Spare Japeth, Ban Advisers

On: 01 September 2009

Japeth Aguilar

By Joaquin Henson
SPORTING CHANCE (The Philippine Star), 01 September 2009

The uproar over Japeth Aguilar’s reported refusal to play in the PBA after he applied for the draft and was picked first overall by Burger King is understandable. It’s like the 22-year-old wunderkind took the 34-year-old PBA for a ride, basked in the glory of becoming the league’s first overall draft choice and now is declaring free agency.

You can’t blame the PBA for crying foul. Aguilar hogged the spotlight in the recent PBA draft and nearly wept when commissioner Sonny Barrios officially declared him the year’s top overall pick. A dream come true was how Aguilar described his ascension to the pro ranks.

But Aguilar has since changed his tune. He’s been offered the maximum three-year contract by Burger King, leaving no room for negotiation, and the former Western Kentucky reserve center isn’t signing.

Under PBA rules, a drafted player who doesn’t come to terms with the team that has his rights will sit out a year. He will sit out another year if he still fails to reach an agreement with the same team. On the third year, he will be allowed to reenlist in the draft. The consolation of the team that held his rights is he will not have played for any other team for two years.

In Aguilar’s case, the PBA is considering a lifetime ban or at least a severe penalty. The rules don’t stipulate such a penalty but Barrios has the discretion to lower the boom on Aguilar for reneging on his commitment to play in the PBA.

"The PBA rules allowing for a two-year sit-out do not apply to Japeth because this is not a case of negotiation since he has been offered the maximum terms," said a PBA insider. "We never forced Japeth to apply for the draft but he did. With his application comes a commitment to play. He was drafted first overall, an honor for any player, and for Japeth to now refuse to play in the PBA is a slap on the face of a league that is an institution."

Some PBA Board members chastised Aguilar for making a mockery of the league because of his turnaround.

However, is Aguilar really to blame? Remember, he’s just a kid. His father Peter, a former PBA cager, is in Chicago and unable to appreciate the circumstances surrounding the case.

When Aguilar joined the Smart-Gilas tryouts in Las Vegas last summer, he gained the vote of confidence from Serbian coach Rajko Toroman who described him as the country’s best big man prospect by far. Aguilar subsequently told Toroman he wanted to play for Smart-Gilas and would delay his application for the PBA draft.

Toroman said Aguilar hardly saw action for Western Kentucky the last two years and the 6-9 prospect needed to gain more court experience before entering the pros.

Then, Aguilar arrived in Manila and was surrounded by advisers who promised the PBA they would deliver the kid to the league. The advisers swore they meant well and only had Aguilar’s best interests in mind.

To warm up Aguilar for the PBA, national coach Yeng Guiao brought him to Taipei to play for the Powerade squad at the Jones Cup. Aguilar later joined the national team in Tianjin for the FIBA-Asia Championships.

It was during the Tianjin tournament that reality dawned on Aguilar. His eyes were opened to the bottom line that he’s not ready to go to war in the pros. Because of his lack of competitive exposure, Aguilar would be easy prey for the likes of Jay-R Reyes, Kerby Raymundo, Sonny Thoss, Asi Taulava and even a hardened rookie like Rico Maierhofer in the PBA.

Aguilar must have realized he listened to the wrong advisers. He was clearly misled. In Las Vegas, it seemed certain he would join Smart-Gilas and postpone his entry into the PBA. But shortly after he landed in Manila and spoke with his 'well-meaning' advisers, he changed his mind.

If Aguilar had maliciously and deviously plotted to snub the PBA, then maybe he deserves a lifetime ban. But it’s evident that he never meant to malign the PBA. He was misled into thinking he was ready for the pros by advisers who like to present themselves as righteous and sincere. Surely, the PBA can’t be harsh on a kid who made a serious mistake in finding his basketball career path. Instead of detractors ganging up on Aguilar, his advisers should be lined up against the wall in front of a firing squad.

Aguilar has a tremendous upside and will someday be a dominant force in the PBA but not right now. In two or three years, he will be ready for the PBA and be a valuable asset. At the moment, Aguilar is better off learning the ropes from Toroman and playing for Smart-Gilas. In the end, the PBA will benefit from this maturing process.

If Aguilar is forced to play in the PBA and doesn’t impress, the effect will be damaging to his career. Of course, he may prove this theory wrong by dominating as a rookie but that’s not likely.

Meanwhile, there is the matter of compensating Burger King which has Aguilar’s signing rights in the PBA. Perhaps, to ease the pain of his withdrawal, Burger King could be compensated by a team that’s willing to take a chance on Aguilar as a future project. That way, Burger King doesn’t walk away empty-handed unless the Whoppers choose to keep his rights and wait for further developments.

If Aguilar is convinced he isn’t ready for the PBA and would like more court experience with Smart-Gilas, the humane thing to do is to let the kid do his thing. He shouldn’t be branded for life but encouraged to learn from this mistake. He should also be more discerning in listening to advisers who pretend to be well-meaning.

By the way, a similar case involved Danny Ferry in the 1989 NBA draft. He was picked second overall by the Los Angeles Clippers but refused to play for the team. Ferry spurned the Clippers and played a season in the Italian league. The Clippers soon gave up on Ferry and traded his rights to the Cleveland Cavs who signed the center a year later.

Note that the NBA didn’t slap a lifetime ban on Ferry even if the former Duke star applied for the draft and was actually picked.

In Aguilar’s case, maybe Talk ‘N’ Talk could trade for his rights. Because of common ownership with Smart-Gilas, the Tropang Texters may choose to sit out Aguilar and allow him to play for Toroman. This way, Burger King is compensated via the trade, Aguilar gets his wish to gain more court experience outside the PBA, Smart-Gilas is reinforced by a major recruit and the PBA still keeps Aguilar in its rolls through Talk 'N Text.

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