COACH Yeng Guiao had seen Japeth Aguilar at his worst; now he's thrilled to see his former player at his very best.
In the culmination of a long but steady process that saw Aguilar turn from headcase into one of the best players in the PBA, the former national coach had no trouble finding the words to explain the amazing transformation.
"Just two words: he matured," Guiao said.
Guiao was among the first coaches to handle the son of former PBA player Peter Aguilar, who, at 6-foot-9 and with an absurdly wide wingspan and unbelievable hops, had captured the imagination of basketball-crazed fans at an early age.
Even before he could embark on a college career, a number of fans were convinced - and with good reason - that Japeth was good enough not only to be a top star in the PBA, but become the first homegrown Filipino player in the NBA.
It was a dream Aguilar boldly pursued, but things just didn't pan out. He transferred from Ateneo to US NCAA side Western Kentucky, but barely got playing time. He tried his luck in the NBA D-League, but that, too, didn't work out.
Aguilar's situation didn't get any better when he came back home.
He was picked by Guiao at No. 1 overall for Burger King in the 2009 PBA Rookie Draft, but demanded a trade even before he could play one game. When he finally got traded, he looked terribly out of sorts at TNT and totally out of place in a one-conference run at GlobalPort.
Guiao said a major hurdle for Aguilar early in his career was a desire to shift to the 2 and 3 positions, which his family and handlers felt would bring him closer to his NBA dream, even when his size and skills made him perfect for the 4 spot.
"He was built to be a 4 or a 5, but he wanted to be a 2 or a 3," Guiao recalled. "Only when he finally accepted playing in the 4 position that he started to improve."
It wasn't until he landed at Ginebra in a four-team, five-player deal in July 2013 that Aguilar finally started to settle down. And it wasn't until he was called up to the Gilas Pilipinas team that he finally started scratching the surface of that enormous potential.
At Gilas, he found a believer in national coach Chot Reyes.
"I saw the potential in him way, way back that I didn't want it to go to waste," Reyes said. "And it meant telling him like it is. If you remember, the series of tweets I posted in 2011 and 2012 telling him to come home? I knew the country could use him.
5. I have nothing to gain whatever u decide cept I want whats best 4 u.Come home son.Make ur name here.THIS is where u belong #pinoypride— Chot Reyes (@coachot) January 21, 2013
"So even if through the years people were bashing me for keeping him in the team, my faith never wavered. After all, he is the only Filipino who is 6-10 with such athletic abilities," the multi-titled coach added.
Looking back, Aguilar agreed that tribulations early in his life and his career contributed in making him the player that he is today.
"Actually for me, it's just maturity lang talaga," said the Ginebra star, crediting Reyes and Tim Cone for helping him in the maturity process. "Nagpapasalamat ako sa mga coaches kasi tinulungan nila ako sa maturity ko."
Thanks to that single Gilas push, Aguilar has never stopped improving since. He has become a mainstay of the national team, and a perennial All-Star and champion in the PBA, not to mention a human-highlight machine.
There were highs and lows. But there was always one constant.
"It's just learning, never stopping from growing sa lahat ng mga conferences," said the Ginebra stretch forward. "Minsan, we fall short of our goals, but I keep on learning lang talaga."
Cone was there to oversee the final stage of Aguilar's transformation, and it all came together in the 2019 PBA Governors' Cup Finals when the high-flying Ginebra forward influenced and impacted games like he never did before.
Against Meralco, the 32-year-old averaged 17.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks. He personally won two games with big defensive stops. He was fun to watch, providing one highlight after another while making all the right decisions on the floor.
"He was consistent all the way through," gushed Cone at the end of Ginebra's 4-1 win over Meralco in the finals. "He's turned into such a great weapon and a tough match-up for anybody, even against imports he's a tough match-up, too."
Guiao perhaps had the best explanation.
"Japeth's mental maturity," Guiao said, "finally caught up with his athletic abilities."
Another crucial phase in Aguilar's growth was when he surrendered individual goals in favor of team glory. It started with Gilas and continued on at Ginebra, turning what once was prodigy with childish mood swings into the ultimate team player.
"He never gave me any attitude or behavior problems. Always present, never late, the ideal team player," Reyes said. "He is truly one in 100 million."