REMEMBER THE NAME
THE FRESHMAN CLASS OF 2K11 IS A WHO’S WHO OF NEW TALENT, A RARE BREED WAITING TO BURST ONTO THE COLLEGIATE SCENE.
To describe the recruiting class of 2011 as promising is an understatement. To call it overhyped is shortsighted. With all the hoopla surrounding the neophytes of the second decade of the century, it’s safe to say they’re already household names just a few months removed from their first or second junior-senior proms. The question on a lot of people’s minds, though, is whether they’re in for the long haul, or just some passing fancy waiting to get old the soonest.
The men among boys
The NCAA-UAAP Bantay Bata 163 All-Star festivities are always greeted with a smile for the cause it aims to uphold. Each year, rivals become friends for a day as the best high school and college ballers from both leagues come together to raise funds and put on a show. In 2010, the Juniors matchup seemed to overshadow the tiff between their older peers.
Highlighting last year’s edition was the matchup between
the two biggest names in high school ball: Kiefer Ravena and Baser Amer. Good buddies off the court, both Ravena (20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.2 APG, 51 FG%) and Amer (15.6 PPG, 11.7 APG, 8.3 RPG) were already cult heroes in Ateneo and San Beda, respectively. Their last televised showdown as high school legends was merely icing on the proverbial cakes of their storied juniors careers. Ravena was one of a few players to have starred for his high school squad for the full four years, winning three straight titles and receiving two UAAP Mythical Five selections, while Amer had just copped the season and finals Most Valuable Player awards after leading his vaunted Red Cubs to their second consecutive NCAA juniors championship. As expected, both the Ateneo and San Beda communities eagerly awaited the decisions of their would-be stars. In the end, both stayed in their respective schools, much to the delight of their future mentors.
“Kiefer is such a smart player. Everyone knows he can score, but he has that ability to set up his teammates and make the team better. He can shoot or break down his defender oneon-one, which makes him a dual threat,” Ateneo Blue Eagles head coach Norman Black says.
“The likes of Amer don’t come often, probably once in eight years. Despite being a rookie, he can come in and take over a
game. With him on my team, there’s respect from the other guys because they know what he can do,” remarks San Beda Red Lions tactician Frankie Lim.
Lim echoes the sentiments of many an observer, scout and coach: the talent level of the 2011 freshman class is rare and well beyond their age. Ravena and Amer are envisioned to start for their coaches in just their rookie campaigns. And so are NU guard Bobby Ray Parks and De La Salle big man Norbert Torres. The 6’3” Parks, a three-star recruit by American rater scout. com, received offers from Georgia Tech and four other NCAA Division I schools before deciding to take his talents to Sampaloc. The Bulldogs’ new coach, Eric Altamirano, describes Parks as “the most talented player” he’s coached “at that age,” a resounding compliment considering the sheer volume of young talent he has seen and mentored the past decade. Torres, at 6’7”, first burst onto the local scene with the RP U-18 squad that finished 7th in the 2008 FIBA-Asia U-18 Championships in Tehran, Iran before serving a residency period at DLSU that disqualifies him from UAAP Rookie of the Year honors (only fresh high school graduates are eligible for the award). His soft, feathery touch from outside makes him one of the few physical specimens with a skills set of a sniper.
Ravena and Amer may have lit up the Arena in San Juan that humid October afternoon, but they weren’t alone as more than a handful of kids who seemingly masqueraded in collegiate bodies and consistently stuffed the box scores flanked them in the all-star affair. On Ravena’s side were Ateneo teammates Von Pessumal (12 PPG, 1.4 SPG) and Paolo Romero (10.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 64 FG%), National University Mythical Five member Roque Estoce (12.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and 2010 UAAP juniors MVP Kevin Ferrer, a versatile forward who tallied mind-boggling stats of 19.9 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 2.6 BPG and 1.9 SPG. Amer, meanwhile, had fellow Red Cub big men Ponso Gotladera (12.1 PPG, 10.7 RPG) and Chris Javier (8.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 56 FG%), Letran playmaker Mark Cruz (20.6 PPG, 4.1 APG, 1.9 SPG) and Mythical Five selections Gino Jumao-as of San Sebastian (23.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 5.5 APG), Cris de la Paz of Jose Rizal University (21.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.2 SPG) and Gelo Alolino, who led the league in scoring at 26.5 markers a contest while splitting time between the Perpetual Help Altalettes and National Under-18 Youth Team. All of them had become instant prospects for the 2011 collegiate wars and immediate targets of institutions and their recruiters in what proved to be one of the richest pre-season summer harvests in years.
