MANILA, Philippines – The acceleration in Michael Phillips’ development has sped by quickly. Only six months ago, he was a talented and semi-coordinated rookie on a Green Archers team with few knowing what he was capable of.
Now, he is considered an MVP candidate for a squad with legitimate championship aspirations.
The Phillips we saw last UAAP season was a menace of a basketball player hidden inside the personality of a soft-spoken young man. He only recently turned 20 years old, yet his importance for a team looking to end a six-year championship dry spell cannot be understated.
“On the inside I’m always going to try to be a good guy off the court,” he shared in an exclusive talk with Rappler.
“But my dad always told me, ‘When you’re on the court, you’ve got to go beast mode. You’ve got to be able to flip that switch.’”
Phillips’ breakout game in Season 84 was a loss against reigning champion Ateneo, when multi-titled mentor Tab Baldwin complimented La Salle’s standout afterwards. Michael continued to earn more playing time and wound up in the Mythical Five with play that both the eye-test and statistics justified as superb.
It didn’t take long for the Green Archers to get back on the court as they joined the FilOil preseason tournament and PBA D-League, the latter where they prevailed as champions.
“That’s a man’s league,” Phillips said of the competition.
DLSU lost Game 1 of the D-League finals then took control in the succeeding contests. Phillips finished as runner-up to pro-level player Juan Gomez de Liaño in the MVP race, but was the most impactful performer out of both teams in the three-game series.
“I’m very, very grateful we were in that league. Especially against Marinero. The first time we faced them, I let them get in my head and I let my emotions get the best of me,” he recalled.
“I’m very grateful to that team and the coaches who had my back at that time, because it really helped me mature as a player and gave me an edge that can help in the UAAP.”
The change in Phillips’ on-court attitude has been noticeable. A few months ago he’d quickly apologize to an opposing player following an inadvertent hit that everyone else commonly gives. There were occasions he avoided contact rather than taking advantage of smaller defenders close to the rim.
Over the summer, we saw a player who didn’t mind extending his elbow wide when keeping off opponents trying to pull tricks or swipes. His hustle-first attitude is still present, though the wide-eyed nice boy display has been filtered by more mean streaks.
Phillips is a rebounding machine, both on the offensive and defensive ends. That allows him to capitalize on second-chance scoring opportunities for the former and limit opposing teams to one shot per possession repeatedly for the latter.
He’s athletic, which makes him dangerous in transition to pair with pace-pushers like Deschon Winston, Kevin Quiambao, Evan Nelle, and Mark Nonoy. His length and wingspan blur the vision of opposing playmakers when close to the rim, not to mention disrupt their passing lanes.
But Michael also has a handful of areas to improve on. Free throws, for one. Timing on guarding guards’ screen-and-rolls. His touch a few feet from the basket could use fine-tuning, and developing a mid-range game will be important if he wants to exceed past his current ceiling.
“I’ve been really working hard,” he shared. “The coaches have been pushing me hard to make sure my game isn’t just pure power. I’m trying to help out the guards, give them more space to work with. By doing that, I have to step out, work on my shot, and get some dribbling.”
Michael will need guidance. That’s why the arrival of Quiambao, the hands-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year, and not to mention that instrument that could put La Salle in the same level as Ateneo and UP, is essential.
For starters, Quiambao’s playmaking capabilities from the perimeter and outside shot will space the floor better for Phillips in lineup combinations they share. Kevin can also create scoring opportunities for Michael with the gravity his size and skill pull. Who knows, we might even see a PF-C pick-and-roll between the two.
“I’m very grateful I have Kevin,” said Michael, who is aware his new teammate has the exact combination of ability and length that, if he possessed, would put Phillips a tier above his current contemporaries.
There are leaps to go.
“He’s been helping me a lot. I’m trying to get some pointers from him.”
Even if Michael remains the same player – and the wise wager would might be against this – the impact he provides is game-changing because of his two-way consistency.
Baldwin was complimentary of Phillips again, being the first of the UAAP coaches during the season press conference to note him also as an MVP candidate, when majority had pointed out UP’s Carl Tamayo and Ateneo’s Angelo Kouame, who won the trophy last year.
“Of course, coming from someone like coach Tab, [that’s] an honor. Any praise coming from him is very, very good,” Michael commented.
“For me, it’s motivation to be a leader for the team,” he proposed.
Michael has individual goals in mind, but they seem to take a backseat to the role his team will require of him for each game to fulfill their collective ambition, which includes getting rid of the sour taste of how their prior season ended.
That La Salle team had the sole expectation of making it back to the Final Four. Time moves fast. Now, the expectation is, at the least, to make the finals. It’s been six years since “Green Archers” have been used in the same sentence as “reigning UAAP champions.”
Accomplishing that means Michael’s task, on some nights, will be turning on “beast mode” through scoring at will.
And on other nights, it could be: “Even if I don’t score any points and I just got 20 rebounds but I have my other guys going, that would be an honor.”
Season 85 is here. It’s time to flip a switch.