RJ Abarrientos has been marching to the beat of his own drum.
Unlike Rhenz Abando, SJ Belangel, Justin Gutang, and Ethan Alvano, Abarrientos had only played one year of college basketball before coming to terms with the Korean Basketball League’s (KBL) Ulsan Hyundai Mobis Phoebus. It was a shocking move to say the least, as the FEU Tamaraws lost a cornerstone and the UAAP a budding star.
Perhaps the offer was too good to pass and who could blame him?
Among other things, a higher level of competition and a league that pays well are considerations great players would be foolish to dismiss, more so at a young age. Besides, the PBA can wait lest there be a what-if like that of his uncle, the great Johnny Abarrientos, who nearly had the opportunity to join the Charlotte Hornets twice (things reportedly didn’t materialize in the end unfortunately).
Abarrientos’ venture into the KBL was thus met with excitement and curiosity. Talent was never the issue with the 23-year old, but skill alone doesn’t cut it in basketball. How Abarrientos would put it all together against grown men, in a different system, and in a foreign country remained a big question prior to the start of the season.
And not only did Abarrientos respond in kind, but he also did not disappoint.
At the end of the regular season, Abarrientos averaged 13.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.4 steals in 51 games, numbers that more or less fell within his college averages (13.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.3 steals in his lone season with the Tamaraws in UAAP Season 84). Save for his free throw shooting (82.8 percent), though, Abarrientos’ shooting percentages from the field left a lot to be desired.
One can’t rely on numbers alone as Mobis needed Abarrientos as much as he needed them. Together, they racked up a 34-20 record and the fourth-seed heading into the KBL Playoffs. He was quick off the dribble, in transition, and when working with his teammates, giving Ulsan a change of pace and a bucket when the need arose. Abarrientos grew more familiar with how basketball was played in Korea as the season went on, and his performances reflected much of it.
For his efforts and the results that came with it, Abarrientos was the first Filipino to be named the 2022-2023 KBL Rookie of the Year.
Even if he wasn’t the first Filipino to play in the KBL, Abarrientos is a pioneer in his own right, given how he earned an award typically reserved for the locals. That he was an underclassman should serve as further motivation for other Filipinos to make the jump to the professional ranks once they’re ready and not necessarily seniors. One could say that Filipinos should make the jump when the right offer comes along, but one is truly ready not when they’re offered a boatload of cash, but when they can answer the demands that come with professional basketball, be it on the court or off it.
KBL and professional leagues aside, though, it’s a bit of a surprise that neither Abarrientos nor Abando or Belangel were listed in the 28-man 2023 SEA Games pool for Men’s 5×5 Basketball. However, that could likely be due to the fact the KBL playoffs will run through April and May, a development that also applies to the Filipinos plying their trade in Japan’s B.League. Abarrientos, though, should be in the discussion for Gilas Pilipinas’ future competitions (schedule be willing), given how he has shined on the international stage.
RJ Abarrientos bet on himself after one year in the UAAP and his KBL Rookie of the Year award only proves that he made a good account of himself in his first season as a professional basketball player overseas. Obviously, the best has yet to come for Abarrientos and whether or not his future will be in Korea, best believe that Abarrientos will seize the chance to make it count.