With all the buzz surrounding Kai Sotto of the Australia NBL, Jack Animam in Serbia, and the nine Filipinos grinding at the Japan B. League, it’s quite easy to forget there is still one pro Pinoy ready to make a name for himself overseas: Francis “LeBron” Lopez.
Like his kuya Kai before him, the 18-year-old swingman is a product of the illustrious Ateneo Blue Eaglets high school team in the UAAP, a program that has produced some of the Philippines’ brightest prospects today like Sotto, Dave Ildefonso, and SJ Belangel.
Same as the aforementioned rising stars, the 6-foot-5 Lopez was snagged up by Gilas Pilipinas head coach Tab Baldwin to complete his national team roster laden with nothing but young bloods like Dwight Ramos, Justine Baltazar, and Juan Gomez de Liaño.
Being just 18 years old, Lopez appeared for only 9 minutes in one game for Gilas in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, but he did show great promise in his one-and-done rookie year in the UAAP under head coach Reggie Varilla.
Playing alongside team leaders Forthsky Padrigao and Joshua Lazaro, Lopez wowed crowds with his raw athleticism, and leaped to Season 82 averages of 16 points, 9.2 rebounds, and a league-leading 3.0 blocks in just 25 minutes per game.
Unfortunately for Lopez, he was unable to showcase his skills deep into his only postseason run as the Eaglets were clipped in the first round of the stepladder semifinals by the Adamson Baby Falcons, led by rookie MVP Jake Figueroa.
Regardless, his coach had nothing but high praise for his talented ward after he left the Eaglets’ nest in the middle of the sports-restrictive pandemic.
“I am so proud and happy that he was presented this opportunity to showcase his talents and skills on an international level. On the other hand, you feel a certain level of anxiety seeing one of your sons leave,” said Varilla, who also last coached Sotto before he left for greener pastures in the US.
“I’m elated to see that our local talents are now being recognized around the globe. It bodes well for the future of Philippine basketball,” he continued. “Also, it gives our aspiring basketball players inspiration and hope that they can play on a bigger stage.”
Six-figure start with Overtime Elite
Lopez, now a full-fledged pro as a teenager, is expected to earn a minimum of $100,000 (P5.08 million) per year in the upstart Overtime Elite (OTE) pro league based in Atlanta, Georgia.
There are currently three teams composed of nine players each in the OTE camp, and are starting off their new season on October 30, Manila time, by facing non-OTE or external teams in and out of Atlanta. This inaugural campaign will run until March 2022.
Lopez will play under former Maccabi Tel Aviv tactician Tim Fanning with eight other young stars. The two other teams are coached by former US NCAA coach Dave Leitao, and ex-NBA veteran forward Ryan Gomes.
Here is the Philippine time schedule for Lopez and Team Fanning for November.
- Saturday, October 30, 8 am vs. KT Kings
- Sunday, October 31, 6 am vs. Dr. Phillip’s Basketball Club
- Tuesday, November 2, time TBD vs. North Carolina (Combine Academy/Winston Salem Christian/Liberty Heights)
- Wednesday, November 3, time TBD vs. North Carolina (Combine Academy/Winston Salem Christian/Liberty Heights)
Internal Play (OTE League Series Competition):
- Wednesday, November 10 – 7:50 am vs. Team Leitao, 8:40 am vs. Team Gomes
- Saturday, November 13 – 7 am vs. Team Leitao, 7:50 am vs. Team Gomes
- Wednesday, November 17 – 7 am vs. Team Gomes, 8:40 am vs. Team Leitao
- Saturday, November 20, 8 am vs. Word of God Academy
- Sunday, November 21, 6 am vs. Colorado Prep
Per their website, OTE “offers a year-round development program combining world-class coaching, cutting-edge sports science and performance technologies, top-notch facilities, and a rigorous, highly personalized academic program” for young athletes like Lopez.
Their aim is to “energize and enhance each athlete’s journey from proficiency to pro for the next generation of athlete empowerment,” similar to how the NBA is offering the G League Ignite, where Sotto was a pioneering member, as a pathway to the top league. – Rappler.com
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