JUSTINE BALTAZAR'S PBA future was basically set in stone.
A surefire first rounder in any other year, the La Salle star suddenly found himself a lock as a top-three pick after a shallow pool of players applied for the rookie draft.
But three days before the May 15th draft, PBA commissioner Willie Marcial broke the news that threw a wrench in those plans: Baltazar, a no-show in the league's two-day combine, had withdrawn his application after accepting an offer in Japan's B.League.
This next step in the 6-foot-9 forward's future, which will make him the ninth Filipino to suit up in Japan's five year-old league, did not shock anyone watching the development.
"The decision for him to apply for the PBA Draft was actually the surprise," Titan Management Group managing partner PJ Pilares, an agent who handles B.League standouts Dwight Ramos and Kemark Carino, told ESPN. "It just made it more of a guessing game. But I'm sure their camp already knew something was concrete even before [the decision to pull out was announced]."
For the PBA's part, Marcial claims he pushed Baltazar to take the deal and that it does not bother the league's brass that they lost another talent to Japan -- especially during a draft generally perceived to be one of the weakest in recent years.
"Sabi pa nga nila, 'Sir baka pwede mag-PBA muna siya saka Japan.' Sabi ko, 'Huwag na. Tapusin niyo muna 'yung sa Japan kasi baka magka-komplikasyon pa,'" Marcial told ESPN. "Hindi ako naninipisan sa draft na 'to. Kung manipis man, OK lang. Hindi ganoon kabigat."
Even so, Marcial's lax tone cannot hide an obvious fact: This draft may represent a talent drain in the PBA. Young talents, or at least the highly-rated ones, are looking past the PBA to seek more lucrative ventures elsewhere. More are expected to join their ranks in the future.
But even as doomsayers in various corners of the Philippine basketball atmosphere insist that the drain threatens to eventually cripple the pillars of Asia's first pay-for-play league, the situation appears to be more complex -- problematic, but perhaps not extremely dire. Yes, the PBA is losing significant talent for a multitude of reasons that have to be addressed in some way, but the losses have not been bad enough for the league to fully sound the alarms. At least not yet.
BOBBY RAY PARKS Jr. WATCHED Baltazar's situation unfold from a distance, quietly lauding the 25-year-old's decision to make the move overseas. As one of two players alongside Kiefer Ravena who have played in the PBA before leaving the league for an opportunity in Japan, the second generation star has grown to be an ardent advocate of similar choices.
"It was a great decision by him to explore the borders of basketball, really," Parks said in a sit-down with ESPN.
"When you're young, you'll want to do just that because this is the time when your passion is at a certain high that you want to attain the highest level of basketball possible. And that's the goal: You want to be the best that you can as quickly as you can, because that's passion, that's love for the game. And I can't blame him for that."
The 6-4 swingman's stance on the player exodus has not wavered. Parks insists that a player should look after his own interests first and there is almost nothing that should stop anyone from chasing opportunities abroad for personal growth. That belief has only been reinforced by a season's worth of experience in Japan -- one that has been so pleasant that he decided to ink a one-year extension to stay with the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins for the 2022-23 season.
Like most player-team relationships, there were rough patches for Parks. A lot of it had to do with his role: He was effective and hyper-efficient (10.4 points on 62.9 True Shooting or TS%, 2.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals in just 22.2 minutes), but he was mostly relegated to a low-usage role as a spot-up shooter, transition scorer, or tertiary creator on offense through 46 games for Nagoya (34-15).
"But I stayed because my teammates are great. The management is great. The facility is great. The whole city is great. The fans are great," he added. "And coach Shawn Dennis (Nagoya's head coach) and I just talked it out, sat down, drank, and poured our hearts out. We just said everything we wanted to say. It was a grown-man conversation."
Save for the bit about the role, Parks' rookie season in Japan is a microcosm of the Filipino experience. Players are driven by the love for the game and the opportunity to develop in an environment that tailors to their basketball needs.
It's not a shot at the PBA's capabilities, though it doesn't help that some mid-market franchises aren't equipped to provide the same level of care that Japanese teams can provide. One agent said, "Iba 'yung teams sa Japan and the way they treat their players. Professional talaga. Kumpleto sa gamit, sa training staff, everything. 'Yun 'yung kulang sa ibang teams dito. May mga players complaining na professional team na sila pero parang hindi naman professional ang treatment ng ibang mga teams na hindi malaki ang budget."
That's in stark contrast to what players deal with in Japan, where ease of access is king. From health management and injury rehabilitation, down to the technology to aid with film study and skill work, Parks says everything is within an arm's reach or a drive away.
