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MANILA, Philippines — One season removed from their historic UAAP championship run, 6 members of the 5-peat Ateneo Blue Eagles squad are out to chase even bigger dreams in the pro league.
Three were the core members of the 5-time Ateneo squad. Two have been around for every one of those 5 championships.
Ateneo’s 5th UAAP victory will go deep down in Ateneo basketball lore for generations, but they can’t rely on that to make a mark in the PBA.
Even top college players struggle to make their mark in the PBA.
“Same as how I started in college,” forward Nico Salva says of how he intends to adjust to the tougher pro environment. A two-time UAAP Finals MVP, Salva spent the last year getting stronger, improving his shooting range, and tested the waters in the D-League and at pick-up games.
“I know I have to work for every playing time. That is just how basketball is. Once you get to the next level, you just have to keep on working hard to improve.”
“The PBA game is lot more physical compared to the UAAP but I think that by playing in the D-League I was able to get used to the physicality of the game,” adds Salva.
Salva, along with Greg Slaughter, offered their talents to D-League team NLEX Road Warriors.
The 7-foot Slaughter was called for duty to the Gilas Pilipinas cadets and he was shortlisted by national coach Chot Reyes for the Gilas Pilipinas squad for the FIBA Asia tourney.
“Gilas was an opportunity too good to pass up,” says Slaughter, a projected first overall pick. “Gilas let me see how tough PBA players are and let me train at that high level and get a taste of what’s coming up.”
As for coping with the PBA’s physical game, Slaughter says: “I’ve been dealing with that all my time playing out here in the Philippines so it’s nothing new. I’ve already experienced playing in the PBA so I’m ready for whatever comes my way.”
Slaughter and Salva played a role in sustaining NLEX’s winning tradition and, in effect, joined a new dynasty. (READ: Slaughter towers in PBA Rookie Camp)
Breaking free from the shell
Justin Chua became one of the key players that led Blackwater Sports Elite to its first D-League title at the expense of his former teammates and defending champions NLEX.
Chua had always been the solid reserve to Ateneo’s big men—be it for Rabeh Al-Hussaini or Slaughter himself. But his big break was bound to come. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for him.
“I usually work out twice a day, [I lift] weights, and [work on my] shooting,” he said. Apart from the D-League, he participates in other leagues such as the Passion League, in which he plays with former Mapua players.
During his time with Blackwater, Chua shone as an agile big man who can lead the offense. He showed that in their two-game sweep of NLEX for the 2013 Foundation Cup.
The Road Warriors had been the only champions of the D-League since it began in 2011. So Blackwater’s breakthrough became more significant.
“I think physically mas lumakas ako, shooting-wise na-practice ko rin, pati quickness and dribbling,” the 6-4 ½ Chua talks of aspects of his game he had improved from college. (Physically I think I’m stronger. I also practiced my shooting, even my quickness and dribbling.)
Chua’s post-Ateneo stints could possibly be the best thing to happen to him.
“Sure, I can be the leader,” he says of whether he is ready to lead a team. “Pero, I have to know my teammates first. I mean, kilalanin talaga.” (But I have to know my teammates first. I mean, really know them.)
Potential waiting to be realized
Reserve center JP Erram had also come out of his shell in his last season with the Eagles.
While Erram left Ateneo after their disappointing Season 76 finish and has yet to join the D-League, he may still be one of the draft’s sleepers.
At 6’7”, Erram is a decent post defender. Former Ateneo head coach Norman Black used him for defense. Erram has the agility to finish the break and can also knock down midrange jumpers when pushed back.
Having started playing basketball at the age of 17, Erram has become competent.
“Sa tingin ko it’s not about [making a] name [for yourself],” Erram says of how he sees the PBA as a place to start anew, following the UAAP. (I think it’s not about making a name for yourself.) He believes that the new experiences can easily be compared to studies.
“Siguro sa iba malaking part yung makagawa sila ng name nila sa liga. Pero ako, pag may opportunity I will grab it. Yung PBA dinadagdagan nila yung nalalaman ko when it comes to basketball. Para ka lang nag-aaral na lagi kang may bagong natututunan.” (Maybe for others, it’s a big thing for them to carve a name for themselves in the league. But for me, if there’s an opportunity I will grab it. The PBA adds to what I know when it comes to basketball. It’s like studying and constantly learning something new.)
Ryan Buenafe, a fan favorite because of his clutch shooting which made him the 2010 Finals MVP, showed parts of his old form last season. He was a solid leader for the Eagles this season that, even the team’s most disappointing finish in the past half-decade will never diminish his impact.
But during the PBA Rookie Camp earlier this week, Buenafe hit a snag in his path to the PBA.
Buenafe was among the 8 rookies who failed to show up at the camp and register biometric measurements. His agent, Matthew Manotoc of Espiritu-Manotoc Basketball Management, said Buenafe had been running a fever for 4 days. Manotoc said a medical certificate had been submitted to the PBA, clearing him for the draft.
Swingman Oping Sumalinog left the Blue Eagles in 2012 and is among the hopefuls in the draft.
Sumalinog had a shaky college basketball career after being the main gunner in his hometown of Cebu. But settling into his 6th-man role under Coach Norman Black, he has proven himself.
Playing in the D-League for several conferences, including a stint with his fellow Ateneans in NLEX, Sumalinog has proven that his quiet and steely resolve is his asset.
Sumalinog looks to become one of the many Cebuano stars who took a chance in the capital, and made it in the pro league.
Coming into Sunday’s draft, Slaughter is seen to be picked first by Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. Salva is also an expected first round catch. Chua and Buenafe could be a surprise first round pick or second rounder. Erram and Sumalinog are considered sleepers, too.
Salva and Chua learned different lessons from each of the 5 championships that decorate their young careers—lessons they hope to take with them to the next level.
“It takes sacrifice, dedication and a lot of work in order to succeed,” Salva shares. “Following every detail is important as well. Players have to be very disciplined and everyone has to be in the same page in order to win championships.”
For Chua, team unity is at the heart of what he does.
“You’ll never win it alone. You got to trust your teammates. It’s always a team effort. And nothing comes easy, you have to work hard for it,” he says.
Each may have different perspectives from being in one of the most storied collegiate basketball dynasties. But there’s one thing all can agree on without question.
“Yes!” Salva says with certainty of his chances of being with another dynasty. “That is my goal! That is my dream! And I will work for that.”
Slaughter echoes the same determination. “Absolutely. That’s what I work for and that’s why I’m playing.”
Erram feels the same way but wants to take it one step at a time. “Sana. Sa ngayon focus muna ako sa isang bagay. Darating din naman yan tapos hindi mo mamamalayan.” (I hope. For now, I’m focusing on one thing. We’ll get there without being conscious about it.)
Chua aims to play for more than 10 years in the PBA. “I wish that I can win a lot of championships in the PBA.”
These former Blue Eagles find themselves at a turning point – like the morning after a great night, or the dead silence of an arena after a championship celebration.
The best part about starting anew is having a clean slate. So far, these Eagles are discovering that life after a dynasty isn’t so bad after all. — Rappler.com