The ripple effects of SJ Belangel taking his talents to Korea

SJ Belangel will make history by becoming the first Asian quota import in the Korean Basketball League. UAAP Media Bureau

Another Ateneo Blue Eagle has made history. This time, it's SJ Belangel who'll become the first Asian quota import in the Korean Basketball League.

Two years ago, Thirdy Ravena -- he of three championships brought home to Katipunan Ave. -- blazed the trail for Filipino players in Japan. Then, Belangel had no idea at all he'd be leaving the blue and white nest to spread his wings in another country. He had dreams, of course; thoughts that played at the back of his mind. But thoughts they remained, especially since he spent his first two years for Tab Baldwin coming off the bench before being entrusted as the lead guard in his third season.

After averaging 10.3 points, 3.0 assists, and 2.7 rebounds, though, he not only proved himself as a worthy successor to the lineage from LA Tenorio to Chris Tiu to Matt Nieto, he also put on display just why his otherworldly talents were, well, meant for the world.

"To be honest, I never thought about that," he answered after being asked how he felt about being the first Filipino to suit up in Korea. "I'm just honored and excited to play in Korea, while also representing the Philippines."

The 5-foot-10 playmaker got here because of his skills, and at the same time, the work he has been putting in to improve those. Even outside Ateneo and even during the pandemic, he was at it, wearing the flag for Gilas Pilipinas. And in their first game in the third window of the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, which just happened to be against Korea, he banked in a buzzer-beating game-winner.

From that point on, the letters "S" and "J" -- short for Samjosef -- were tattooed on the minds of Koreans. They know him. They'll always know him. Who knew, though, that a year later, they'll know him even more.

Aside from being a game-winner for the Philippines and heartbreaker for Korea, Belangel is a two-time UAAP champion for Ateneo. However, the first and foremost facts Koreans have to get to know about him are actually these: his drive and determination.

Miguel Asis, the student manager who more often than not is with him during pre-game ritual morning shoot-arounds, said those two things are what will, yet again, let the 22-year-old Filipino guard succeed in the KBL.

"He always does more than what's expected of him," he shared. "I believe our (team) practices are enough when it comes to game prep, but SJ takes it a step further. He always tries to find any slight advantage to elevate his game above his competitors."

Asis was firsthand witness to just that as he has been Belangel's rebounder and passer for game day mornings when the latter makes it a point to knock down 10 shots from seven spots -- most notably before Game 3 of the UAAP 84 finals. The Blue Eagles lost then, but not for their starting guard's lack of trying, as he had a collegiate career-high 27 points to go along four assists and three rebounds.

"Wherever he's been, he's always delivered," noted Asis. "I actually didn't wish him good luck because I don't think he needs it. There's no doubt in my mind he'll do great because he has been doing it all his life."

Without a doubt, the pride of Bacolod will bring that drive and determination the very moment he steps down after four or so hours on the plane from Manila to Seoul. Once there, Daegu KOGAS Pegasus will not only be getting a court general who'll set the tone in-game, but also a floor leader who'll set an example off-court.

"I'll have to adjust to a new system and a language barrier, but I'm just gonna do my role. Whatever coach wants me to do, I'll do my best," he remarked. "KBL is known to be very competitive, but I believe it's in tough moments where you grow as a player."

Belangel is bound for Korea some time in August, when he'd begin training with the Pegasus for the KBL's new season tipping off in October and running for about eight months. Once he leaves the Philippines, what will it then mean for those he'll be leaving behind, as well as the new era he'll be ushering in?

Korea opens up as another avenue for Filipino players

There are (or were) Filipinos in Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Serbia. There was a Filipino in Australia -- and he may be taking his talents to the NBA (best of luck to Kai Sotto!). Now, there'll be a Filipino in Korea, too. Looks like the Philippines is continuing to ramp up its exports of ballers, and that's all because they've proven their worth wherever they may be.

"I think this is another big step, big opportunity for Filipino athletes like me," expressed Belangel on his history-making signing. "This implies that many countries are now seeing the talents of young Filipino athletes. (My playing in Korea) opens another door for young Filipino athletes who want to play internationally."

Make no mistake, the PBA dream will always be top of mind for Filipino players. But having more choices is a healthy development -- and actually a testament to the good health, overall, of Philippine basketball.

Ateneo hands over point guard reins to Forthsky Padrigao

Most definitely, losing Belangel hurts, especially just a season removed after losing 'Matty Ice' Nieto. Nobody in their right minds will doubt Ateneo's 'next man up' culture, though, especially if the next man up is Padrigao, who already flashed brilliance and totaled 29 points, 18 assists, nine steals, and eight rebounds in 12 games as a rookie.

His education into being more fundamental than flashy will continue, and he's yet to prove himself in big-time moments, but there's no question about his talent. He's more of a table-setter than the bucket-getter Belangel was, but that means he may very well unleash Season MVP Ange Kouame even more. Now, there's a scary thought. Remember, when Sotto was still a Blue Eaglet, he ate, and ate well, because Padrigao kept feeding him, whether it be through entry passes at the post or forays into the paint leading into drop-offs.

UAAP loses a superstar, but also leans towards more competition

On paper, Ateneo got weaker. Let's just get that out of the way. That means that -- again, on paper -- the gap between them and the mostly intact defending champion UP Fighting Maroons got wider. However, getting dethroned may very well have lit a fire under the Blue Eagles; something they may very well have been missing after dominating for so long.

Don't think for a second that Ateneo is no longer a contender. They still are. They'll be right in thick of things for the championship. So will semifinalists La Salle Green Archers and FEU Tamaraws. So will up-and-comers Adamson Soaring Falcons and National U Bulldogs. And who know? Maybe the UST Growling Tigers and UE Red Warriors will even be pleasant surprises.

Gilas guaranteed to have SJ Belangel. Still

Belangel's new uniform may be red, but he has nonetheless vowed to put on the Gilas blue any time and every time the national team calls his name. As he put it, "Gilas commitment, no. 1 sa atin yan. Siyempre, since nasa Bacolod pa ako, it's been a dream to represent the country. If ma-call up ako, it's top priority for me."

That gives Gilas a floor leader, young and talented, for now and into the foreseeable future -- a floor leader who played so well that he just got recruited to play in the country whose national team he downed.