YENG Guiao’s eyes almost popped, and there was a palpable mixture of awe and envy in his voice, after he was told of how unbelievably good the future looks for pro league minnow Barako Bull.
“Seven first-round picks over the next two years?” an incredulous Guiao asked. When told that it was true, the veteran Rain or Shine coach paused for one moment, perhaps to take stock of what he had just heard, then snapped: “That’s money in the bank.”
Yes, you read it right, too. Barako Bull has seven first-round picks in the PBA rookie draft spread over the next two years – prized possessions which could turn the pro league’s oldest team at the moment into the most talented and promising in two years’ time.
That is, if the team plays its cards right.
Actually, the first-round picks should have been eight, had Barako Bull management not traded one 2013 first-round pick to San Mig Coffee for point guard Josh Urbiztondo, just the latest in several perplexing deals the team has entered into, most of them with San Miguel-owned ballclubs.
Still, seven first-round picks could leave any pro league coach salivating, especially since these can be used over a period when blue-chip prospects like 6-11 Greg Slaughter, Ateneo teammate Kiefer Ravena, La Salle's Jeron Teng, and perhaps UAAP MVP Bobby Ray Parks are expected to make themselves available for the draft.
“That’s a fantastic situation to be in,” said Meralco coach Ryan Gregorio. “Especially since you’ll be exercising the picks at a time when there are a lot of thoroughbreds entering the draft.”
After getting involved in several trades over the years, Barako Bull ended up holding the rights to the 2013 first-round picks of Barangay Ginebra, Petron, Meralco, and league newcomer Global Part, the pick which the Energy traded to San Mig Coffee for Urbiztondo.
The Energy Cola also own the right to exercise the first-round selections of Talk ‘N Text, Petron, and San Mig Coffee in 2014, aside from their own.
In his most conservative estimate, Guiao said any team is capable of turning into a legitimate contender “in two to three years” if it uses those first-round picks wisely.
“You can have a very competitive team in two to three years if you play your cards right. The talent and the potential will surely be there, but you have to wait a while until those young players get accustomed to playing in the pro ranks before you start winning,” said Guiao.
Gregorio feels it may take even a shorter time, considering how quickly young players of this generation – more so those emerging from top-notch college programs or the Smart Gilas set-up for the national team – have made their presence felt in the pro league.
“Look at [Marcio] Lassiter and Chris Lutz. Or even Paul Lee, na hindi man naglaro sa Gilas. Ang mga batang players ngayon, magaganda na kaagad ang mga fundamentals at skills kaya they can really make a ready impact pag-akyat nila sa PBA,” said the Bolts coach.
Granting these first-round draft picks take a longer time to adjust to the standards of the pro league, the smaller salaries rookies command can give Barako Bull enough leeway under the salary cap to sign top veterans who can either lead the way for the team while the young players mature, or play the role of mentor to the rookies, or both. Salaries of rookies are capped at P150,000 on the first year of their contracts and P225,000 on the second.
“If you have those players picked over two years, you won’t have any problem with the salary cap up to the third or fourth year of their stay with the team,” said Guiao, who had won three league titles with Barako Bull during the franchise's glory days in the league.
Barako Bull has since fallen on hard times, but it can certainly be the team of the future if it opts to rebuild over the next two years. But the question is, will it choose to go down that path?
Trades which one coach casually described as “beyond comprehension” have given Barako Bull an odd collection of players, most of them past their prime. Over the last offseason, the team ended up losing the lone remaining top-value player in its roster, Willie Miller.
Its ownership situation is also uncertain, with the team dogged by constant accusations of collusion with teams owned by San Miguel. Even its coach, Junel Baculi, may end up elsewhere at the end of the season, having been aggressively courted by Global Port owner Mikee Romero over the last few months.
"Hindi ko alam," said Guiao, when asked if his former team will go down that road and opt to rebuild. "That's something we have to see."