Banal hopes to make impact

Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - It’s been a long wait from Yemen in 2010 when Raphael Banal played on the Philippine team at the FIBA Asia U18 Championships with Kiefer Ravena, Jeron Teng, Russell Escoto, Kevin Ferrer, Troy Rosario, Mike Tolomia, Gelo Alolino and Von Pessumal under coach Eric Altamirano.

After Yemen, Banal took the US route in honing his hoop skills from high school graduation while Ravena and the others stayed in Manila. Late last year, Banal returned home with a wealth of experience playing for Victory University in Memphis, Tennessee and Hope International University in Fullerton, California and reported for duty with Racal in the PBA D-League to establish eligibility for the draft this Sunday. Now, Banal is ready to showcase what he’s got on the pro level.

“No regrets in deciding to go to the US instead of playing in the NCAA or UAAP,” said Banal who turns 24 today. “I realize I was off the buzz for five years while I was in the US but I never lost sight of my goal which is to play at the highest level in the PBA. That was the gameplan from the start. At Ateneo, Kiefer and I were the leading scorers when coach Jamike (Jarin) took us to two UAAP titles. I played three at the time. I wanted to expand my skills and with my height (6-2), I knew playing in the US would make me a more complete player as a combo-guard.”

Banal’s first stop in the US was a six-month camp with coach Ed Schilling in Indiana. It’s the same camp where Banal’s older brother Gab, Joshua Webb, Hyram Bagatsing, Rosario and Mark de Guzman attended. Altamirano set up the camp for Banal and Schilling later recommended him to coach Scott Robinson at Victory. Schilling and Robinson were assistant coaches under John Calipari at Memphis.

Banal played significant minutes at Victory in the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association, the same league where Meralco import Allen Durham saw action with Grace Bible. He averaged 12 points, 2.9 assists and 2 rebounds. But because football was the No. 1 sport in Memphis, Banal looked to transfer to a school where basketball was king. Fil-Am coach Leo Balayo then took Banal to Hope International and arranged a tryout. Hope International is where Fil-Am Kris Rosales, now with TNT KaTropa, played. Banal made the team as a walk-on under coach Bill Czech.

For two years, Banal was on the far end of Czech’s rotation but the experience he earned was invaluable as Hope advanced to the NAIA Division I Sweet 16 in his first year and Final Four in his second. “We were stacked and I didn’t get to play much,” said Banal. “That was the downside but the upside was I got to compete every day at practice with some of the country’s best players. Coach Bill is a perfectionist who leaves little room for margin of error. I got to start and once scored 16 points but on the whole, I played sparingly. I made up for it at practice and I became a better player.” Banal finished with a Business Management degree at Hope, ending his four-year stay by taking up 28 units in his last semester.

Banal said in the PBA, he hopes to play in the mold of a Paul Lee or Alex Cabagnot. “I can play one or two or both or three,” he said. “I can defend, set up, rebound and score. I’m praying to be drafted by a team where I can fit in the coach’s system and bring out my game. I know it’s tough to crack the lineup of top-tier teams because they’re loaded with talent but if I’m given a chance, perhaps with a mid-tier team, I can make an immediate impact.”

Banal’s NBA favorite is Steph Curry. “He’s not athletically gifted but he finds ways to make his team better,” he said. “His ability to maximize his outside shooting skills is something I’d like to do in the PBA. I don’t mean taking transition threes. I mean making my outside shot a threat to open up things for my teammates.”

Banal’s father Joel, a former PBA player and coach, said outside shooting is almost a must for a guard to survive in today’s game. “Larry Fonacier and Jeff Chan make a living out of their outside shot,” he said. “I think that’s a skill that Raph can bring to the PBA, not to mention his point guard mentality to be a leader on the floor. I remember in a father-and-son UAAP tournament some years back, Raph and I won over Ato Agustin and Mark, Leo Austria and Bacon, Chot Reyes and Ice and my brother Koy and Jonathan. All I did was to pass the ball to Raph at the three-point arc and he drained 21 of 26 triples. That’s when I knew he had a special gift as an outside shooter.”

In Yemen, Banal hit 46.5 percent from beyond the arc and averaged 11.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists. That was the same tournament where Sajjad Mashayekhi of Iran, Guo Ailun of China and Amjot Singh of India launched their international careers. Banal was in elite company among the tournament’s best outside shooters. Now, his dream is to be in elite company in the PBA.


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