Star in the making
BIZLINKS - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - November 22, 2016 - 12:00am

(In Sunday’s PBA opening story, it was mentioned that Iranian social gaming and information technology whiz Fred Fateh put up the PBA app that’s now available for downloads. The company that Fateh heads and has been contracted by the PBA for the app is Appefize Pte Ltd.)

The team with the most rookies on the PBA’s inaugural day rosters came close to pulling off an upset over the defending Philippine Cup champion San Miguel Beer to start the 42nd season’s first conference at the Smart Araneta Coliseum the other night.

Listing four freshmen and two veteran recruits in the lineup, the Star Hotshots gave San Miguel a giant headache after surging to a nine point lead, 86-77, in the fourth period. But the Beermen countered with a 15-0 blast that left the Hotshots wondering how they could’ve squandered the lead when it looked like San Miguel was almost down for the count. San Miguel held on to win, 96-88.

For a squad that introduced a new coach in Chito Victolero, Star didn’t do badly at all against San Miguel that boasted of the only back-to-back-to-back MVP ever JuneMar Fajardo. There have been four-time MVPs in the past but neither Alvin Patrimonio nor Ramon Fernandez took the honors thrice in a row. Bogs Adornado was a three-time MVP but was never cited three straight years. MVPs who were awarded two consecutive seasons were Danny Ildefonso, Patrimonio and Adornado.

The four rookies in Star’s cast are Gilas’ Jio Jalalon, Chris Javier, Samboy de Leon and Mon Abundo. Jalalon, 24, is a 5-8 1/2 dynamo while Javier, 23, is a 6-3 5/8 undersized power forward. De Leon, 24, and Abundo, 24, were former CEU teammates who were picked in last year’s draft. De Leon was the Hotshots’ fourth round pick and Abundo was Blackwater’s seventh round choice. Abundo, who stands 5-7 1/2, is in the record books as the lowest-drafted player ever to make it to the PBA. The new veteran recruits are Paul Lee from Rain Or Shine and Aldrech Ramos from Mahindra. Struck out from last season’s lineup were James Yap, R. R. Garcia, Alex Mallari, Jerwin Gaco and Keith Jensen. Curiously, Jensen never played a game for Star after he was traded by GlobalPort before the Governors Cup started.

Victolero, 40, was formerly de facto head coach of Mahindra, then known as Kia, before moving out to make way for Chris Gavina starting the last Governors Cup. Victolero had taken over from Glenn Capacio at Kia.

La Salle varsity head coach Aldin Ayo described Victolero as “a master of adjustments.” They worked together in Capacio’s staff at Kia and Ayo, who was the team’s video coordinator, said he broke down scouting reports with Victolero. When Jason Webb slid down to first assistant coach in Star’s offseason reshuffle, San Miguel Corp. sports director Alfancis Chua tapped Victolero for the driver’s seat. Victolero played under Chua, then head coach, with the Stag Pale Pilsen team that captured the grand slam in the PBL in 1995-96.

In the Philippine Cup last season, the Hotshots turned in disappointing stats, ranking last in second chance points (9.5), first in most turnovers (19.8) and second to the last in rebounds (46) and assists (16.4). Star failed to advance to the playoffs in any of the three conferences, finishing ninth in the Philippine Cup, eighth in the Commissioner’s Cup and 11th in the Governors Cup. Overall, Star was No. 11 in league standings with a 12-24 record, creating the inevitability of a personnel overhaul from top to bottom.

For a while, there were doubts that Star would remain a fan favorite without Yap. But last Sunday’s game showed that the Hotshots still command a large following as the Star faithful erupted in wild cheering when Victolero’s squad came back from 10 down to lead by nine in the fourth quarter. Without a legitimate center to contain Fajardo, Victolero went to 39-year-old veteran Rafi Reavis in a gamble that paid off dividends particularly in the third period when the reigning MVP was limited to three field goal attempts. Reavis, however, couldn’t extend himself down the stretch as Fajardo compiled seven points and five rebounds in the payoff quarter. Fajardo finished with 25 points and 16 boards.

Lee presided in Star’s 36-point explosion in the third period that turned an eight-point deficit into a four-point lead. Lee shot 10 of his 12 points in that blitz but went scoreless in the last 12 minutes. Lee’s adjustment to Victolero’s system is a work in progress. At Rain Or Shine, Lee was the top point guard who thrived in ball-screens and was designated to be the primary handler. At Star, he’ll mainly play No. 2 because Marc Barroca, Jalolon and Justin Melton are too small to be anything but a point guard. That means Lee won’t handle as much and the screen-rolls won’t come too often.

But Victolero’s guard-oriented lineup is a fit for Lee. It’s a matter of exploiting how far the small-ball style will take Star. A three-guard formation can run opponents dizzy, press with a frenzy and run transition like a horserace. It’s no secret that like the Golden State Warriors, a small lineup must be powered by consistently accurate long-range shooters. Against San Miguel, Star clawed back with seven three-point connections in the third period – that kind of firepower is critical when giving up size.

Star committed 30 turnovers against San Miguel, something that’s not surprising considering the Hotshots’ facelift. San Miguel pounced on those mistakes to score 29 turnover points. But the silver lining was Star somehow outrebounded San Miguel, 52-46, and that’s without a legit center. Ian Sangalang started in the middle for Star and came away with eight points and 10 boards.

Despite the loss, it wasn’t a disastrous opener for Star. There were clear signs that this season’s team will be tougher, more competitive and more determined than last year’s squad. If Victolero is the master of adjustments as he’s touted to be, it won’t be long for the Hotshots to be playoff contenders once again.

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