Moala Tautuaa with his family during the 2014 PBA D-League Draft (Photo: Charlie Dy)
It’s been a thrill having the opportunity to broadcast the PBA D-League Aspirants Cup. I mean, we’re talking about the future Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) prospects in full splendor day in and day out on the crest of making that jump to the next level along with a handful of free agents showing why they deserve a legitimate shot to be in the pros.
This season alone, we’ve already seen some D-Leaguers called up to the bigs like Brian Heruela, Raphy Reyes and Giorgio Ciriacruz (all for expansion Blackwater Elite) while others are strongly being considered to beef up the present rosters in the PBA. But I guess the “audition” phase of the transition from college hoops to hoops stardom is what has many fans flocking the venues to catch a glimpse of PBA-ready cagers such as Bobby Ray Parks, Troy Rosario, Norbert Torres and Kevin Ferrer as well as a phalanx of Filipino-Foreigners (Fil-Foreigners) like Maverick Ahanmisi, Simon Enciso, Joseph Eriobu and Ali Austria.
As the eyes of the local amateur basketball scene now shifts its focus to the upcoming Aspirants Cup finals featuring top seed Cagayan Valley and the powerhouse Hapee Fresh Fighters, the most enigmatic of all the future pros could be a potential franchise pick who has been the difference-maker for the Rising Suns all season long; 6’8” Fil-Tongan Moala Tautuaa—the former Westsport-Malaysia Dragons stalwart from the Asean Basketball League (ABL).
I’ve asked a lot of PBA people this question leading up to this article: “When was the last time the PBA Draft yielded a ‘franchise player’?”
Many answers came in the form of four-time MVP Alvin Patrimonio, who made an immediate and indelible splash the moment he turned pro in 1988. “The Captain”, however, was not drafted as the then expansion Purefoods quintet were allowed to bring in a bulk of what used to be the national team—wherein Patrimonio was among its elite stars.
The 1989 drafting of Venancio “Benjie” Paras (now among the Hapee coaching staff) out of the University of the Philippines (UP) was the most common response and it is true that the “Tower of Power” indeed became a game-changer for Shell (and to this date the only PBA Rookie MVP).
There were mixed notions of 1993’s Johnny Abarrientos (Far Eastern University), 1998’s Danny Ildefonso (National University), 2004’s James Yap (University of the East) and 2012’s June Mar Fajardo (University of Cebu)—and they could all be on the right track.
But in Tautuaa, I see something I haven’t seen since Paras: an instant cornerstone.
Born April 30, 1989 in San Francisco, California to Tongan national Moala, Sr. and Cabanatuan’s Romanita del Valle, “Moe” played NCAA Division II college ball for Chadron State College and declared himself eligible for the 2012 NBA Draft, but went undrafted. He resuscitated his fledgling basketball career by making a huge impact with the Dragons in 2012; recruited into that program by coach Ariel Vanguardia (the former Jose Rizal University mentor and Talk N’ Text assistant), who continues to serve as his advisor to this day.
Tautuaa, however, was not the hulking figure he is today when he first saw action in the ABL—although his norms of 15.6 PPG and 7.6 RPG were already quite gaudy. He was more of perimeter specialist and used his height to collar defensive rebounds and chase shots here and there. The Dragons’ main man at the time was eventual Purefoods feisty reserve Justin Melton.
Over the next few months, though, Tautuaa made up his mind to play professionally in his mother’s motherland and worked on getting his body and game ready for the rigors of Pinoy hoops.
He began bulking up. He began getting faster. He began displaying more of his uncanny basketball IQ and by the time the 2014 PBA D-League Draft came around, Cagayan Valley made him their top overall pick but had to wait for him to play out his contract with the Dragons before having him suit up for the final stage of his initiation into what is slated to be a booming professional career in the PBA.
He speaks Tagalog fluently, which is a big plus for coaches and teammates (and international competition as new Gilas Head Coach Tab Baldwin has been very candid about his admiration for Tautuaa and what he can bring to the table for the program).
Although the Rising Suns had a solid start sans Tautuaa in the Aspirants Cup, his entry made the team veritably unbeatable. Cagayan Valley finished the elimination round with a spotless 11-0 record (along the way also dealing the Fresh Fighters their first and thus far only loss of the season).
Tautuaa’s value to the Rising Suns was evident during the semifinals when the stifling Cebuana Lhuillier defense held him to just five points en route to being the first team to blemish Cagayan Valley at the most precarious stage of the tournament. Without Tautuaa’s normal 20/10 performance, everything caved in for the Rising Suns.
But Tautuaa responded with a vengeance in the next two games with monster numbers (as well as a number of monster dunks) and catapulting Cagayan Valley to the Finals.
In all during his first stint in the D-League, Tautuaa displayed patience (not forcing the issue against opposing defenses), intelligence (following the game plan and game flow), aggression (controlling vital aspects of the game at just the right time) and dominance (ensuring wins by playing within the system and thriving).
If you look at Cagayan Valley’s roster, there is no legitimate superstar—unlike that of the Gems and Hapee (loaded with potential PBA rookie-of-the-year candidates)—but yet they have proven to be the strongest contingent in the Aspirants Cup—as far as the elims go.
And yet when asked about the future, the 25-year-old remains grounded.
“Number one overall sounds good,” he told me once during a brief chat at the Araneta Coliseum basement parking lot. “Pero kailangan ko pang magtrabaho, kuya. I need to keep improving everyday. It’s something I gotta earn.”
Talk N’ Text owns the top overall pick (via a trade with Blackwater) and also has the ninth pick by virtue of their finish in the 2015 Philippine Cup. The Tropang Texters have already lost two key players to retirement (Ali Peek and Jimmy Alapag) and their frontcourt isn’t getting any younger—starring Harvey Carey, Ranidel de Ocampo, Danny Seigle, etc.
They could use the top pick on Parks (a logical choice as well) but already have Matt Ganuelas-Rosser who could be of the same mold (minus the perimeter game and orchestrating skills).
Rosario could also be the guy, but despite being 6’7” the former NU forward is more noted for his Dirk Nowitzki-like dimension on offense (something de Ocampo already brings to the squad, in a more “deliberate” fashion).
They could also address their lack of size by bringing in Torres, although many scouts view the “Awesome Oso” as a work-in-progress and could be relegated to fourth or fifth overall (GlobalPort could the biggest beneficiary if this happens). The same could be said about Torres’ La Salle teammate Arnold Van Opstal (with many projecting AVO to be in the same draft range).
Making Tautuaa the top pick ensures versatility (a stretch 5, if you will) with ball handling skills, range, passing abilities and someone who can rack up any numbers required (points, rebounds, assists, blocks, etc.). Oh, and the stratospheric presence in terms of dunking (a lot) and chase-downs could also be energy igniters and commonplace.
Imagine a starting line-up in the 2015-2016 PBA Philippine Cup for the Tropang Texters composed of Jayson Castro and Larry Fonacier at the backcourt, forwards Ganuelas-Rosser and RDO along with “stretch 5” Tautuaa. All opposing defenses will go bananas.
I believe that Tautuaa is a bonafide franchise player; perhaps the most legit since Paras (or the Flying “A”, or Lakay, or Big Game James, or The Kraken).
He should go Number One.
I’d be very surprised if he didn’t. Very, very surprised.
Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter (@NoelZarate) and email firstname.lastname@example.org