Calabarzon’s Samuel Abu Hijleh has the makings of a future star

Naveen Ganglani
Calabarzon’s Samuel Abu Hijleh has the makings of a future star
With his mix of talent and leadership, Samuel Abu Hijleh could be one of the future faces of Philippine hoops


LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines – Sam Abu Hijleh stands at 6-foot-3 and has the body of a tank. With two years to go in his high school hoops career, he has enough time to develop his college-ready physique even further along with his already-polished skill-set – factors which make him one of the most exciting prospects for the future in Philippine basketball.

The 17-year-old Fil-Jordanian just played a major role for the San Beda Red Cubs in the recent NCAA junior’s basketball season where they won a 7th consecutive championship. With his ability to score in the low-post, quality defense, and leadership, he was considered one of the star players of the team and entire league.

His play earned him slots in the 2016 NBTC All-Star Game and SLAM Rising Stars Challenge – contests featuring the premier high school basketball players in the country today. Presently, he’s the team captain of Calabarzon in the 2016 Palarong Pambansa secondary tournament, where the San Beda-laden cast is set to play in the finals on Saturday, April 16 against Central Luzon region.

Getting to the championship game was no easy task. Calabarzon had to defeat rival NCR in the semifinals on Friday, 79-68, in a game that included some history between both sides. During the 2015 Palarong Pambansa, it was NCR which eliminated Calabarzon, disallowing the latter from repeating as champions. A year later, Abu Hijleh and company have returned the favor.

“Syempre nanduon na rin yung redemption namin,” he told Rappler after the physical game which included shoving, trash-talking, and verbal tirades from both crowds at the Ibalong Center of Recreation in Albay. The matchup was so heated than when an NCR player fell to the floor and clutched his knee late, the injury looking serious, a spectator from the other side screamed: “Arte (acting)!” 

Gustong gusto na din namin sila talunin since sila yung tumalo saamin last year, and gusto namin ipakita sa Calabarzon and sa buong Philippines actually na kaya namin mag champion dito,” he said.

(We really wanted to beat them because they were the ones who eliminated us last year, and we wanted to show to Calabarzon and the entire Philippines that we’re capable of winning the championship here.)

Abu Hijleh’s performance last NCAA season earned him a selection in the league’s Mythical Five, but what may be more impressive than his in-game abilities is his leadership trait, which is why Red Cubs/Calabarzon head coach JB Sison made him team captain.

During a heated moment in the fourth quarter of the game against NCR after a hard foul, players from both sides had a display of masculinity by getting up on each other’s faces. But before anything serious could escalate, Abu Hijleh pulled his teammates back and pushed them to the sidelines, not allowing any physical commotion to take place.

Siguro naman ganon gagawin nang lahat nag captain,” he said about the incident. “Kasi kailangan niya i-control yung teammates niya. Siguro since ako yung captain, ako yung kailangan maging steady sa team.”

(I guess that’s what captains typically do. Because he needs to control his teammates. Since I’m the captain, I need to be the one to steady the team.)

Sanay na kami sa ganon,” he talked about his team’s experience in heated situations. “Parang control nalang, composure, tapos iniisip na rin namin mag fi-finals kami, so kailangan kumpleto kami, wala ma-thrown out.”

(We’re used to those situations. We just need to be in control, have composure, and realize we’re going to be in the finals, so we need to be complete and no one gets thrown out.)

That kind of mentality is an example of why both San Beda’s coach and his players have trusted Abu Hijleh. The old saying “Don’t talk about it; be about it,” applies to his actions in and out of the court.

Alam naman namin hard-worker siya,” Sison said about his big man. “Kahit siya yung captain ball namin, he’s isa sa mga talagang nag bibigay nang effort sa team. He leads by example.”

(We know he’s a hard worker. That’s why he’s our captain ball. He’s one of those who really gives effort for the team. He leads by example.)

The next level

Due to the new K-12 educational system, Abu Hijleh has a pair of years remaining to be even more well-rounded for college hoops, wherever he will land. The current grade 10 student was recruited by San Beda back when he was 13-years-old, and has since become a threat in a variety of ways.

