Over the course of league history, we have seen many under-the-radar PBA players break out of their shells and surprise everyone with much-improved performances and drastic increases in their production.
Last season, we witnessed Scottie Thompson become a more consistent game-changer for Ginebra, while we were amazed to watch Columbian Dyip’s Jerramy King torch bigger defenders and finish around the rim with relative ease.
Today, FOX Sports Philippines looks closer at the potential crop of overlooked players who could shock everybody and become key players for their respective teams.
Alaska Aces – Carl Bryan Cruz
It’s still bewildering how a national team mainstay like Carl Bryan Cruz isn’t getting a significant amount of minutes from his mother team in the PBA. Alaska head coach Alex Compton has been very hesitant in giving Cruz more playing time as the stretch forward is a bit undersized in his position, and his defense leaves more questions than answers. But Cruz’s brimming potential is indeed intriguing, and judging from his brilliant performance in Game 3 of the Finals last conference, you know that he doesn’t back away from the limelight. With Vic Manuel already crossed out of this conference due to an injury, expect Cruz to shine in the All-Filipino Cup. After all, people once viewed him as a possible replacement for Gilas mainstay Ranidel De Ocampo.
Brgy. Ginebra San Miguel – Aljon Mariano
A triangle offense wouldn’t be effective if it doesn’t have a versatile big man capable of reading the defense and making the right decisions. That’s the main reason why coach Tim Cone always brought Joe Devance with him wherever team he went. But with JDV hounded by numerous injuries at his age, it might be time for Cone to view Mariano as his all-around trustee in the triangle. Despite being undersized at the power forward position, Mariano’s court smarts and passing ability have been valuable for the top-ranked Ginebra. Even during his time in the UAAP, Mariano has always shown that knack to create plays in the post so expect him to do more of it this season.
Blackwater Elite – Mac Belo
The successive injuries that he sustained at the start of his PBA career hindered Belo from blossoming to a fully-fledged star for Blackwater. While he has produced more numbers than any player on this list, you can make an argument that Belo hasn’t really shown what he is capable of doing as a two-way player. A 6-foot-3 small forward in the mold of a Kawhi Leonard-type of player, the Blackwater fans would be very thrilled if Belo asserts himself more on the team’s offense, rather than waiting for his scoring to come.
Columbian Dyip – Jackson Corpuz
During last year’s Governors’ Cup, Corpuz surprised everybody when he tallied averages of 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game despite playing with and against taller imports. A player that Columbian looks up to provide energy and hustle, Corpuz has shown that he can also score the rock. While defense and rebounding will still be his trump cards, look for Corpuz to take opponents by surprise with his excellent inside-outside offensive game.
Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok – Robbie Herndon
Herndon will not really wow you with ball-handling and acrobatic lay-up skills, but he is one of those solid “three-and-D” players that teams need in today’s pace-and-space type of game. A wide-bodied sharpshooter who sent shockwaves in Filipino basketball when he beat the famed Willie Miller during the Red Bull King of the Rock Philippine Qualifier, Herndon’s shooting form is as pure as it can be. Expect this sweet-shooting forward to earn more minutes for Magnolia, now that PJ Simon seems to be content in playing a mentor role in the sidelines.
Meralco Bolts – Nico Salva
Playing with Ranidel De Ocampo for a couple of years has its own perks. Salva should have learned a thing or two from the living legend, an All-Star who plays the same position as his. At this point, it will be tough to expect Salva to improve on defense. But he loosens up some more on offense and pick his shots on the floor, he will be a force to reckon with for opposing defenses. He has the length to shoot over smaller defenders, and enough mobility to blow past taller opponents. With a more-improved shooting selection and consistency, Salva could be an important player for the Bolts.
NLEX Road Warriors – Kenneth Ighalo
If coach Yeng Guiao plays you in a consistent basis, then you must be doing something really good as a player. Despite not producing stellar numbers in the past conferences, Ighalo has often found himself cracking a consistent spot in Guiao’s rotation. Last conference, he racked up 8.7 points and 4.1 rebounds while being tasked as a primary defender to opposing teams’ imports. Guiao has turned Ighalo to an above-average “three-and-D” wing, and expect him to turn up the notch this year.
North Port Batang Pier – Paolo Taha
Like Ighalo, Taha has been flying under the radar for some time now. He is not a flashy scorer, but he is a tireless worker on the defensive end. Aside from his impressive defensive skills, Taha is also a deadly weapon in transition, a player who gets most of his points from fastbreak opportunities that he generated from his interceptions. He had his career-conference under head coach Pido Jarencio in the Governors’ Cup, averaging 10.3 points and 3.4 boards per game. With more time of getting acquainted to his teammates and the Batang Pier’s system, expect Taha to do more this season.
Phoenix Pulse Fuel Masters – Justin Chua
Chua will get most of his opportunities to shine in the All-Filipino Cup this season. Without an import, Phoenix will rely on the Ateneo standout to handle most of the frontcourt duties. A heavy-bodied lefty with a sweet-shooting stroke, Chua is a prototype stretch big man on offense. If he could work more on his defense and rebounding, he has the solid chance this year to finally break out from his shell.
Rain or Shine Elasto Painters – Rey Nambatac
Despite a forgettable rookie season last year, this highly-touted combo guard from Letran is still oozing with potential. There are times that Nambatac looked quite lost on Rain or Shine’s offensive and defensive schemes last season, but that’s part of the growing pains as a rookie in the PBA. After all, Ginebra’s Scottie Thompson spent most of his rookie season sitting on the bench, watching and studying the game from his seat. Nambatac has shown flashes of brilliance as a playmaker while in Letran, and look for him to assert himself more on the Elasto Painters’ offense this year.
San Miguel Beermen – Von Pessumal
With Alex Cabagnot recovering from an injury to start the year and newly-acquired Terrence Romeo still learning the Beermen’s system, it’s about time that head coach Leo Austria gives Pessumal the playing minutes he deserves. When he was fielded on the court last conference, Pessumal sank a stellar 41 percent clip of his shots from beyond the arc. Like Marcio Lassiter, Pessumal is a solid perimeter shooter and an underrated wing defender.
TNT KaTropa – Brian Heruela
Let’s face it already. The Heruela-Romeo trade is as unbalanced as it can be. But the positive side of it is that Heruela can finally get more consistent minutes with the KaTropa. Heruela is a hard-nosed defensive point guard, with a quick first step on offense. We haven’t seen enough of him to judge his playmaking skills especially under the pressure of a game’s crucial minutes. But with Asia’s best point guard Jayson Castro on his side, expect Heruela to try to prove to us that the recent SMB-TNT trade is not as unfair as we think.