THIS early, Mike Ayonayon is being touted as the biggest steal of the 2019 PBA Rookie Draft. A real sleeper.
The bigger surprise is how he got there in the first place.
Ayonayon’s road to the PBA is anything but normal. He didn't come from a school that is playing in any of the major collegiate leagues. In fact, the 27-year-old didn’t even harbor dreams of some day playing in the PBA when he was young.
Ayonayon studied at Adamson, but he wasn't exactly there to play. All he wanted to do was study, graduate, and find a job. But Ayonayon stood out in intramurals as well as in barangay leagues in his hometown of Cainta that the call of basketball soon became inescapable.
It was in those same barangay leagues where he was spotted by Letran alumnus Ronjay Enrile, who invited him to be part of the Knights program.
“’Yung mga nilalaruan namin, nakikita niya ako doon tapos tinanong niya ako (Enrile) kung gusto ko pumunta sa Letran,” said Ayonayon.
Ayonayon accepted the offer and became a member of Letran's Team B. He never got to play for the Knights in the NCAA as he was recruited to play for Philippine Christian University, a former NCAA school that is now part of the National Athletic Association of Schools, Colleges, and Universities (Naascu).
He was recruited by Dolphins coach Elvis Tolentino, who was part of the staff of the Knights. But even when he was already playing for PCU, Ayonayon said he still had no dreams of making it to the PBA.
“Sa Adamson, nag-aaral lang ako doon, hindi ako nagtuloy ng basketball. Sa Letran na lang. Ang plano ko lang talaga maka-graduate,” said Ayonayon.
“Buti na lang, nag-boom din career ko sa PCU,” said Ayonayon.
Ayonayon blossomed into a star at PCU and soon was able to land a spot in the PBA D-League with Marinerong Pilipino. He later signed with the San Juan Knights in the MPBL where his career really took off.
His star turn came in the championship series of the Datu Cup, where Ayonayon stood out as a steady presence for the Knights against the Davao Occidental Tigers.
Playing alongside veterans John Wilson and Mark Cardona, Ayonayon took over in the do-or-die match of the best-of-five series where he tallied 33 points to lead the Knights to a 87-86 come-from-behind victory. He was eventually named Finals MVP.
That performance earned him a ticket to the PBA.
“Siyempre, sobrang thankful ako kay God na despite lahat ng paghihirap ko sa mga school na pinuntahan ko, narating ko pa rin ‘yung mag-PBA," Ayonayon said. "Thankful ako kay God at sa family ko na palaging sumusuporta sa akin."
Ayonayon was taken in the first round at third overall of the regular 2019 draft by NLEX, whose coach, Yeng Guiao, is known for discovering diamonds in the rough. Upon seeing Ayonayon in practice, however, Guiao, insisted that the high-flying guard is no longer a project but a finished product.
“He doesn’t play like a rookie,” said the veteran coach. “May tira siya sa labas, may depensa naman, at marunong pumasa. Those are I think the weapons that he brings. He is not a project. He is almost a ready-made PBA player.”
Even though he has reached the PBA, Ayonayon said he will continue playing with a chip on his shoulder. He also remains in the adjustment phase as Ayonayon had to finish his duties with the Knights in the Lakan Season of the MPBL before joining the Road Warriors full time in the preseason.
“Nag-aadjust pa ako kasi iba ‘yung grupo ng mga kakampi ko at ‘yung sistema ng San Juan at NLEX,” said Ayonayon said.
But one thing he is sure of, Ayonayon wants to repay the trust of NLEX and live up to Guiao's expectations.
“Parang sinusuklian ko lang ‘yung trust niya sa akin. Give and take lang,” he said.