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A former Ateneo de Davao varsity player who is an assistant coach in a US NCAA Division III school is overseeing Japeth Aguilar's skills training as the former PBA no. 1 draft pick continues his quest to break into American professional hoops.
Leo Balayon, who was recently hired as an assistant coach for the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, a Division III school in Pasadena known for its excellent science and engineering courses, has been working out with Aguilar and preparing him to break into the National Basketball Developmental League (NBDL), or the D-League.
"It's a tough road," said Balayon in an e-mail to Yahoo! PH Sports. "My focus is to get him signed in the D-League. I'm not even thinking beyond that because the D-League will have a big role in his NBA development. My goal is really foundational and our target role for him is like a Steve Novak or at the most, Rashard Lewis. As he is now, (he is) not even at his peak. Me and Japeth are very realistic with our goals so we have no superstar illusions for him."
Balayon had never met Aguilar before they started working together, but the 33-year-old from Davao City had been following his client's career ever since Japeth made it to Western Kentucky University in 2006.
"Even then I had hoped that he would be the first Philippine-born player in the NBA. But we only met recently because his Filipino agent here reached out to me for skills training. The agent met me at a Fil-Am and Import showcase I organized for some pro coaches in the ABL."
Balayon's expertise has always been player and skills development, which is his main role in Caltech. When Aguilar's Filipino agent found this out, he immediately hooked both parties up.
"Flying in from Chicago to LA," Balayon recalls, "Japeth and his other American agent drove straight to my gym from LAX. So we worked out right away. The Aguilars and the agent liked what they saw so I've been his trainer since then. They brought him to other more experienced coaches that were really well-respected but when they saw that I taught the same things, they stayed with me."
The two have been working together diligently for the past few weeks. Balayon says he is training Aguilar to be a shooting forward, and as such all the drills he lines up for his client are designed to meet this goal.
"Our training is really specific to the shooting forward position," Balayon explained. "Like I mentioned earlier, me and Jap have no illusions of him becoming a star player. We just want to get in. So I'm training him to be the best role player he can be in the short amount of time we have. So we do a lot of shooting drills, and driving on a straight line, step-back jumpers. I also help him with moving without the ball for cuts and catch and shoots. He has a good jump shot. My job was to adjust micro aspects of his mechanics to make him a more efficient shooter. So basically, I'm really teaching him the basics from a 'micro level', The basics of the basics. Like I said, I'm preparing him to be a role player.
"That's the mistake of many good players: they try out to be the next Jordan when it's clear that the team already has a superstar. We'd be happy if Jap can get in as a (Thabo) Sefolosha or a Steve Novak. He can really shoot now with good mechanics. Guys like him who can hit the corner 3 are in demand in the NBA because they spread the floor for the one-on-one guys.
Aguilar recently attended an open tryout of the D-League team Bakersfield Jam, where he made it to the last 20 aspirants. Balayon revealed that the Jam wanted Aguilar to move to Bakersfield and train with them, but since they couldn't give a guaranteed contract yet, the former Talk 'N Text forward decided to stay put in LA, where another opportunity awaits.
The city's own D-League team, the LA D-Fenders, will be opening their training camp on September 29, and Aguilar is one of the few aspirants who were invited to attend. This is where the two will part ways, and where Balayon will know whether all that training he gave will pay off.
"I'm really hoping that come the 29th, I will have taught him enough to get him signed by the D-Fenders. At that point he will be training with them from then on. But he can always come back to me from time to time for refresher workouts. They really want to see him because of the feedback they got about Jap. Believe it or not, he's a really good jump shooter. We're working on making Jap a stretch guy with his jump shot.
Signing with the D-Fenders would be mutually beneficial, Balayon says. "It would be great for the Filipino community here (in Los Angeles). And also the D-Fenders had the most call-ups to the NBA last year. So they're really good at developing athletes. Aside from those teams, there are a couple more D-League teams that have expressed interest but as a trainer, I'm focused on getting him ready for the camp on the 29th."
Balayon was also on hand to help Aguilar during his workout for a couple of NBA teams a couple of weeks ago. He is not allowed to identify the teams, and the only clue he would offer was "they are two of the better Western Conference teams."
Over the weekend, Aguilar was evaluated by another NBA scout, and Balayon had a rather positive report in another e-mail to Yahoo! PH Sports.
"The workout with the NBA scout today (Saturday) went really well," Balayon wrote. "The guy is a scout for Memphis and New Orleans. Everything the scout had Japeth do, we luckily have already covered in our training. The coach had him play point guard. Luckily, we practiced that this week. I told him kasi na if he plays the small forward, there will be times when the guard is pressured so he will need to bring down the ball. He looked really good."
Getting started in coaching
Balayon's first coaching stint was one of those "right place at the right time" things. He had just finished his degree in communication arts in Ateneo de Davao when then UP coach Allan Gregorio recommended him to be an assistant coach to then UP Integrated School coach Lito Vergara. A few months later, the Junior Maroons went on to win their first UAAP juniors basketball crown. To this day, Balayon counts that championship as one of his best basketball moments, and credits Vergara for influencing his approach to skills development.
The following year, Balayon packed his bags and took on a teaching assignment in China, where he stayed for three years and was eventually recruited to play semi-pro ball. In 2006 he flew to the United States for grad school, and in 2009 was hired as an assistant coach by Pacifica College.
It was during his stint at Pacifica that Balayon truly got immersed in doing skills training. He started helping out Fil-Americans such as Leo Devera, who is now with San Sebastian's Team B, and Jerry Santos, who eventually signed up with the PBA D-League team Boracay Rhum.
Balayon also had a hand in discovering and training Fil-Am Matt Rosser Ganuelas, who is the only non-PBA player on the Smart Gilas roster in the FIBA Asia Cup, and whom Balayon said has the potential to be a rare tall point guard.
"Matt spent four years being a point A to point B point guard so his skills from high school were kind of dormant," Balayon said. "When he played for me I gave him the opportunity to be an offensive threat. He didn't disappoint me at all. I recommended that he play for Smart Gilas to remain on the radar of NBA scouts. Being a 6'6" point guard, it's possible that he can sneak into the NBA someday.
"I'm real proud of all the guys I've worked with. I'm proud of Japeth's development because he moves so differently from when he was in the PBA. Right now, other people on the NBDL level have been training or have asked to train with me."
All this should augur well for Balayon, since he shares the same dream as his most famous student.
"My goal is really to be the best assistant coach I can be. Like a skill coach for the NBDL, or God-willing, the NBA."
What about following the footsteps of Erik Spoelstra and becoming a head coach?
"I don't have the personality to be a head coach," he said, although he isn't completely shutting the door.
"Maybe later I'll change my mind."