Recruitment has always been a battleground in the theater of college basketball. Since time immemorial, schools have made their own pitches to the best high school prospects from Manila and beyond, competing with each other but in discreet ways that often eluded the public eye. That all changed in the summer of 1999 when the two fiercest rivals in all of varsity land decided to take things out in the open.
In September 1998, the University of Santo Tomas Tiger Cubs edged the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eaglets to the UAAP Juniors title. The Blue Eaglets rode on the shoulders of a young BJ Manalo, who was arguably the best high school prospect that time. His stellar play not only failed to lift Ateneo past its high school nemesis, but wasn’t even enough to land him a spot on the Mythical Five, which was controversially composed of five Tiger Cubs: MVP Alwyn Espiritu, Andrew Aquino, Kelwin Ang, Mark Lindaya and Mark Navarra.
A few months later, Manalo, who was projected to form a lethal one-two punch with then incoming sophomore Enrico Villanueva for the Ateneo Blue Eagles, declared he would be attending De La Salle University for college. His decision sparked an uproar in Katipunan and a frenzy along Taft. Allegations and choice words were hurled by both sides, fanning the flames in the process. While some watchers could
rightly argue that crossing fences was commonplace well before this episode, the Manalo transfer ensured that schools would come in with whatever they could offer, the stakes would be raised, and recruiting would mutate into a no holds barred affair where only the strong – in every sense of the word – survived.
The 2000s also saw its fair share of pillaging. The 2002 San Beda Red Cubs featured big-name recruits in JV Casio, Jay Agbayani, Ford Arao, Mike Baldos, Arvin Braganza and Yuri Escueta – none of whom donned the school’s senior colors. In 2007, the University of the Philippines successfully recruited four highly touted members of the Far Eastern University Baby Tamaraws that lost to Ateneo in the finals: Soc Rivera, Mark Lopez, Jomar Paulino and Dexter Rosales, while the squad’s playmaker, Jonathan Banal, chose Mapúa over Morayta. High school teammates Jens Knuttel and Jolas Paguia stayed on, but that wasn’t enough for FEU’s top brass to engineer a piece of UAAP legislation that went on to be informally called the “Soc Rivera Rule”.
The new law would directly lay its imprint on recruitment. One of its two chief clauses states that a high school graduate from a UAAP school could suit up for a rival UAAP squad’s collegiate unit the following year only after securing a clearance from his high school. If a clearance cannot be obtained, that player would have to sit out a year. The rule has paved the way for a few schools to make life a little harder for their would-be transferees. The Varsitarian, UST’s official student publication, detailed how Tiger Cubs Kyle Neypes and Cederick Labingisa traded in their stripes for stints with NU in a mid-2010 article. Neypes was later picked by Altamirano to represent the country with the likes of Alolino, Ferrer, Pessumal and Ravena in the 2010 FIBA-Asia U-18 Championships in Sana’a, Yemen, while Labing-isa was part of that team’s training pool. Both of them did not suit up for NU in 2010, an indication of how the “Soc Rivera Rule” has shaped the recruitment process, but seem primed to play more than a spectator’s role in the Bulldogs’ Season 74 exploits.
Not everyone followed in the footsteps of Ravena and Amer. While Pessumal, Cruz and de la Paz stuck with Ateneo, Letran and JRU, respectively; others tested the recruiting waters and eventually jumped ship. Romero made the short trip from Katipunan to the University of the Philippines, Gotladera joined Torres in DLSU, Javier enrolled in the University of the East, Jumao-as made the short trip from Recto to Morayta, Alolino followed Altamirano at NU and Estoce bolted NU for Arellano University in a wild merrygo-round.
Cruz, de la Paz, Gotladera, Jumao-as and Romero are all expected to figure prominently in their squads’ rotations. Cruz has shown he can direct traffic for the Knights in pick-up games and summer league action, while Jumao-as’ versatility at both guard spots gives returning Tamaraws coach Bert Flores a bigger option at the point. De la Paz has drawn rave reviews from JRU mentor Vergel Meneses, who says he’s “lucky” the small forward stayed in Mandaluyong despite offers from other squads. Gotladera and Romero, meanwhile, got their first taste of big man ball in the preseason and passed their acid tests quite handily with their ability to stay unfazed in testy situations.
This bumper crop of youngsters will join the likes of Roldan Sara (DLSU), Gwyne Capacio (Ateneo), Russel Escoto and Cris Tolomia (FEU) and Yousef Taha and Josan
Nimes (Mapúa Institute of Technology) as some of the more notable first-year cagers scattered around NCAA and UAAP programs, a testament to the diverse nature of talent going around town. While it’s too early to predict the kinds of careers these guys will have, their names won’t be forgotten anytime soon.