebola team looks back at the past and talks about details only a few may have noticed.
This piece was written by Karlo Lovenia a few years ago after the Ateneo Blue Eagles lost to the De La Salle Green Archers in the UAAP Finals. However, it stayed in the drafts after a couple issues here and there, but he chose to revive it as UAAP Season 81 creeps closer and closer.
Let’s Rewind and talk about Mike Nieto, possible Season 79 Most Improved Player winner.
“Hello sir, gusto niyo po ba i-upsize yung drink niyo to large?”
This is something that I’m ALWAYS asked whenever I go to fast food restaurants. Whether it be KFC, McDo, Jollibee or even Chowking, cashiers always make it a point to ask me this question.
Even though this question annoys most people, you have to admit that it gets you thinking. Why not upsize? For a couple of pesos, you get a larger drink to pair with your meal. You really can’t lose. Upgrading to something larger often leads to better results.
For the case of Mike Nieto, an upgrade didn’t come as a result of going larger.
It came as a result, of going smaller.
I’ve been batchmates with Mike for most of my life. We’ve studied in the same school ever since we were Grade School, and I’ve played against him a handful of times (in all times, I’ve gotten pummeled to the ground that it wasn’t even funny). The batch above us had Thirdy Ravena as the very best, while the batch below us had Jolo Mendoza. Our batch? We had Mike Nieto.
All three players brought multiple titles to the Ateneo Grade School/High School programs, and we all knew it was only a matter of time before they made it to the UAAP Seniors Division. Thirdy was expected to be a do-it-all forward for the Blue Eagles, while Jolo was expected to take the mantle from Kiefer as the “Next Phenom”. For Mike? Not much was really expected of him.
Some of my batchmates would try to defend him and say “Kaya ni Mike makalaban sa Seniors! Kita niyo naman ginawa niya sa FIBA Worlds diba?” But at the same time, as they would try to defend him, you would immediately notice that there was a tinge of doubt with the way that they tried to defend the very best basketball player in our batch. This very heart of this tinge of doubt was because of well, Mike’s size.
The nickname “Big Mike” was fitting. Figuratively, he had a big heart. The guy just had guts, and he would defend you no matter what. In terms of his physical makeup, it was a different story. He had size, but not in the areas you needed it. He lacked the verticality that he needed to play his natural positions, the Power Forward and Center positions, while he didn’t have the necessary speed to compete versus smaller wings. He may have been the best in our batch in High School, but even the most enthusiastic of fans knew the Seniors Division was a different beast altogether.
Come his first season in the UAAP, all of our fears showed itself.
Making it to Team A was an achievement in itself for Mike, but during the times when he played in Season 78, he looked lost. The eye test said that he didn’t seem sure where he would position himself in the basketball court. Instinct told him to go to the paint where he was accustomed to playing. But his mind replied by saying that didn’t make much sense given his lack of size. Even during the times, he would stay outside, he looked a step slower compared to opposing defenses, failing to get his shots up.
By the end of Season 78, many expected Big Mike to get cut from Team A. Maybe it was time for him to face reality and go to Team Glory Be to try to remodel his game. It was a reality that he had to face if he really wanted to have a role in the UAAP. If he didn’t face this reality, then he may have just met the end of the road for him and his basketball career.
During the 2nd semester of our 1st year in college, I passed by Mike a number of times. I didn’t really notice much of a difference. Same old Big Mike, the way we described him earlier in this piece.
But before the 2016 Filoil tournament began, I decided to drop by the Moro Lorenzo Sports Complex to take a peek at the new-look Ateneo Blue Eagles. As I surveyed the floor and found a thinner fellow that looked like Mike Nieto.
That fellow looked like Mike Nieto because HE was Mike Nieto.
I had to slap myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. After a strong pat to the face, I was convinced. That was Mike Nieto I was looking it. He wasn’t big anymore. He actually looked pretty fit.
For the first time *in Anna’s voice from Frozen* in forever, Mike and his twin brother Matt actually looked like twins. Mike didn’t look like the guy who ate all of his brother’s food while Matt was busy playing with his toys. Instead, the former Juniors MVP looked like the guy who was eating the same salad and was going through the workouts his brother was also subjecting himself to.
As the Filoil tournament started, more and more people took notice of Mike’s weight loss. Stories of how he lost weight thanks to his girlfriend and his reduced intake of rice were all over the internet, and deservedly so.
Mike looked good, and not just physically. Even on the court, his movements were pleasing to look at, a farcry from the sluggish play he had during Season 78. This pleasantly surprised me, as I wasn’t even expecting him to make it this far. But somehow, doubts still crept inside my mind as I watched Big Mike play. There was a part of me which just said, “This is too good to be true.”
It was too good. But it was also true. It was damn true.
Before the Blue Eagles played their first game for Season 79, I already had a Starting 5 in mind. Adrian Wong would play the point, Aaron Black would play off guard, Vince Tolentino would serve as their mine 4 man, their center would either by GBoy Babilonia or Chibueze Ikeh, while their main wing would be Thirdy Ravena.
As the UST-Ateneo game was about to begin, starting fives were already being called out.
Vince Tolentino was called, okay no surprise there.
Adrian Wong is their point, just right!
Aaron Black is the shooting guard, hopefully, he breaks out this season.
Mike Nieto as small forward, wait what?
