It’s hard to tell the story of Asian hoops without touching Filipino basketball. The Philippines was once the top dog of Asian basketball, constantly producing top players despite the average height of the players being smaller than their Western counterparts.
The Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) was the premier basketball league in Asia, and the country’s top prospects dreamt of joining the elite brotherhood of Filipino cagers. PBA’s basketball lore is full of notable names like Samboy Lim, Robert Jaworski, Alvin Patrimonio, Mark Caguioa, and James Yap.
Recent years point to a different trend, however. Hoops fans and OKBET veterans were surprised when an exodus of Filipino basketball talent who didn’t declare for the PBA Draft to play abroad. The move robbed the league of top collegiate talent. Some PBA veterans also chose to cross the seas to play hoops elsewhere.
The PBA hasn’t been shy of crying foul over what they see as foreign leagues poaching local talent away from the league. Meanwhile, players believe they can pursue their basketball dreams without tying their futures to the long-standing league.
This piece will highlight Filipino hoops stars currently plying their trade abroad. We’ll also look into possible reasons why these players decided to start their professional basketball careers at NAIA instead of the PBA Draft.
Kiefer Ravena entered the PBA in 2017 as a highly-rated talent after leading the Ateneo Blue Eagles to two UAAP championships during his five-year stint in Katipunan. He was drafted second overall in the 2017 PBA Draft by the NLEX Road Warriors.
While he enjoyed a successful career in Filipino hoops, he took the opportunity to join the Japan B.League’s Shiga Lakestars for their 2021/22 campaign. The move was much to then-head coach Yeng Guiao’s dismay.
His first season in Shiga was a wild success. He finished the season with 13.0 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 5.8 assists in 56 games. His numbers dipped during his second season with the team, but he’s still getting around 24 minutes a night.
The PBA expects Kiefer to sign a new contract with his mother team before September 2023, and the league will ban him for three years should he fail to do so.
Filipino basketball fans have long been aware of how good Rhenz Abando is as a cager. The former UST Growling Tiger and Letran Knight amazed crowds with his scoring and athleticism during his collegiate days.
He decided to forgo his final year with the Knights to sign for Anyang KGC at the KBL. While many PBA fans were sad that he wouldn’t be suiting up for any of the league’s teams, they were sure he would succeed in Korea.
Abando’s basketball adventure in Korea got off to a solid start. He’s averaging 8.4 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.1 blocks in 18 minutes of action. Korean hoops fans are regularly treated to a show whenever he’s on the floor. Moreover, his elite athleticism and skill already have his fans creating highlight compilations.
His best performance to date came in a loss against a heartbreaking 82-81 loss to Seoul SK Knights. Abando was unstoppable, finishing the game with an impressive stat line of 30 points, six rebounds, two assists, and two blocks.
Rhon Jhay Abarrientos
Abando isn’t the only Filipino basketball talent currently making waves in Korea. Rhon Jhay Abarrientos is currently captivating the Korean basketball crowd like his uncle Johnny for the Alaska Aces.
Many thought he would follow in his uncle’s footsteps after a stellar start for the FEU Tamaraws. However, UAAP fans were blindsided when he let go of his remaining eligibility years to play for Ulsan Mobile Phoebus. Fortunately, the team was happy to let him pursue his dreams.
He’s thriving in Ulsan as one of the team’s primary point guard options. He’s averaging 13.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.6 steals on 40% shooting efficiency. His penetrating drives and beautiful dishes wow the Korean crowd and remind Filipino hoops fans of the Flying A.
While the Philippines is still to produce a Filipino baller to be drafted by the NBA, Kai Sotto was the closest youngster to make that dream a reality. The former Ateneo Blue Eaglet participated in several pre-draft workouts before going undrafted in the 2022 Draft.
Kaijuu has since returned to the Adelaide 36ers, where he plays as a starter under C.J. Bruton. The son of former PBA cager Ervin Sotto is getting 6.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.5 assists, and 0.6 blocks a night.
Kai is a regular fixture in Chot Reyes’ Gilas Pilipinas team and is expected to represent the country when the FIBA World Cup kicks off later this year. He also hasn’t given up on his NBA dreams. He shared with his Instagram followers that he’s keeping faith that an NBA team will eventually call his number.
Filipino basketball fans will agree that Thirdy Ravena was the catalyst of the current diaspora the PBA considers a “huge problem.”
The King Eagle was also believed to follow in his older brother’s footsteps after ending his collegiate career with Ateneo on a high. However, the league was blindsided when he announced his intent to play for San-En NeoPhoenix.
He’s in his third year with the team and getting consistent minutes as their guard/forward. The current season sees the younger Ravena averaging 11.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.1 steals on 44%/28%/67% shooting splits.
Thirdy sent a letter to the PBA in 2021, explaining his situation when he renewed his stint with a multi-year deal. While PBA Commissioner Willie Marcial wished him the best, they might be frustrated at the player for starting the problem that is draining the PBA of young talent.
Why Do Young Filipino Basketball Players Choose Life Abroad?
PBA players are treated as royalty by the basketball-loving population. They get good money and get to play close to their family. The most ardent PBA fans may find it difficult to understand why these young players chose to play abroad.
The biggest draw of playing abroad is the money these young men can get. Rhenz Abando got a lucrative PHP 10.5 million contract when he signed for Anyang. Meanwhile, Filipino rookies playing in Japan got anywhere from PHP 350,000 to PHP 750,000 a month. Asian B.League imports reportedly get PHP 1.7 million to PHP 2.8 million monthly.
On the other hand, the minimum monthly wage of a PBA player is PHP 70,000. While the figure is decent, it’s nowhere near the amounts offered in Japan and Korea.
The other likely reason is the way the league is run. Everyone and their mother knows that the PBA is made of MVP teams, SMG teams, and teams that develop players for the big teams. These big teams will eventually snap up the stars in what many fans see as lopsided trades.
The latest of these seemingly unfair trades is the three-team swap that sent Brandon Ganuelas-Rosser and Paul Desiderio to NLEX. Marcial was caught reneging on his word in 2018, much to the frustration of a segment of fans.
Another possible issue that swayed these men to look elsewhere is the contract situation. During the height of Kiefer Ravena’s saga with NLEX, it’s revealed that teams have total control over a player’s rights once the Uniform Player’s Contract is signed.
The contract allows teams to hold onto players even if their contracts expire. Greg Slaughter is the most recent example of this problem. Interestingly, Slaughter is now plying his trade in Japan as well.
The Strange Yet Exciting Future of Filipino Basketball
The five players listed above aren’t the only Filipinos abroad. Juan Gomez De Liano, Kobe Paras, SJ Belangel, Dwight Ramos, Jay Washington, Matthew Wright, and Justine Baltazar are showing off in foreign lands.
The PBA will still be the dream of many Filipino hoopers. They grew up watching their idols play there and will naturally want to suit up for them. Moreover, the overseas lifestyle isn’t a great fit for everyone. Filipino cagers will also have to battle homesickness alongside the challenging seasons of their respective leagues.
However, it’s undeniable that hooping abroad offers a unique opportunity for current and future Philippine basketball pros. These are exciting times for Philippine basketball, and fans can only look forward to what happens next.