The PBA's 47th season officially got underway on Wednesday with its first activity: the Rookie Combine where rookie applicants did their best to convince the scouts and coaches present that they're pro-ready.
This year's draft had 75 applicants, although that number is expected to be reduced to somewhere between 55 and 60 by draft day.
The biggest name to back out was Justine Baltazar, who did not show up for the two-day activity and later sent word that he was formally withdrawing his application to pursue a potentially lucrative stint in Japan.
Baltazar wasn't the only no-show, although the other absent prospects still kept their names in the draft. For varying reasons, a number of players touted to land in the top five or six didn't make it, including mystery man Sedrick Barefield.
Several coaches who spoke to ESPN were disappointed by his absence as they wanted to see this G-League veteran up close and determine if he is the real deal.
According to PBA deputy commissioner Eric Castro, Barefield is still in the United States but will fly in for the draft on Sunday. Blackwater coach Ariel Vanguardia, whose team owns the No. 1 pick, told ESPN he would look for game film of the 6'2" guard and try to talk to his former coach.
Also missing were Brandon Ganuelas-Rosser, who is in Hanoi representing the Philippines in 3x3 basketball at the Southeast Asian Games, and Jeremiah Gray, still recuperating from a torn ACL. Javi Gomez de Liaño, who could fit the role of a tall wing shooter, opted to skip the workouts since -- as a former national team member -- he wasn't required to show up.
Then there were the prospects still finishing up their collegiate careers. Letran's Jeo Ambohot and the Ateneo duo of Gian Mamuyac and Tyler Tio, all potential first-rounders, understandably begged off.
That left the audience of coaches and scouts, led by Tim Cone and Leo Austria, with a shallow pool of prospects to evaluate during the series of scrimmages.
"The draft is shallow this year," said one assistant coach. "It could be done by the second round, based on what I see and my personal evaluation."
Another assistant coach agreed.
"We weren't able to see some of the probable first-round picks. So mostly what you're looking at here are probable second-round (picks). There were some who were promising, although I don't think it's going to be that deep." "It's unfortunate because there's the UAAP and NCAA finals," said a third assistant coach.
"So players like Tyler Tio and Gian Mamuyac and also the Letran boys aren't here and because of this, the Combine wasn't too deep. But there are a lot of promising players."
Who stood out?
With the big guns missing, a number of players seized the opportunity to boost their stock. Perhaps the most impressive, at least in the eyes of the coaches, was Arellano's Justin Arana. Measured at an official height of 6'6", Arana played like he belonged, although his scrimmage stint was marred by a flagrant foul he committed. Regardless, he most likely worked his way into the top five.
"I like Arana," said one coach. "He looks good."
"He plays like a veteran," said Assistant Coach 1. "He has a strong body, he positions well as a five man (center), he screens well, and he can read the defense well. But what I like most is his ability to do a very good ball screen."
It should be noted that Chris Javier, Lervin Flores and Jorey Napoles, big men who have so far been marginal players in the PBA, also received similar high praise during their respective combines which ultimately improved their eventual draft positions. Whether Arana will follow their path or become a solid player won't be known until after a few years; for now, it appears that he'll be drafted high.
Assistant Coach 1 also had good words for second-generation player Shaun Ildefonso. "Ildefonso is aggressive, athletic. In and out game and plays good defense."
Another player who turned heads was shooter Jollo Go, who didn't have an impactful college career with DLSU but crept into coaches' consciousness by playing in the PBA's inaugural 3x3 tournament. He shot the ball well during his team's scrimmage, dropping 18 points in a short, running-time type game.
"Jollo Go played well. He can really shoot the ball," said Assistant Coach 2. "He's a good floor spacer which all the teams need."
Assistant Coach 3 concurred. "Jollo Go was very impressive. We all know that even in college, he can really shoot. It's just how well he can adapt to a different position (in the pros)."
Assistant Coach 2 also liked what he saw in another DLSU player and a relatively unknown 6'4" Fil-Am guard.
"Kurt Lojera was a steady presence. I've watched him in the UAAP. I think he's a very heady guard. And for this group, Jeremy Arthur. His activity level was good. Not just in scoring. He was very involved in both offense and defense without the ball. He seems to be a hard worker."
The New York-born Arthur, who wrote in his draft application that he suited up for Trinity College and Franklin Pierce University, was Go's teammate in the scrimmage and scored 26 points.
Assistant Coach 1 also had good things to say about another unheralded player, 6'5" Chris Lalata of Olivarez College. "Another player I really like is Lalata. Athletic stretch four and plays with discipline."
This rookie batch had a dearth of pure point guards, and Assistant Coach 3 believes Enzo Joson is perhaps the best of the lot.
"Enzo Joson for me is a natural point guard. These are the things that can benefit him right now. I think he's just one of a few who are natural point guards. If you look at his game right now, he's not even looking to shoot. He's really looking to set the play and set up his teammates. And he can defend and he's a tall point guard."
If the coaches are to be believed, either Barefield or Ganuelas-Rosser will be picked first by Blackwater on Sunday. Gray and Arana could also land in the top five. But afterwards, anything can happen in a shallow draft. Assistant Coach 1 summed it up.
"We'll probably pick based on best available talent."