Kevin Quiambao is no bandwagon fan.
Long before Nikola Jokic was a two-time MVP for the Denver Nuggets, Quiambao already hoped to pattern his play after him.
"Idol ko si 'Joker' ever since na-draft siya nung 2014. Noon pa lang, nakita ko na yung potential na gagayahin ko kasi noon pa lang, kitang-kita na yung pagpasa niya," he shared weeks after putting on display his own playmaking penchant for Gilas Pilipinas.
"In-introduce siya sa akin ni coach LA Mumar. Sinabi niya na panoorin ko at gayahin ko. Naramdaman na namin dati pa na magiging star 'to."
Aside from the fact that the 6-foot-7 modern big is a player who takes to heart his coach's instructions, the anecdote teaches us that he -- as well as Mumar, for that matter -- may very well have a future as a scout, as he already envisioned the then-41st overall pick turning into an NBA superstar.
Turning serious, though, it's a good thing that Quiambao followed Mumar's advice even when the two were only relative unknowns for a middling Lyceum of the Philippines University high school team in the NCAA Juniors.
That's because following his transfer to powerhouse Nazareth School of National University in the UAAP Juniors, he showcased the skills that proved he can also turn from promising prospect-to-consistent contributor.
In his two seasons for the Bullpups, he posted per-game counts of 10.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.0 assists, forming a formidable front-court with Carl Tamayo en route to back-to-back championships.
He took care of the playmaking, Tamayo took care of the shot-making, and the two of them joined forces in cleaning up the glass, patrolling the paint, and switching to the perimeter.
"Yun yung goal ko ever since: maging playmaking big," he shared, now the two of them have gone from high school champions to Gilas players. "Yun kasi yung tingin ko matutulong ko sa team.
"Lagi ko lang gustong suklian yung hard work nila to get open, yung puso nila maglaro, so I really make it a point to hit them in their spots."
That was very much evident in the 2023 FIBA World Cup qualifiers third window and then the 2022 FIBA Asia Cup, where the 21-year-old debuted for the national team and recorded several highlight assists, eliciting 'oohs' and 'aahs' from spectators, as well as wide smiles and energetic high-fives from his teammates in the process.
In the end, Gilas only had two wins to show in six games through the tournaments. Still, they had a bright spot -- a big, bright spot -- in Quiambao, who along with averaging a team-high 4.2 assists, chipped in 6.0 points and 3.5 rebounds.
"Mixed emotions. Masaya ako sa na-gain kong exposure and experience internationally, pero at the same time, disappointed na 'di namin nakuha yung goal namin," he remarked.
"Sa totoo lang, mas nangibabaw yung disappointment kasi yun nga, mataas yung expectation sa amin, tapos 'di namin nakuha."
While he impressed with his passing, the incoming first-year pivot for De La Salle University was also the first to admit that his international debut revealed -- and reinforced -- that he had much room for improvement.
"Madami pa akong kailangan i-improve. Feeling ko, dito sa Pilipinas, kakayanin ko nang mag-dominate, pero pagdating sa international, sobrang dami ko pa palang iwo-work on," he detailed.
"Yung mga weakness ko, lumabas sa FIBA. Sa Pilipinas, nakakadepensa naman ako. Sa international, feeling ko, kaya ko ring depensahan, pero pagdating sa puntong yun, maiiwanan ako, mawawala ako sa posisyon."
Just like how his idol Jokic kept on building upon his already-elite skillset, so can Quiambao smooth out his rough edges. And he has already wasted no time doing so, suiting up for the Green Archers in the 2022 PBA D-League Aspirants Cup and 2022 Filoil EcoOil Preseason Cup right after his national team tour of duty.
"Sobrang sarap. At the same time, may gigil pa rin kasi ang tagal kong nawala sa basketball," he expressed, as his last local organized tournament was back in 2019, before he had to finish up his high school studies and get through the pandemic to be eligible for La Salle.
"Agad-agad, na-challenge ako ni coach [Derick Pumaren] na kailangan kong mag-step up kasi galing akong Gilas, mataas expectation sa akin, inspired akong makalaro ng teammates ko. Kaya lalong gusto kong iangat yung play style ko from high school to college."
With the green and white, Quiambao will not only have the burden of living up to being a Gilas player, he will also have to fill the void left behind by Justine Baltazar, who has played out his eligibility for the Taft-based team and has taken his talents to the Hiroshima Dragonflies in the Japan B.League.
That means helping make up for the 12.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 3.0 assists now gone, as well as taking on a leadership role, since he and frontcourt running mate Mike Phillips are now the pillars of a La Salle side with championship aspirations.
"Malaki yung iniwan ni 'Balti' (Baltazar) so kailangan ko talaga to try my best na punan yun -- at kung kaya, taasan pa nga yung level niya," he exclaimed.
"Marami rin naman akong natutunan kay 'Balti', marami na siyang nabigay na payo bago siya umalis. Ang pinaka-number one sa akin, masarap maglaro para sa La Salle."
Come UAAP Season 85, penciled in for September, the point forward will be out to help the Green Archers return to the finals for the first time in five years -- and perhaps, reclaim the crown they last wore in 2016.
And on a more personal note, he'll also be out to catch up to former high school teammates Tamayo, Harold Alarcon, Gerry Abadiano, and Terrence Fortea, all of whom won a championship in their first year for the University of the Philippines.
"Masaya ako para sa kanila. Deserve naman yun ng mga dati kong teammate," he stated. "Pero for me, I'll have that same goal this UAAP. I'll compete with them, and gagawin ko ang best ko para sa La Salle."
Kevin Quiambao patterned his play after Nikola Jokic -- and is now proving to be a capable and confident playmaking big.
With the ball in his hands and fire and desire in his eyes, La Salle seems to be set up for success now and into the foreseeable future.