Joe Devance's and Mark Caguioa's departures leave veteran void, but Ginebra's future is in great shape

Joe Devance, who spent the majority of his PBA career playing for Tim Cone, was a key leader on Ginebra's title winning teams. Ernie Sarmiento/ESPN

Another PBA season beckons for Barangay Ginebra, but the absence of two icons from the roster is set to make things a little different - and probably more challenging, to an extent - for coach Tim Cone and the rest of his team this year.

With big man Joe Devance stepping away from basketball and Mark Caguioa apparently on his way out as well, the two-time Grand Slam coach admitted that he is still coming to terms with the newfound gaps on the bench left behind by his old reliables.

"Joe was a great guy, Mark was a great guy. They kind of created the culture that we have on the team where everybody gets along, everybody supports each other. There's no [backstabbing] or fighting for playing time. I think that was established by Joe and Mark being such good people," Cone told reporters during the PBA Media Day last Thursday at the Novotel Manila. "We're going to miss that veteran presence badly."

Cone sounded sentimental when asked about Devance -- a player he had the longest relationship with in the PBA. Their partnership began with the Alaska Aces in 2008 and extended to the Purefoods and Ginebra franchises as the duo were reunited each time Cone took a new coaching job.

Devance, 40, won all of his 12 titles under Cone, who has a league-record 24 championships himself.

"I feel depressed. Tough thing to swallow," Cone said. "He's been a huge presence for me through the years ... He's my longest tenured player -- more than Johnny (Abarrientos) or Jojo (Lastimosa) or any of those guys.

"... He's our chemistry guru. He was the one that always set up the chemistry for our team, he was the one that motivated players, he was the one where if a player had a problem, they'd go to him and talk to him first before the coaching staff ever heard about it."

Devance saw action for University of Texas at El Paso in NCAA Division I before being tabbed as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 PBA Draft by the two-year-old Welcoat franchise (now the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters). He only played for a season there before being traded to Alaska, where he and Cone collaborated for a title in the 2010 Fiesta Conference.

"Early in his career he was a great player. He was a player that could play any position..." Cone said. "But as he started to grow as a player, as a person, and get a little older, it became more about his personality and his leadership and his relationships with players. He's the one guy that knew about relationships and how powerful they could be and how he could use it to his advantage."

Cone said Devance was offered a spot on the coaching staff, but the eight-time All-Star chose to try his luck elsewhere first.

"[H]e decided he wanted to explore possibilities that he may have in the United States. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear him coaching somewhere," Cone said. "But he's got a welcome place back with us."

As if losing one leader wasn't enough, he will also have to deal with another loss as Caguioa's retirement looms. While no official announcement has been made, Cone said the 2012 PBA MVP wants to "retire quietly" and is no longer under contract with the team.

"We asked him for a ceremony, we asked him to retire his number, and he turned it all down. He said, 'I don't want any fanfare. I'd just rather retire quietly.' He is retired." Cone said. "...We're hoping at some point that he and Jayjay (Helterbrand) will come back and give the fans a chance to have a proper goodbye. But that's really up to them."

Caguioa did not play in a featured role in Cone's offense -- he logged 21.9 minutes in his first season under him between 2015 and 2016 before averaging a shade over 8.6 a game over the next four seasons. But Cone has remained complimentary of the nine-time champion over the years and frequently talked about his willingness to buy-in and pave the way for the rest of his teammates.

"I think the thing with Mark that always amazes us is his ability to stand out every day in practice. He always was doing something that would kill somebody in practice and he was really a nice person to be around," Cone said of the 13-time All-Star. "That's what we're going to be lacking."

While Cone and Ginebra will miss their presence, the hope is that the core Devance and Caguioa led will keep the franchise moving forward.

Talent-wise, there seems to be no question they will be fine. With superstar guard Stanley Pringle and frontline pillar Japeth Aguilar back in full health to lead a battle-tested squad, Ginebra should be in great position win over the course of the new season.

Pringle, the dynamic and ever-deadly scorer at the backcourt spots, is working his way back into shape after fully recovering from a meniscus left knee injury.

"In terms of injury, I think that he's 100 percent. But in terms of his game and in terms of his full athleticism and explosiveness, I think he still has a ways to go. I'd say he's about 80, 85 percent," Cone said of Pringle. "But he's back fully in practice, and he will be available for Game 1, unless something happens."

Aguilar, who played through a Grade 2 calf strain in the 2021-22 PBA Governors' Cup Finals, has also healed from his lumps and is good to go for Ginebra's first game of the season against Blackwater on June 12.

"I don't think Japeth has any restrictions at this point. I think his calf is fully healed. You do worry that with a calf injury, that can always recur. But I think he's far enough away right now that we don't have to worry about that, specifically," Cone said. "He does daily stuff to prepare that calf for practice every day, and games. I think that's something he'll have to do for the rest of his career. But at this point, I think it's far enough away from the injury that it's safe to say he's 100 percent."

Of course, their hopes at succeeding will hinge mostly on Scottie Thompson, the newly-minted Most Valuable Player for the 2021-22 PBA season. As impressive as the 28-year-old guard's signature season was, Cone believes the do-it-all playmaker has larger strides to make in the future -- as long as they keep the ball in his hands.

Thompson, who averaged career-highs of 13.9 points and 9.0 rebounds on a 57.5 True Shooting Percentage along with 5.4 assists and 1.2 steals in 38.3 minutes through 33 games, also posted the highest usage rate of his career after using 17.5 percent of Ginebra's possessions last season, per advanced stats database Stats by Ryan on Tiebreaker Times.

"What I'm most proud about is Scottie's development and how much he's improved. I still think he's just scratching the surface of his potential. He still can be a lot better," Cone observed. "We're gonna try to keep the ball in his hands more than we did in the last conference, and I think that role will just grow and grow and grow as he continues forward."