Scottie and Chris: Ginebra and Meralco’s star rookies playing vital roles

Naveen Ganglani

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Scottie and Chris: Ginebra and Meralco’s star rookies playing vital roles
Scottie Thompson and Chris Newsome have established themselves as big-time players in the PBA

MANILA, Philippines – When Chris Newsome and Scottie Thompson were selected at number 4 and 5 by the Meralco Bolts and Barangay Ginebra, respectively, during the 2015 PBA Draft, there was a belief the two would become stellar PBA players down the line.

But for both guys to be this good, this quick? There’s some surprise factor there.

And here they are now, coming off impressive semis performances, playing major roles for their teams with the Governors’ Cup Finals just hours away.

The Meralco Bolts have already made history by making their first finals appearance in franchise history, but Norman Black didn’t become the third winningest coach with 10 championships in PBA lore by settling for runner-up trophies.

(READ: Started from the bottom, now Meralco’s in the PBA Finals)

Tim Cone and his forever Triangle need no introduction. With 18 rings, he’s already established himself as the most successful coach in league history. Though despite all the accomplishments which some of his contemporaries can only dream of, ending the 8-year championship drought of the most popular team in the PBA is a new obstacle he has yet to overcome.

For both coaches to achieve their goals, it’s become clear their main rooks will have to step up even more in a series that may go the distance. Even without Greg Slaughter, Ginebra looks like the favorite on paper. Well so did TNT, and how’d that work out for them against the Bolts? 

There’s a possibility which team’s first-year standout plays better may dictate a game’s outcome. Maybe two, probably even 3.

“My rookie matchup with Scottie, it’s going to be a good one. He’s really an intelligent player, he’s a really skilled player, and I feel that we’re similar in a lot of ways in the fact that we’re both do-it-all type of people,” said Newsome on Thursday, October 6, at the PBA Cafe.

“He’s rebounding, getting assists, and scoring, just the same as I am: I’m rebounding, getting assists, and scoring also. It’s definitely going to be a good matchup and we expect it to be really exciting. I think it’s a great opportunity for me and Scottie to showcase what we’re capable of doing and that we belong in this league.”

The last part is no longer a question – both rookies will be PBA superstars, assuming they remain healthy. Against the top-seed KaTropa in the semis, Newsome averaged 12.8 points on 49% shooting, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists a game. His effort on the defensive end didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but did not go unnoticed to the eye test. You know what did catch some oohs and aaas? These. Talk about hops.

Thompson wasn’t too bad himself, going for 10.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 5.4 assists a contest in 5 games against defending champion San Miguel. During the pivotal Game 3 – who can forget Japeth Aguilar’s game-winner? – Thompson may not have produced the best highlight, but he became the first PBA rookie in 15 years to record a triple-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. He’s 6-foot-1.

SCOTTIE 2 HOTTIE. Scottie Thompson exploded in Ginebra's Game 5 win over San Miguel. File photo by Josh Albelda/ Rappler

What’s more impressive? He topped that performance during the clinching fifth game, where he went for 24 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 assists. And the craziest part? He attempted 19 shots from the field, making 10. When was the last time a rookie on Tim Cone’s team was given such a green light to let it rip in a do-or-die match?

“I think he’s a little shell-shocked by it all,” Cone said about Thompson, 23. “What a special journey he’s been on this whole conference – starting the All-Star game, playing that big Game 5, and he’s done it all the right way.”

Cone later added, “We had to beg him to take shots in Game 5, and when he did, that changed the whole complexion of our game. He’s still growing as a player and growing as a person and it’s been a fun journey. He’s grown a lot in a year, but I imagine he’s going to take some more leaps and bounds before it’s all over with. You haven’t seen the best of Scottie yet.”

If PBA fans are to see the best of Thompson sooner than later, it will likely be in the finals. The former NCAA MVP’s voice remains soft; his comfortability in front of a camera or audience while speaking his thoughts still in need of improvement. Even Cone let out a laugh, telling Commissioner Chito Narvasa and Chairman Robert Non “That’s the first time I’ve heard him speak” when the talented rookie took the microphone during the finals press conference on Thursday.

But those who have followed Thompson’s career leading up to the PBA are aware he has always let his game do the talking for him. Whenever his feet step onto the hardwood, his all-around impact screams volumes: hustle, effort, scoring, rebounding, passing, name it. He’s the ideal guard in today’s game, an insert of youth and spark that Ginebra has needed this entire season.

“He did it the right way, and everything he’s getting right now, he has truly, truly earned,” Cone said. “He’s been given no special treatment as a draft pick coming in. He came off the bench for a long time. He acquiesced to the veterans.”

Newsome, on the other hand, looks perfectly at ease when the spotlight is on him. That’s one of the results from spending a season watching and learning under Jimmy Alapag, whose media savvy is almost as impressive as his clutch shot-making late in the fourth quarter. The former Ateneo standout was always talented – that was never an issue. But there was a question of how he was going to fit in Meralco, specifically his role in a team filled with established forwards.

Instead of boxing him in, Black and his coaching staff have opened all dimensions of Newsome’s game to be on display. On some days, he’ll light up the scoreboard. In some games, he’ll provide the dirty intangibles necessary to winning. When he sees an opening to the lane, he’ll put a defender or 4 on a poster. The bottomline is, Newsome’s impact on the court is always felt one way or another.

His list of abilities is a long one, and taking advantage of all of that has made Meralco much more dynamic and put the Bolts in the title conversation over the last two conferences.

“It’s a great opportunity just to have that kind of responsibility as a rookie. I give a lot of credit to Coach Norman for trusting me and giving me that opportunity to have that responsibility,” Newsome said. 

“As far as me being able to handle that responsibility on the court, I just embrace it and the team does a good job of helping me to embrace it because they all feed me confidence. They’re all telling me that I can do it and that they need me to do that.”

“Need” is the critical term there, and the same can be said about Thompson: they’re no longer just rookies whose contributions are gravy. They’ve become necessities. Both Newsome and Thompson have worked their way to earn the trust of the two most accomplished coaches in the PBA today, and the duo have repaid the favor by helping lead their teams to significant heights while giving a glimpse into what’s in store for the PBA’s future.

But right now in the present, the two are primed as the x-factors for a series that will likely be better than advertised. And that aspect, much like their potential, is going to be very exciting. –

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