"It's just that the Japanese culture reflects in the way they handle things professionally. Every single aspect is excellent, crafted with care," Parks said. "It's extensive, but they help you out massively with those opportunities. It's lovely. The accessibility is great."
Then there's the schedule. A typical B.League season runs eight months from September to May with a four-month offseason in between. The PBA runs on a irregular timeline that depends on when it is able to finish its two- or three-conference season. The 2021-22 season ran from last July to April. Only six weeks separated it from the new 2022-23 calendar.
Pilares said this congested calendar leaves little time for players to work on their craft or to step away from the game, which is also an important part of player growth.
"When you're a developing player, when you haven't really reached your full potential, it's hard to learn when you're just playing and playing the game. You also need time off in order to hone your craft. Sometimes, the players who travel overseas have that luxury compared to the ones that are here," he explained.
"I think the PBA also focuses on development. It's dependent on the team. There are a lot of teams who invest in individual training, individual coaches. But sometimes, what really hinders that from happening is the number of games that happen in a year," Pilares continued. "Overall, I think there's just not enough room for them to try new stuff."
Adding up all those factors is still just one part of why international basketball is a place that is conducive for player growth.
"When Thirdy [Ravena] and Dwight played for Gilas Pilipinas, mas angat na 'yung laro nila," recalled player agent Charlie Dy, chief executive officer of sports and talent firm Virtual Playground. "Iba 'yung may international exposure. We have a lot of very good players, ang kulang lang talaga is international exposure. And I think you'll feel more confident after playing as an import in Japan, kasi iba rin 'yung treatment sa'yo eh."
OF COURSE, MONEY remains the biggest consideration when it comes to pursuing a contract abroad. If a player is hesitant about uprooting to essentially become an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), the difference in salary eventually gets them across.
One source said Filipino rookies in Japan's Division I last season were paid around a ballpark of $7,000 to $15,000 (P350,000 to P750,000) a month depending on the player. Sweetening the pot, according to another source, are bonuses for won games and incentives for playoffs, which in some instances can amount to more than one or two months' worth of salary at the end of the season.
A couple of PBA sources who have closely handled or monitored such discussions claim that some reports elsewhere appear to pad these figures in order for certain camps to gain leverage in negotiations. Nonetheless, the pay difference between the PBA -- which has a cap of P420,000 -- and overseas leagues remains substantial.
"We're coming from a third-world country where it's not easy to make money. Everybody works hard here in the Philippines, which everybody respects. That's why in the playoffs, where players make bonuses, you see people trying to kill each other because it's a livelihood. You can't sugarcoat that," Parks said when asked about the differences in pay. "So if you can help your family financially and move forward, then why wouldn't you do that? Why wouldn't you want to help your family out by saying, 'You know what, Mom? I got this.'"
Another aspect of the decision-making that has gone largely undiscussed is the freedom of choice. Either abroad or locally -- whether a player wants to be on a team that's constantly in the mix for postseason success, or whether he wants to step into a featured role for teams lacking that central force. In the Philippine setting, Pilares said the latter is a challenge that a bunch of talents relish.
"Of course, as a player and as a competitor, you want to be in a situation where you get to perform, and it's a bonus if you can win. But it really depends," he said. "Other athletes like that situation because they're going to be the focal point. But I always tell them it sounds easy when you're not in that situation. Once you're there, it becomes a real challenge when you start losing games two, three, four in a row. It's very, very taxing."
Understandably, some might decide to ply their trade overseas to avoid finding themselves mired in losing situations. It's not something some players or agents will publicly acknowledge, but Parks said they don't have to, as "the proof is in the pudding."
"I'll leave it at that," said Parks, who early in his PBA career played for a Blackwater franchise that owned at the very least a top-three pick in seven of the eight drafts since joining the league in 2014. "At the end of the day, if I'm going to a team that's more patient than you when it comes to wanting to win, it's hard to be motivated."
Parks hearkened back to a very recent trade in the Season 47 Draft involving Javi Gomez de Liaño, who played for the Ibaraki Robots in the 2021-22 season. The 6-5 forward returned from Japan and declared for the draft, where he was selected at No. 8 by his "dream team" Barangay Ginebra. But then he was traded with incoming sophomore Brian Enriquez to Terrafirma -- another struggling franchise that also carried a pick from the No. 1 to the No. 3 range in six of the last eight drafts -- for No. 2 overall pick Jeremiah Gray.
"When I saw that, I felt hurt for him. He talked about being happy to be drafted by Ginebra, but suddenly that happened. It's a cold, cold game," Parks said. "It's a reminder that stuff can go great, where you'd feel like you won the lottery, but suddenly it can get ugly, like God awful.
"If you were a draftee, would you want to be in that position?"
