Almazan’s transformation, Nambatac’s play key for LetranBy Mark Giongco
MANILA, Philippines — Caloy Garcia, Letran’s new head coach, knows the Knights would need additional offensive production aside from the obvious in Mark Cruz, Kevin Racal and explosive rookie Rey Nambatac to go deep in the 89th NCAA Season.
And being known as a defensive player throughout his career, Raymond Almazan may be the most unlikeliest source of offense but his size, length and experience seemed to be just what Garcia is looking for.
“When I talked to him even before we started practicing, I told him that he’s going to get touches now in the post because I would need him to score,” Garcia recalled.
“Dati he’s just a defensive player but I told him if he wants to make it to the pros he also has to show he has offensive skills. That’s the challenge I’m giving him.”
Almazan has a great upside with his lengthy frame at six-foot-seven and his efforts to work on his offensive game and transform himself as a two-way player have been paying off for Letran, which sets up an interesting opening day clash with San Sebastian on Saturday, has shown in the Knights stint in the Filoil tournament.
During the preseason, Letran drew plays for Almazan on the low block and at times, Almazan, who is in his last playing year, was able to show off a couple of his low-post arsenals — the results of his hard work in practice.
“He only started practicing with us I think mid-May because he was focusing on the D-League, so once finished in the D-League, mas importante sa amin yung team offense namin rather than our individual skills but the nice thing about him is he comes earlier in workouts and does individual post drills,” Garcia told INQUIRER.net.
Garcia shows great confidence in his graduating player and it was evident during Letran’s game against De La Salle in the Filoil where Garcia ran post-up plays for Almazan over and over.
Almazan, who gamely embraces his new niche as the team’s leader, had trouble against the Green Archers’ big men Norbert Torres and Arnold Van Opstal — finishing with just two points on an embarrassing one-of-eight shooting from the field — considering all of his shots came on the low block and most didn’t even hit the rim.
“Actually he’s still adjusting because he’s more of an offensive rebounder where his scoring mostly comes from putbacks, tip ins, siguro nung binigyan ko siya ng pressure sa post na kailangan makuha yung bola sa post and make the right decisions I think he has been able to adjust.”
And that’s just part of the growing pains Almazan and Garcia have to live with for Letran to be successful and possibly repeat last year’s run where the team just fell a game short of winning it all.
Almazan’s role will be crucial for his team, along with fellow veterans Cruz and Racal as the Knights look to have a smooth transition with a winning season right away after the departure of long-time mentor Louie Alas, who guided the Knights to three championships under his watch.
“The team is adapting to the system very well. We’ve been practicing well for the last three months,” said Garcia. “Nice thing about coach Louie was he was able to leave me with a good defensive team. Maganda yung mga pinakita niya sa mga bata and we might carry over what coach Louie left.”
“The thing here lang is the players just need confidence in taking shots kasi before they had a different system and sa system na pinapasok namin ngayon kailangan they’re confident enough to take wide open shots kasi yun ang rules ko,” Garcia added.
Garcia’s well aware that if Almazan develops into a dominant force inside, it will open up the team’s shooters like Cruz and Nambatac as well as the driving lane for Racal, who is most effective when attacking the basket.
Alas’ unexpected exit after last season’s defeat to rival San Beda in the NCAA Finals also influenced his son Kevin, the team’s main man for the past couple of years, to forego his final year of eligibility.
Garcia has high expectations for his starting center but the pressure is also on Nambatac, whom Garcia said is up to fill in the void left by Alas.
“He’s a rookie but he plays more like a veteran in the Filoil,” Garcia said of his promising six-foot guard.
Nambatac’s stellar preseason showing even got the attention of one of college’s finest stars in Kiefer Ravena when the two matched up late April in the Filoil where Ateneo fashioned out a hard-fought 88-81 win.
“We saw what Rey Nambatac is capable of,” praised Ravena after the former Letran Squire standout broke down the Eagles defense with his ability to get to the rim en route to 19 points on 10-of-11 shooting at the line.
Garcia doesn’t think his team will be this year’s sleeper, perhaps because deep down he believes that with the pieces that he has in Almazan, Cruz, Nambatac and Racal, Letran is so much more than that.
“Anything can happen this season.”