PRIOR to the season, not a few thought Dela Salle's frontline will be all about Ben Mbala and nothing else.
It took a young homegrown talent to change that perception.
Star of National University's run to the UAAP Season 78 juniors championship, teenager Justin Baltazar has turned heads after just a few games with La Salle's seniors side while playing as a back-up to Mbala.
Head coach Aldin Ayo is obviously pleasantly surprised at the potential of Baltazar, who he considers this early as the future of La Salle and Philippine basketball as well.
“Future na mukha ng La Salle 'yan eh. Pag-alis ni Ben, yan ang matitira, 'yan ang maglalaro. Sa ngayon, rookie pa lang siya, andiyan pa si Mbala, so he’ll play muna as supporting cast,” said Ayo.
“Pero after ni Ben, may (Abu) Tratter, tapos 'yun, sa kanya na 'yan (main man of La Salle’s post),” he added.
Ayo is no doubt impressed with the 18-year old's potential and immense upside.
“He is very skilled. Driibbling, shooting, semi-hooks ... and at 6-7, he can also play the three (small forward) spot. Kaya ring magdala ng bola, hindi naagawan," said the first-year La Salle coach.
“If there is one thing na maganda rito, grabe ang kanyang work ethic, maganda yung ugali, very coachable. In two years, I guess, siya na ang star ng La Salle and UAAP, even next year nga, sa akin naman kasi hindi porke’t andyan si Ben, andyan si Tratter, sila na. They always fight for their spot, so kung mag-improve nang mag-improve, sino makakatulong sa team, siya ang maglalaro.”
Baltazar is the latest talent to come out of the program of Pampanga vice governor Dennis Pineda, who has helped launch the careers of now PBA stars Calvin Abueva, Arwind Santos, and Ian Sangalang.'
Aside from Baltazar, other products of Pineda's program who are now with La Salle are Larry Muyang, Mark Dyke and reserve Jayjay Pangalangan.
Letran coach Jeff Napa, who coached Baltazar during his time with the National University Bullpups, said the kid is 'the real deal.'
“Maraming papahirapan yang batang yan. And for his size, sky is the limit for him basta maintain lang nya ang attitude at work ethic nya," Napa said. "He has a very bright future ahead of him."
"Very promising. In two to three years, iba na magiging itsura ng laro ng batang 'yan."
Ayo, who won a championship in one season at Letran, isn't even looking that far ahead, saying Baltazar is already giving him a 'good problem' as far as the rotation at center position is concerned.
“Actually, madalas nga nalilito na ko eh. Kasi gusto ko ibabad pa si Ben, pero naiisip ko na maganda rin ang minuto na binibigay ni Justin. He’s a good problem for me,” he said.
“Talagang kasama siya sa rotation, kasi sobrang mobile eh, grabe ang bata sa bola, ang ganda ng timing sa rebound at blocks, tingin ko magandang exposure pa, makakatulong ito sa amin (ng malaki),” he said.