Back to the grind
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - May 19, 2019 - 12:00am

It was less than a week ago when the PBA Philippine Cup came to a dramatic close with San Miguel Beer clinching the crown via a 72-71 win over Magnolia in Game 7 of the Finals before 12,871 fans at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. That was just last Wednesday. And today, the PBA opens its doors to the Commissioner’s Cup with a doubleheader at the Mall of Asia Arena.

San Miguel and Magnolia won’t see action until June 5 so they’ll have a little over two weeks to recover from the recent Finals. Meanwhile, the other 10 teams will be back in the grind with Barangay Ginebra out to retain the second conference crown wearing a brand new “Never Say Die” jersey. Before San Miguel and Magnolia return, 18 games will have been played to get the league off to a hot start.

Today’s inaugural twinbill pits Blackwater against Meralco in the first game and Alaska against Columbian in the second. Bobby Ray Parks will make his PBA debut with Blackwater while Raymond Almazan will mark his first appearance with Meralco. Vic Manuel is expected to suit up for Alaska after missing the entire Philippine Cup and the Aces, for sure, can’t wait to get him back on the floor. Columbian fell a win shy of breaking into the playoffs last conference and will look to make it this time with C. J. Perez toughened by his Philippine Cup initiation.

The Commissioner’s Cup has a height limit of 6-10 for imports. Each team is allowed to recruit one reinforcement. It will be a single-round robin eliminations with the top eight advancing to the playoffs and the bottom four dropping out. The top two placers gain a twice-to-beat advantage in the quarterfinals with No. 1 taking on No. 8 and No. 2 meeting No. 7 while No. 3 faces No. 6 and No. 4 battles No. 5 in separate best-of-three series. Survivors move on to play in the best-of-5 semifinals and the winners dispute the championship in the best-of-7 Finals.

Of the 12 imports, six are newcomers – Alaska’s Chris Daniels of Texas A&M (not to be confused with the former Ginebra import in 2010), Columbian’s Kyle Barone of the University of Idaho, Meralco’s Gani Lawal of Georgia Tech, NLEX’ Curtis Washington of Georgia State, NorthPort’s Prince Ibeh of the University of Texas and TNT’s Terrence Jones of the University of Kentucky. The comebackers are Ginebra’s Justin Brownlee of St. John’s University, Blackwater’s Alex Stepheson of the University of North Carolina and the University of Southern California, Magnolia’s John Fields of East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Phoenix’ Rob Dozier of the University of Memphis, Rain or Shine’s Denzel Bowles of Texas A&M and James Madison University and San Miguel Beer’s Charles Rhodes of Mississippi State.

Three are NBA draft picks – Lawal (2010, second round by Phoenix), Dozier (2009, second round by Miami) and Jones (2012, first round by Houston). Three played in the NBA – Stepheson (with the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis in 2015-16), Lawal (with Phoenix in 2010-11) and Jones (six seasons with Houston, New Orleans and Milwaukee up to 2018-19). Their age range is 24 (Ibeh) to 35 (Daniels). Four are former PBA Best Import awardees who’ve played on PBA title squads – Bowles (2012), Dozier (2013), Rhodes (2017) and Brownlee (2018).

Jones, 27, is the newcomer to watch. He averaged 10.4 points in 234 NBA regular season games and earned over $8.4 million in salaries with three different clubs. His highest paycheck was $2.4 million with the Rockets in 2015-16. In three of his six NBA campaigns, Jones averaged in double figure points with 12.1 his highest in 2013-14. At Kentucky, he played on varsity teams that went to the Final Four twice, winning the title once.

Despite Jones’ creds, Brownlee, 31, remains the import yardstick. He’s bagged three championships in five PBA conferences so the winning tradition is evident. Brownlee has also won titles in the ABL and the Lebanese league. He’s called Magic Brown because of his golden touch.

Two imports are of Nigerian descent. Lawal’s father father Gani Sr. is Nigerian and his mother Michelle is American. He was born in Georgia. Lawal played only a game with the Suns in the NBA and that was on Dec. 31, 2010 with his solitary statistic a foul in two minutes. A week later, he suffered an ACL injury and never went back to the NBA. He moved on to play in Poland, China, France, Italy, Latvia, Turkey, Greece and Japan before landing in the PBA. Blackwater had Lawal in its sights, too, but Meralco beat the Elite to the punch in signing him up. The other is Ibeh whose Nigerian parents migrated to London where he was born. Ibeh was five when his parents moved the family to Texas.

It’s interesting that Blackwater’s import used to play for Meralco. Stepheson, 31, was the Bolts import in 2017. Aside from Stepheson’s NBA stint, what stands out in his resume is he played on the North Carolina squads that went to the Elite 8 and Final Four. Before Parks came to terms with Blackwater, there was talk that Meralco was negotiating to enlist him through a trade. So today’s Blackwater-Meralco game has a lot of intriguing undertones. It should be an enjoyable trip up the Commissioner’s Cup road.

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