NOW IF YOU'RE looking to call time of death on the PBA, you would probably be in for a long wait.
Despite the growing allure of playing overseas, agents said the PBA will continue to remain an attractive enterprise for the coming decade or so, even for Filipino talents abroad looking to strut their stuff in their motherland.
"I've talked to a lot of Fil-Ams and they still want to come and play in the PBA. For them, they still find it very competitive," said Dy, who is also the agent of Fil-American talents Jason Brickman and the recent draft's top pick Brandon Ganuelas-Rosser.
Dy said the pull of playing closer to home with more job security also sways players back to the Philippines. "After that one year [abroad], what's next? Is there an assurance that you'll still get paid well or get signed?" he asked.
"Kung ako 'yung PBA, I'll let them [try to play elsewhere]. Mahirap maging import player lang ah," he continued. "Para kang OFW. And I think that's the reason why some of them came back -- mahirap eh. They really talk about being homesick. It's just that kailangan nila panindigan 'yung decision nila to play in Japan."
That doesn't mean they don't think there shouldn't be any wholesale changes to the system.
Asked if a hike to the existing salary cap could tip the scales in the league's favor, both Dy and Pilares concurred.
"I think a lot of the players who have the talent overseas will still play, but as far as leveling the playing field, that would be good," Pilares said.
Dy also said he hopes the PBA allows players to form their own union someday. Pilares suggested a draft lottery system "just so teams can't keep tanking" as well as lifting the cap on Fil-foreigners. (For the latter, the limit per team was raised to seven players from five for the coming season, but players over 30 years of age cannot enter the league through the draft or free agency.)
"The last team across the three conferences should have a higher chance of getting the No. 1 pick, but it's not going to be guaranteed. For me, it would be good to have that draft lottery just so teams who finished No. 3, or No. 4, or No. 5 also have a very, very slim chance at making it to the top three. I think that will help," he explained. "And if you can play in the Philippines, you should be able to play. There shouldn't be a cap for Fil-foreign players for me. As long as they're able to submit all the required documents, then they should be OK."
Another agent said the PBA has to market its players more, arguing that player fan bases built in college disappear once they hit the professional ranks because the league does not sell its players enough or allow them to have their own advertisements.
"Parang nawawala 'yung kinang ng collegiate players pagdating sa PBA," the agent said. "And dati kapag nag-build ng hype ang PBA, focused sa players. Think of Robert Jaworski, Alvin Patrimonio. Ngayon when they promote, it's really more on the rivalry ng teams at walang players masyado.
"In the UAAP kasi when it was handled by ABS-CBN, kapag may mga advertiser sila wanting to get the players for endorsement, hinahayaan nila 'yung player and agent to talk to the brand. Pero ang PBA kasi, ang nangyayari is pina-package nila 'yung player for the endorsement," the agent continued. "Kapag in-entice mo 'yung brands to come in, sana ibenta mo rin 'yung player. Hayaan mo na sila ang makipag-usap separately with the players for an endorsement contract."
Parks, however, said simple changes on the financial side of things won't really make the problems disappear overnight.
"I feel like we're all just chickens in a cockfight - if you don't want to take this money, somebody else will," he said.
It's not as if the PBA is keen on making wholesale changes, either. Like on the matter of possibly making tweaks to the salary cap, Marcial such an option is not currently on the table.
"Hindi namin lalabanan 'yung abroad. Kung ano 'yung nakikita namin nararapat na nakikita namin ng governors dito, 'yun ang ibibigay namin. Kung gusto pa rin nila ang abroad, wala na tayong magagawa," he commented. "Kung makakatulong sa kanila 'yon, kung gaganda ang kinabukasan nila, bakit hindi? Hindi natin pipigilan 'yun. Hanapbuhay nila 'yun."
And while PBA chairman Ricky Vargas' recent comments disparaging player poaching might be a sign that the league is slowly feeling the heat, it doesn't seem like the brass is worried about a total talent diaspora. "Sabi ko nga sa kanila, pagdating din ng araw kapag natapos sila sa Japan, babalik at babalik din sila sa PBA," Marcial said. "Kahit sina Kiefer at Thirdy sinasabi sa'kin 'yun."
Regardless if they make those much-needed changes today, tomorrow, or in a decade's time, it appears the PBA finds comfort in the fact that when it comes down to it, the league can still bank on its existing talent level, sustainability, and availability to the rest of the local prospects - lean drafts and opposing overseas leagues be damned.
"The talent level is still good. I always tell people that the PBA's talent level is at its highest," Pilares expressed. "As an agent, I can say that because I always advise my athletes who want to go to the PBA that this is the dream."