A rookie is coming up big for Blackwater Bossing, who put up a fight in the 2022 PBA Philippine Cup and are now setting their sights on greater heights in the Commissioner's Cup.
That rookie was the first pick in the 2022 draft -- so or course, that was bound to happen. Only, Ato Ular wasn't the first overall selection.
Instead, Blackwater got its impact rookie with the first pick of the second round. And since then, he has done nothing but turn heads.
The 13th overall pick posted per game counts of 14.1 points and 8.1 rebounds in his first conference, all while serving as the starting and closing 4 for head coach Ariel Vanguardia. His most impressive showing, thus far, was a 34-point, 10-rebound double-double at the expense of Phoenix Super LPG.
With that, 6-foot-4 forward Ular stands as the front-runner for Rookie of the Year heading into the second of three conferences. Not top pick -- and now-former teammate -- Brandon Ganuelas-Rosser. Not modern bigs Jeo Ambohot and Justin Arana.
"'Di ko rin naman napapansin na ganun na nagagawa ko. Kusang dumadating na lang sakin yung bola kasi magagaling din pumasa mga kasama ko. Kaya rin ako nakakaiskor," he stated, ever humble.
"Pero siyempre, pinaghirapan ko rin naman. Sa practice pa lang, pinapatunayan ko na kinacoach Ariel na kaya kong makipagsabayan sa mga kapwestuhan ko."
Indeed, much of his numbers came from being at the right place at the right time. Though, that's only because he put himself there. Whether cleaning up his teammates misses or finishing defensive possessions, he does have a nose for rebounds -- not unlike his idols.
"Ang pinaka-idol ko talaga, si [Marc] Pingris. Kaya rebound din talaga ako nagfo-focus. Tapos hanggang 'di tumutunog yung final buzzer, laban lang nang laban," he detailed.
"Magandang challenge din pag nakakalaban mo na sina [Calvin] Abueva. Nakaka-boost din ng morale kasi dati napapanood ko lang, ngayon kalaro ko na. Kaya dapat, at least ma-challenge din siya sa akin."
Also working wonders for the 27-year-old is Blackwater's lack of bigs, which opened up many minutes for him from the get-go. It's doesn't hurt as well that his effort-based play is a snug fit for a core comprised mostly of perimeter players in Jvee Casio, Baser Amer, and Rey Suerte.
That's nothing new for Ular, however, as even when he was with the Knights, he was backstopping the likes of Jerrick Balanza, Fran Yu, and Bonbon Batiller, averaging 9.9 points and 7.5 rebounds in his last season in the NCAA with his workhorse ways irreplaceable to Letran in their championship run.
To think that he almost wasn't in the lineup then. As he was only in Team B for Season 94, he decided to showcase his skills in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL).
He was already thinking about staying semi-professional and forgoing his last year of collegiate eligibility until he and Marikina figured in a tuneup game with the Knights.
"Nagulat sina coach Bonnie kasi 'di nila alam, naka-enroll pala ako sa Letran," he narrated, talking about Bonnie Tan -- whose first year at the helm was in Season 95.
"Sabi nila, 'Uy, Letran ka pala! Pwede ka pala maglaro para samin!' Kaya yun, bumalik ako sa Letran. Napaganda pa kasi nag-champion pa."
To be clear, though, the Letran Ular is not the very same player as the Blackwater Ular. He's much improved -- all thanks to his stints in the semi-pro MPBL and Filbasket.
"Marami na naman akong linaruan. Nasanay na ako sa laro sa MPBL tsaka Filbasket. Dun ko naramdaman na kaya ko pala talaga," he described. "Dahil dun, mas naging pulido mga galaw ko, tsaka yung sipag sa loob ng court, dun ko talaga natutunang yun ang strength ko."
With Marikina in MPBL and San Juan in Filbasket, both contenders in their respective leagues, he took in tricks of the trade from ex-pros and smoothened his rough edges. And behind those strong showings, he boosted his draft stock.
Still, Ular wasn't necessarily a known name heading into the PBA rookie selection process. He didn't however mind that he flew under the radar. All that mattered was to hear his name called.
When Blackwater did just that, Ular wasted no time vowing to go all-out for the team that took a chance on him. Now, both he and the Bossing are eyeing the next level.
From pleasant surprise to legitimate contenders. From unexpected to undeniable.
"Blackwater, biro nga nila nung una, 'di ka magkaka-bonus dyan kasi laging talo," he recalled, with a laugh. "Pero nung nakita ko na yung team, ok naman e. Kayang-kaya naman naming manalo. Sipag lang talaga."
Yes, behind hard work, it was actually all of Blackwater that had a laugh at all their doubters. Despite bowing out in the 2022 Philippine Cup quarterfinals -- and still missing out on the franchise's first semifinals -- they still had a playoff berth to show for their troubles.
They also won all but one of their first six games in the season, including four wins in a row -- a far cry from a league-record 29-game losing streak they had been on just a year ago.
And now, the Bossing have a top candidate for Rookie of the Year. Whether or not Ular wins the individual award is irrelevant, though.
"Grade 2 pa lang ako, pangarap ko nang mag-PBA. Ngayong nandito na ako, kahit natupad na ang pangarap ko, lalo ko pang gustong galingan," he exclaimed. "'Di ko pwedeng pabayaang mawala sakin 'to."
With Brandon Ganuelas-Rosser traded away, Ato Ular is now, without a doubt, Blackwater's most prized rookie. And it shouldn't be a surprise if he keeps proving their full faith in him right.