Belo is best player out of the strangest PBA Draft ever

Image from FIBA.

*This first appeared on my weekly column on

The upcoming 2016-2017 season of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) had its first big event this past weekend - the 2016 PBA Rookie Draft - and it was equal parts exciting and mystifying. On one hand, the Draft transpired with a lot of fanfare, which didn't come as a surprise since the PBA re-captured the imagination of fans after an amazing season-ending Finals series between upstart Meralco Bolts and “people's team” Ginebra Gin Kings a couple of weeks ago. On the other hand, the event also drew so much controversy, which stemmed from the league's mysterious drafting process concerning the marquee players of the 2016 Gilas Pilipinas pool.

First off, I will get something obvious out of the way — Mac Belo was easily the best player taken in the 2016 PBA Draft. The 1.91m combo forward from Far Eastern University was expected to be the top overall pick in the Draft, and, at least in spirit, that did happen. His name was not the first to be announced (more on this later), but everyone watching knew he was the biggest catch in this rookie class, especially after he lit up the FIBA Asia Challenge 2016 with 20.2 points per outing — second overall right behind Dar Tucker's 26.8 per game average. Belo went to the Blackwater Elite, which finished the 2015-2016 PBA season with a league-worst 7-win, 27-loss record. The 23-year-old from North Cotabato is expected to be Blackwater's franchise player this coming season, and he will be the consensus leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.

A photo posted by @macbelo12 on

Aside from Belo, other Gilas boys who played in the FIBA Asia Challenge also got dispersed into the different PBA clubs. Here is where they ended up:

Carl Cruz - Alaska Aces
Ed Daquioag - Meralco Bolts
Russel Escoto - Mahindra Floodbuster
Kevin Ferrer - Ginebra Gin Kings
Fonso Gotladera - NLEX Road Warriors
Chris Javier - Star Hotshots
Von Pessumal - GlobalPort Batang Pier
RR Pogoy - TNT Ka Tropa
Mike Tolomia - Rain or Shine Elasto-Painters
Arnold Van Opstal - San Miguel Beermen

CJ Perez was the only Gilas player not drafted as he will still play for the Lyceum University Pirates in the Philippine collegiate circuit.

Other big names who got drafted to the pros were Fil-Canadian shooter Matthew Wright (to the Phoenix Fuel Masters), big time playmaker Jio Jalalon (to the Star Hotshots) and US National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) product Ael Banal. Wright played for the Philippines in the FIBA Asia U18 Championship 2008, and Banal donned the Philippine colors in the FIBA Asia U16 Championship in 2010. Jalalon, nicknamed "The Bus Driver" by local media, starred for Gilas in their conquest of the SEABA Stankovic Cup 2016 earlier this year.

All these new young guns will definitely add vibrancy to the PBA in the coming season, and it would have been a seamless draft had the proceedings not been marred by the fact that the Gilas players' “special draft” was shrouded in mystery.

You see, a few days before the Draft, the PBA said they would have a special drafting order for the Gilas players. The assumption was that this would be based on the previous season's team standings, but that was eventually scrapped when the PBA decided to, well, "assign" the Gilas rookies to the different teams during a closed-door meeting. This was highly unusual, and, in essence, it eschewed conventional draft proceedings. This would have been all well and good except that the PBA has not, up until this writing, made public how they actually dispersed the players. When asked about it, all the League Chairman said was this (from

"We took into consideration all the possible means of distributing the Gilas players. We studied everything. I don’t want to cite specifics. We will just keep it to ourselves.”

As far as I know, there are two generally-accepted ways of drafting amateur players into the professional ranks. In leagues like the NBA, the KBL, and even the PBA, the conventional way is to place fresh-out-of-college rookies through a regular draft. In other leagues like the ones in China or Europe, however, young players join the youth teams of different club teams, and they get promoted to the senior teams as part of their professional progression. Neither was observed in the 2016 PBA Draft, which is not necessarily wrong, but it does invite quite a bit of scrutiny and certainly incited some interesting exchanges on social media.

Instead of having last season's last team pick ahead of everyone else, the teams made their choices in alphabetical order, with the Alaska Aces announcing their choice, Carl Cruz, first. After all twelve Gilas players were "assigned," Banal was first to be chosen in the "regular draft." If you're confused at this point, don't fret too much, so was everyone else. In fact, up until now, nobody knows for sure who the "top overall pick" was. Was it Cruz, whose name was announced ahead of everyone else's? Was it Banal, who was the first "regular" pick? Or was it Belo, whom everybody knew was the most promising of the lot?

For outsiders who are not used to the circus that is Philippine basketball, this is all understandably strange, but for those immersed in its confounding and, at times, frustrating realities, this latest development is, for better or worse, par for the course.

An interesting wrinkle is that the Gilas players drafted — specifically Belo, Cruz, Ferrer, Pessumal, Escoto, Daquioag, Gotladera, Wright, Tolomia, Van Opstal, Jalalon and Pogoy — are all required to prioritize the national team over their club team when international competitions near. One on end, this diminishes their value to their respective clubs, but the flipside is it ensures the continuity of the Gilas basketball program, which has now returned to the hands of former coach Chot Reyes.

Whether all these developments actually move Philippine basketball forward remains to be seen, but the general mood, despite the confusion surrounding the PBA Draft, is that the Philippines will pull out all the stops in their ultimate goal of qualifying for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019.




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