Unang-una kasi, sa tutuo lang, undersized big man siya. Pero he makes up for it sa bulk nga niya. He uses his body well. Tsaka he can finish under the goal kahit undersized. Malaking bagay yun sa high school,” Sison said.

(First of all, to be honest, he’s an undersized big man. But he makes up for it with his bulk. He uses his body well and he can finish under the goal even if he’s undersized. That’s a huge thing in high school.)

Calabarzon’s triumph over NCR was a good example. In numerous situations, he was available for drop passes by teammates to yield easy baskets in the paint. With his broad shoulders and bulky chest, high school opponents usually can’t deter him physically from going up for a basket.

The mid-range jumper is also a weapon he utilizes. After NCR had cut the deficit to 59-53 in the final period, Abu Hijleh scored a floater and then hit a pull-up 15-footer on the break during the succeeding possession. The two baskets put Calabarzon back ahead by 10 and essentially sealed the victory.

He gets it done on the other end as well. His heavy frame makes it tough for any opponent to work him in the shaded area and his low center of gravity make him a terrific rebounder. During one possession, an NCR player tried impeding his path with a hard foul but instead bounced off Abu Hijleh’s body and fell to the ground.

There are, of course, improvements to be made. He may be able to bully counterparts now, but that won’t be the case against bigger and stronger rivals in college. With tall foreign student-athletes also common in the UAAP and NCAA, the chances are he’ll be played more in the small and power forward positions.

Actually prino-process na namin yun. He has to adjust to playing the 3 spot, 4 spot, uung medyo quicker pace, kasi come college, medyo kasi ang lalaki na nang mababantayan,” Abu Hijleh’s head coach states.

(Actually, we’re processing that. He has to adjust to playing the 3 spot, 4 spot, to a quicker pace, because come college, his opponents will be bigger.)

Mas malaki mga big man duon. So wala na siyang advantage sa ilalim. So kailangan matuto rin siya mag depensa sa perimeter or umatake sa perimeter.”

(The bigs in college are larger. So he won’t have an advantage down low. So he needs to learn how to play defense in the perimeter or attack from the perimeter.)

Abu Hijleh, who was a former football player, realizes the obstacles in store for him once he leaves the comfort of high school hoops. He admits speed, ball-handling, and shooting are areas he needs to further work on. Fortunately for him, two years are more than enough time to master each aspect.

Potential is a word in basketball that’s thrown around loosely, but it’s the eye-test that most of the time really determines who has the capability to excel in the higher level. And the eye test shows that Abu Hijleh has the toold to do just that.

Yung potential, to be honest, hindi ko pa iniisip yung ganon eh,” he admitted, when the topic was brought up. “Pero sabi nga nila college-ready na, ganyan, may mga nag sco-scout na rin saakin. Tapos iniisip ko na lang na kailangan ko pa mag improve.

(My potential, to be honest, I don’t think about it. But they say I’m college ready and all that, like there are people who are scouting me. I just think about how I need to improve.)

Kailangan ko pa mag steady sa game ko. Kailangan ko pa bumilis, and marami pang kailangan pag trabuhan.”

(I need to better balance my game. I need to get faster, and I need to work on a lot more.)

There’s a long way to go before the Red Cub has to make the decision whether to become a Red Lion or flourish elsewhere. San Beda has historically done a good job keeping its own when they advance to the senior level, but recent transfers like Arvin Tolentino to Ateneo and Andrei Caracut to La Salle prove the opposite is possible as well.

“Hindi naman nawawala sa isip ko yung San Beda kasi dream school ko din yan,” Abu Hijleh said, “along with Ateneo, La Salle, and UST. Magagandang schools.”

(I won’t forget about San Beda because it’s my dream school, along with Ateneo, La Salle, and UST. They’re great schools.)

Wherever he winds up, this is certain: there will be pressure. Pressure to perform on the court and in the classroom (where he says he’s passing his subjects) and pressure to help deliver a championship.

Here’s what working on his side: he’s already used to it, having been groomed in San Beda’s den.

Sanay na rin siguro kasi 7-peat na eh. Alam naman natin lahat nang scout nakatingin sa champion teams. Pero siguro kailangan rin masanay talaga.”

(I guess I’m used to it because of the 7-peat. We all know scouts watch champion teams. But I guess I’ll need to get even more used to it as well.) –

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