'It's always a coach's wish' to have a player like Santi Santillan

Santi Santillan's signature shot is his one-handed floater. KC Cruz

Santi Santillan is your textbook hardworking big man, but there is one key factor that separates him from other PBA draft prospects that carry the same tag.

A lot of rookie hopefuls enter the draft brandishing the "hard-worker" label as a way to compensate for some shortcomings - be it in height, length, motor, or sheer ability. Santillan represents a rare model of that stereotype. Yes, he's your idea of a tireless big man, but outworking others is his way of simply buttressing some existing strengths in a game with little holes.

The best part? All that toiling also means he's adding a little more to his arsenal each day.

"He's a natural worker, so he's certainly bound to improve even more. I know he'll get better," coach Louie Gonzales, Santillan's former mentor with De La Salle University in the UAAP, said in Filipino.

There isn't anything sexy about Santillan's game, but there is no room in the league for flash without substance anyway. His no-nonsense, workmanlike approach is effective enough to get wins on the board, and that's certainly going to endear him to teams who have an eye on him.

"It's always a coach's wish to have a player like him. He listens and he has great character," Gonzales said.

And then there's the rest of the package. At 6'4" and 210 pounds, the rangy Santillan oozes steadiness, athleticism and versatility on both ends of the floor at the forward spots. There's also still so much room for improvement, as evidenced by the strides he made in various stops before setting sail for the PBA.

La Salle plucked Santillan out of CESAFI, where he put himself on the radar of schools up north with a season worthy of a Mythical Five selection in 2015. From there, both Santillan and the Green Archers worked on polishing his touch from the perimeter. His unorthodox, one-handed push shot works both on floaters and jumpers.

"When we recruited him from Cebu, the athleticism and intelligence were there already, and he was battle-tested. The challenge was: can he adjust to the system during that time? Playing for DLSU was more challenging, but the transition was smooth," Gonzales shared. "Our biggest contribution to him was developing his midrange and his one-hand floaters, which helped make his game more versatile."

But Santillan doesn't need a lot of touches, and he puts almost all of his efforts on the boards and on the defensive end.

"He was a Batang Gilas member and he was exposed in CESAFI, so defending imports wasn't new to him. He even took advantage of his support system in DLSU to work on his craft. He got stronger and faster, his capabilities improved," said Gonzales.

"He puts in so much effort, and he isn't easily intimidated. And he never asks for the ball. It's hard to find players like Santi who can contribute to every facet of the game," the coach added.

When discussing Santillan, emphasis is placed on his rebounding. In his final year with La Salle in Season 81, the forward grabbed 8.4 rebounds in 15 games, which was good for eighth in the UAAP. That number wasn't too different from his days in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL), where Santillan pulled down 7.5 in 17 contests for Zamboanga.

What's more noteworthy is his effort on the offensive glass. During that last season with the Green Archers in 2018, Santillan tallied 3.3 per game - seventh league-wide and fourth among locals. He tallied the same number with Zamboanga, a team-high mark.

"Scoring is just a bonus, because my mindset is really on rebounding and defending," Santillan said in Filipino. "I never demand for the ball. I only work very hard on the offensive glass to get most of my points."

Aside from a short run with Zamboanga, whom he helped to a Southern Division semifinals finish in the 2019-20 Lakan season, Santillan made his way to the D-League and to the Chooks 3x3 circuit, where he ranked No. 6 among all players in the country. In those leagues, Santillan learned how to keep his cool amid physicality.

"In the leagues I've played in, I learned that I really have to be patient. There will always be dirty or physical players who'll sneak an elbow or two to divert your focus. That's why I need to be calm," said Santillan.

There's untapped potential, but so far Santillan's been consistent in his production. His numbers with La Salle and with Zamboanga are eerily similar:

- With La Salle in UAAP Season 81: 11.4 points on 43.8% shooting (23.1% on 3s), 8.4 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 blocks, 0.2 steals, 25.9 minutes per game in 15 games

- With Zamboanga in the MPBL 2019-20 Lakan season: 11.4 points on 40.7% shooting (27.1% on 3s), 7.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 24.6 minutes per game in 17 games

The next step is being more consistent with his touch outside. Santillan can hit threes, but he understands he has to be a little more dependable in that regard. He shot 23.1 percent from long range in his final year with La Salle, and there was a bit of an uptick post-UAAP, as he made 27.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in the MPBL.

"I can guard players at the three and four, and I can also guard smaller guards. I'm still working on improving my footwork and shooting," said Santillan. "I'm still improving my skills, and I'm working on my weaknesses so I can improve entering the PBA."

Teams will have to grab Santillan with a high pick on Mar. 14, as there's a slim chance he'll fall to the second round. ESPN5.com's mock draft pegs him at No. 8.

Santillan said he's worked out with the Alaska Aces in the absence of a draft combine, and up next on his calendar are tryouts with Barangay Ginebra and Magnolia this week. Getting drafted by the Hotshots would be a dream for the Cebu native, but he said he's simply focused on making it to the PBA.

"I'm not really thinking about where I'm headed, although it's a plus if I'm able to play with my idol, Marc Pingris," Santillan said. "If I'm given a chance to make it to the PBA, this will be a huge life achievement. I can finally say that there's a PBA player coming from our barangay. I'm also excited to play with players I used to just watch and admire growing up."