It was a decision which baffled my mind. Thirdy Ravena is clearly their best wing, yet you start Big Mike? But as the ball started rolling and Mike scored for the Blue Eagles off a one-man fastbreak attempt, the doubt which surrounded my head slowly turned into hope.
This may just be the year for Big Mike. Turns out, it was.
He was the starting small forward for all of the games of the Blue Eagles. In fact, he was the only player on the roster who was able to start for all of their games. Despite this, Mike didn’t receive as much love from the public even though he was arguably the most consistent player for the Blue Eagles.
Performances by Aaron Black and Thirdy Ravena were considered glimpses into the future of the Blue Eagles every time they would put up huge numbers. Anton Asistio was considered as a solid spark off the bench, while Vince Tolentino was lauded for how he transformed his game into low post banger to playmaking forward. Most notable, however, was how people rode the Isaac Go bandwagon, where inspiring performances by Go led to him winning the Most Improved Player award by the end of the season.
Go’s victory didn’t surprise me. His slow rise over the course of the season was a fun story to follow, and how he was able to cap this off with a brave performance to save the Blue Eagles from elimination in the Final Four was the icing on the cake. It was the narrative which was fun to talk about. It was awe-inspiring. Ultimately, he was deserving to be bestowed such an award. But I think there’s a case to be made for Mike Nieto as the Most Improved Player of Season 79.
From playing just three minutes per game (and let’s face it, it didn’t really feel like three minutes at times), Big Mike turned into a player who played 21 minutes, which was good for third most in the Blue Eagles rotation just behind Adrian Wong and Thirdy Ravena. An uptick in minutes often results in an increase in production. This was certainly the case with Big Mike.
Mike was the third best scorer for the Blue Eagles, just behind Wong and Ravena. It wasn’t just volume which gave him his numbers. How he got his numbers also impressed because he showcased a more polished set of skills compared to what he had before.
He was mostly used as an off-ball option, where he would score off precise cuts and rolls to the baskets to get easy points down low thanks to the sharp ball movement of the Blue Eagles. What made these cuts and rolls more impressive was how fast and smooth Mike looked as he did these. He no longer looked sluggish unlike before. He looked fit and ready to make it in the big leagues.
Another weapon which Mike used with his offensive game was his three-point shot, where he made 0.9 per game, good for third on the team. His percentages weren’t mind-boggling, but he was able to establish himself as a good enough weapon from the outside.
On the defensive end, Mike was just as stellar. He had the third-best Defensive Rating in the team for players who played 10 or more minutes. His DRTG was good for 12th in the league, better than more established players such as Bonbon Batiller, Dave Moralde, and Paul Varilla. Granted, Ateneo’s team defense as a whole was solid. As a one on one defender, he wasn’t exactly elite. But he was a large part of what made the Ateneo defense what it was. His help defense made him such a useful tool for Coach Tab Baldwin. Disrupting the rhythm of a post player through quick doubles from the weak side, or even as simple as defending the roll man correctly in the pick and roll were things which Mike was great at.
But when it comes to talking about Mike, you can’t help but discuss his rebounding. He isn’t the most imposing athlete, and neither is he as big as other big men. Somehow, he managed to grab the second most rebounds in the Blue Eagles just behind an athletic marvel in Thirdy Ravena. He was able to do this by outworking and outsmarting other big men.
An underrated facet of Big Mike’s game is his Basketball IQ. He’s an intelligent player, who knows when (and how) to box out opposing big men and when to jump for the basketball. His increased vertical thanks to the training which he received during the offseason certainly helped, but it’s his smarts which is truly able to get him those boards which he was synonymous to during his days as a Blue Eaglet. Jumping high is one part of the job. But you complete it by getting good position, and knowing when to use your athleticism.
Isaac Go truly made a compelling case as Most Improved Player with the improved skill set which he showed during the latter part of the season, and the heart which he displayed against big men like Prince Orizu and Ben Mbala.
But Mike Nieto’s case is centered around the insane consistency which he showed during the season. The only player to start in all of the games for Ateneo. Arguably the only player who was somehow consistent with the rotation of Coach Tab Baldwin. A style of play which perfectly fit the dribble drive offense which the Ateneo coaching staff implemented for the team. Most importantly, effort which led to victories for the Blue Eagles.
“Hindi na miss, okay na ako. Regular lang. Pineapple Juice na lang po pala drink ko.”
“Extra 22 pesos po yun sir, ayos lang?”
It was this kind of sacrifice which Big Mike had to go through. He had to let go of the extra rice which he loved to eat, and the soft drinks which he drank to pair with his meals. Instead, he had to go with the healthier options, such as the pineapple juices of the world, or better yet, those fruit shakes which Jack LaLanne makes with his Power Juicer. Instead of leaving immediately after practice to eat some Mang Inasal, Mike opted to do extra rounds of shooting or running, so that he could lose weight and improve on his skill set.
They cost more. They were difficult to consume. They were even painful experiences. But, in the end, they were all worth it.
Even though Mike Nieto wasn’t the one who was crowned as Most Improved Player in the league, there is certainly a case to be made for him. But Mike has never been about the awards. He’s always been about the amount of effort that he puts in for the people that he loves. For the case of this season, it was the Blue Eagles. The consistency which he showed led to a title series with the De La Salle Green Archers, and it nearly led to a championship.
Mike showed that going big isn’t always the best option. Sometimes, there are other options which we have so that we can become better. They aren’t the easy choices. But they’re the necessary ones. And it was these choices which made Mike the reliable player which he is today.