It seems Juan Gomez de Liaño has been everywhere in the past year. At the same time, it looks like he has gone nowhere.
At one point in time, the 6-foot-1 primetime playmaker was the prince that was promised for the University of the Philippines, a present-and-future mainstay for Gilas Pilipinas, and one of the trailblazers in the international voyage of Filipino basketball players.
Since signing on with EarthFriends Tokyo Z in 2021, however, he has trudged through a long and winding road which has taken him to Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, and of course, there and back again to the Philippines. Presently, for the first time since his days starring for the Fighting Maroons, he made waves anew.
GDL turned in the best version of himself in the 2022 PBA D-League Aspirants Cup and put up per game counts of 18.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.2 steals en route to MVP honors. While at it, he steered Marinerong Pilipino's surge to the finals where they lost in three games to EcoOil-De La Salle University. Still, he emptied his tank for the Skippers and poured in 30 markers, six boards, and three dimes in Game 3.
The last two years -- and the pandemic at the center -- was a tough test for just about everybody, and without a doubt, that was true for the third of the siblings that includes Terrafirma Dyip guard Javi. Now at the other side of it all, though, it seems the ladder stands anew. It looks like the upward climb is well underway.
No worries, after all. This is still part of the beginning.
Even though Gomez de Liaño entered our collective memory as the UAAP Juniors MVP in 2017, he's just 22 years old. And he's plotting to play for two more decades, if lady luck smiles upon him.
"Everyone's dream is the NBA. Of course, that's a farfetched goal. So my dream, honestly, is to play as long as I can. Hopefully, 'til (my) 40s," he shared. "I wanna be like LA Tenorio. I was with him last week and I asked him what's his secret. He's 38 and he never missed a game. I asked for tips and advice."
Tenorio, the 15-year veteran who has won seven championships, is also known as the PBA's very own 'Ironman.' Last June, he was awarded his very own plaque for playing in his 700th consecutive career game. Add 13 more games Barangay Ginebra played in the 2022 Philippine Cup, and that's 713 games all in uniform.
Champions come and go. June Mar Fajardo and his 'Death Lineup' are no more. The Samahang Basektbol ng Pilipinas transitions and transitions some more. LA Tenorio stays LA Tenorio.
"That's the goal, honestly. Getting to old age and kaya pa rin ng katawan. Still going as long as you can, wherever it may be," expounded Gomez de Liaño.
Indeed, that's the hope for him. Keep at this game he loves with his all. And let it keep him in the process. Whether or not that plan comes into fruition here at home remains to be seen. Whether or not the next step in that plan is here in the Philippines is up in the air, even.
"I'd love to play here in the Philippines. Family's here, friends are here, but also, it's a good experience to play overseas. Being on your own, you grow more," he explained. "But right now, I don't know yet (what's next), honestly. Hopefully, I'll go to the right direction and right team."
A tantalizing talent like the shifty lefty will always have eyes on him. While grey clouds hover over a return to Japan as of the moment, doors remain open for an opportunity perhaps in Korea, or Taiwan, or even other regional leagues. Of course, the PBA also looms large, and any and every Filipino basketball player's most concrete dream is to see action in Asia's first pay-for-play league.
"Of course, I've been really thinking about it. PBA's been really a goal of mine. It's also really different playing at home in your country. Just knowing your family, your friends, your support system are there for you, it's different," he detailed. "So I just wanna make myself be in the best condition if I ever enter the PBA Draft. Whether that or offers overseas, I'll just take the best opportunity for my growth as a player and as a person."
Wherever he ends up, GDL will be bringing along a couple of new tricks to his trade: more formed maturity and more defined leadership -- two things where in the past, as he'd be the first to admit, he had much room for improvement.
The leadership, took better form as the unquestioned top gun of Marinerong Pilipino. Jollo Go was the captain, the Mapua University core coach Yong Garcia knows full well was there, but the Skippers went only as far as Gomez de Liano took them.
"In terms of improvement, the biggest thing for me was I got my confidence back. And became more of a leader. That was something I needed to work on especially in my young career, just guiding my teammates and leading them the right way," he pointed out. "That's what I'm grateful for. I know my capabilities, what I can do to help my teammates, to help my team. I'm glad I was given this opportunity to perform at a high level."
The maturity, got better definition after getting through several starts and stops that took away the momentum of his young career that was formerly full steam ahead.
Expected to illuminate the dark days in Diliman as UP's proudest homegrown product, he forwent his last two years of eligibility -- right before the Fighting Maroons finally broke through and won their first championship since 1986. Nonetheless, he has no regrets.
"I think about it sometimes, what if I stayed and all. But I have no regrets about my move. It was pandemic, an opportunity came up," he narrated. "I'm all about the growth mindset. Being on my own in a different country, different culture, adapting to whatever system, that's a thrill. That's what life is all about. I'm happy where I'm at right now."
To be fair, Gomez de Liaño hung up the maroon and green in 2020, right when the UAAP, and much of the world, was at a standstill due to the pandemic. It'd take two more years for collegiate sports to get back on track, and by then, all was different.
That decision then led to expectations for him to shine just as bright as Ravena brothers Thirdy and Kiefer and Dwight Ramos in the Japan B.League. Only, he cut short his contract for his overall health. After that, rather than just sitting and waiting for the next big thing, he took any and every opportunity in front of him.
"Traveling around the world, that's one of my goals in life. And playing basketball while at it? That'd really be a blessing. But in Japan, growth-wise, I wasn't growing as a player and person," he recalled. "So after Japan, after Gilas, I tried many, many things."
Asean Basketball League (ABL) 3x3 with Platinum Karaoke in Bali, Indonesia? ABL Pre-Southeast Asian Games Challenge with BBM CLS Knights still in Bali? Thai Super League 3x3 with Zamboanga Valientes in Bangkok, Thailand? Back to the PBA D-League? He was game. And he proved he still got game.
"All those were good opportunities. It was still international experience and I felt it was a good opportunity to grow and explore my options," he stated. "I wasn't doing anything just yet so might as well take it. Again, it's all about the growth mindset for me."
Slowly but surely, GDL's mental grit is catching up to his physical gifts. And now, he has an even clearer picture of just what exactly it takes to be a top talent whether in the Philippines, or anywhere else.
Asked about the biggest lesson he learned in the last two years and took to heart moving forward, he answered, short and sweet, "Adapting. Adjusting. Definitely."
Juan Gomez de Liaño has been everywhere in the past year. He's willing to go anywhere basketball takes him in the coming year or so. Among young talents who are the future -- and actually, already the present -- of Philippine basketball, though, he's still here. He'll stay here.