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Challenging for the crown: Why the DLSU Green Archers might just be the next big thing

The DLSU men’s basketball team has been lackluster the past couple of years, failing to truly challenge for the UAAP crown. Since the departure of Ben Mbala and Ricci Rivero, the Green Archers haven’t displayed the consistency Lasallians have been accustomed to during the Aldin Ayo era. The team has had a couple of really good, star-level players since Season 80, but none have really proven that they can lift the team into the Final Four let alone a championship. Jaime Malonzo, last season, looked the closest to being that guy, and if he had a few more seasons, he might have been.

Although they didn’t make it to the Final Four, the Green-and-White did make strides last Season 82. With another year under the belt for the likes of Joaqui Manuel, Encho Serrano, and Brandon Bates, veterans Aljun Melecio and Justine Baltazar have a strong supporting cast alongside them, but to truly challenge for the crown, DLSU is going to need another star to emerge, given the high level of competition in the UAAP today. It could well be one of the names just mentioned—it could be the emergence of a Kurt Lojera or a Jordan Bartlett—but it might just be one of the young guns storming onto the scene in Season 83.

The additions of Amadou N’Diaye, Ice Blanco Hontiveros, and four Filipino-American recruits in Kameron Vales, Jeromy Hughes, and brothers Michael and Benjamin Phillips are expected to help fill the holes along the way with Melecio taking up the role of team captain. Head coach Derrick Pumaren, who is famously remembered for steering the first title-winning teams of DLSU since they joined the UAAP from the NCAA, returns to the helm with aspirations to bring the team from Taft back to its former glory.

Stepping into the limelight

Everyone knows you can’t teach size; for that same reason, there is a lot of belief that N’Diaye could play a major role for DLSU next season. From the two games he played in the PBA D-League Aspirants Cup 2020, all signs point to massive upside for the new bigman. The ability to hit a mid range jumper and score with his back to the basket will help free up Baltazar.

But if there’s one reason to pump the breaks on the hype train, it’s the fact that with a frame like he has, his agility and quickness are not exactly his strong suit. He is an imposing shot blocker inside, but he struggles mightily with the quicker smaller guards, which could open him up to a lot of mismatches.

Waiting to make his UAAP debut alongside the new recruits is guard Joshua David.  A former La Salle Greenhills standout, he had been expected to play last season but did not suit up. This hasn’t discouraged the young swingman who turned a few heads during his PBA D-League outings.

Na-impress ako kay David. Malaki ang improvement niya,” Melecio remarked highly of David, who averaged 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in his final high school year. “Sobrang fit siya sa system…Fino-follow niya ‘yung mga directions ni coach, and handa siya lagi during practice.” The confidence in David throughout the team brings a lot of promise next season, and the departure of Caracut and Malonzo leaves a lot of minutes up for grabs. It’s way too early to tell what his impact is going to be, but the former LSGH guard is surely one to keep an eye on.

(I was impressed by David. He has improved tremendously. He really fits into the system. He follows the coach’s directions and is always prepared during practice.)

The four Fil-Am recruits in Vales, Hughes, and the Phillips brothers round out a promising rookie class for the Green-and-White. All of these players are big-time ballers on all accounts, and unlike last season, each will have multiple playing years for the Taft-based squad. Not all of them might suit up for La Salle in Season 83, given that last year’s bench was already so deep, but one thing is for sure, this team is brimming with talent. The only question is, are any of them ready to step into the limelight?

Amped-up front court

At a staggering 6’11”, N’Diaye showed flashes of brilliance during the PBA D-League, averaging double-double figures. However, he also  fouled out in those games. “Alam ni coach ‘yung potential niya,” Melecio assured. If he rounds out his game by improving on the defensive end, N’Diaye will very expectedly fit right into Pumaren’s system of hustle and defense come Season 83.

(Coach recognizes his potential.)

Both standing at 6’8”, the Phillips brothers can provide an integral interior presence for the Green Archers adjacent to their multitude of scoring guards in pick-and-roll situations. The 18-year-old Mi. Phillips posted averages of 12.9 points and 11.2 rebounds during his final year in Creekside High School in Florida, in addition to being a thorn for opponents with 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks on average. If he hits the ground running next season, he could prove to be a pivotal asset for the Green-and-White for years to come. 

N’Diaye and the Phillips brothers are expected to complement defensive anchor Bates and Mythical Five center Baltazar. Coming off a season battling with dominant big men from all over the league, DLSU this time around carries the needed elements to match the intensity inside the paint. 

A reinforced back court

For the fourth straight offseason, the Green Archers lost another key guard from their 2016 championship team. First, it was Thomas Torres at the conclusion of Season 79. In the couple subsequent offseasons, it was Kib Montalbo, Jollo Go, and Mark Dyke. The most recent back court departure was Andrei Caracut, who averaged 9.6 points in his final collegiate season and whose sweet shooting the Lasallians will sorely miss.

Entering next season, only captain Melecio is left of the guards from the Mayhem teams. Putting up numbers is already a given. Now with a captain role in his final playing year, the spitfire De La Salle-Santiago Zobel product is expected to lead the team in playmaking and scoring in the Archers’ bid to return to the Final Four.

In this mission, however, Melecio will not be on a back court island. Bringing in fresh blood at the guard spot is expected to beef up the scoring for DLSU. The 6-foot Vales, who normed 9.1 points per game for the University of Regina in Canada, is a scoring guard who can hit the occasional stepback triple. Meanwhile, Hughes from Wenatchee Valley College posted averages of nine points and 6.6 rebounds, showcasing his versatility as a big 6-foot-3 swingman.

The Archers were also able to recruit I. Hontiveros. While most of the attention around him may be attributed to being the son of Philippine basketball legend Dondon Hontiveros, he is already making a name for himself as a terrific 6’3” playmaker, having led University of Cebu to the 2018 Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation, Inc. title.

This fresh array of back court personnel should reinforce a DLSU guard rotation that already featured the likes of Serrano, Bartlett, Lojera, and the aforementioned Melecio. Serrano made another leap last season in his scoring, including pouring a career-high 29 points against the UST Growling Tigers to end the first round of Season 82. Although his iffy shot selection stunted his growth as a pure scorer at times, the discipline-focused nature of Pumaren should help Serrano’s continued development. Bartlett, on the other hand, had an up-and-down campaign last season, but his knack for creating a shot for himself or his teammates should supersede worries as the point guard oozing with potential enters his second season for DLSU.

The ADMU Blue Eagles may be the defending champions, but they lost a host of key players after last season. This isn’t to say that they won’t still be tough to deal with, but it’s clear that there are more unproven variables surrounding their squad. The Blue-and-White have had a dominant spell in recent years, but for the first time in a while, the race for the crown is wide open.

DLSU can’t be ruled out of the race. It’s been a tough couple of years, but we can only hope that Season 83 is when it all turns around. A new coach who knows what it takes to win, hungry veterans looking to reclaim their seat at the top, and blue-chip recruits with massive upside—all in all, it sounds like a recipe for success.

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