LOS ANGELES, California – When training camps opened last October 1, many Filipino basketball fans were disappointed to see that former top PBA draft pick Japeth Aguilar was not included in the roster of any NBA team.
Two months ago, Aguilar spurned a return to the PBA for a shot at his dream of playing in the top basketball league in the world.
Despite working out with at least three NBA teams – including the San Antonio Spurs and the New Orleans Hornets – Aguilar did not get an invite to training camp.
The former Ateneo Blue Eagles and Western Kentucky Hilltopper now has set his sights on making one of the NBA’s Development League (D-League) teams.
"We understand that it's a process," said Chris McGarry, who is one of two agents handling Aguilar. "Japeth is an unknown player from thousands of miles away. We understand that he has to prove himself."
"We are willing to do the hard work to get him there. Japeth is willing to improve his game and he's ready to go through the process of playing in the D-League and working his way up to the NBA," he added.
With so much attention on Aguilar and his historic pursuit over the past month and a half, many Filipinos were hopeful that he would receive an invite from an NBA team, even from one that is starving for publicity.
At one point in September, Aguilar's name was ranked No. 2 in the "top searched basketball player" in the world ranking of Rotoworld.com, behind only Dwight Howard.
Despite not getting an invitation, Aguilar said he is not disappointed with how things turned out.
"I'm still going to do the same routine," Aguilar said after a workout with the Santa Cruz Warriors of the D-League. "I'm going to keep working hard everyday. The D-League is what I'm aiming for right now. There's no disappointment."
"I'm trying to enjoy this as much as possible. I'm really happy," he added. "The experience has been good."
Aguilar said he hopes to hear his name called in the D-League draft in November.
Workout with D-League teams
Aguilar worked out with a D-League team based in the West Coast last September 29, and last Sunday, officials from the Santa Cruz Warriors, the D-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors, invited him to participate in the team's open tryouts.
McGarry said Aguilar was one of 40 to 45 players competing in the Golden State Warriors' facility in Oakland, California.
"Japeth did really well. He hit a couple of threes, he blocked shots, he rebounded. He's performing well," said McGarry, who watched Aguilar's two training sessions on October 7.
McGarry added that Aguilar has at least “one or two more workouts with an NBA D-League team somewhere in the Midwest next week.”
"October 20 is the last day of the D-League tryouts. November is the draft. We're hoping Japeth gets an opportunity that he’s been waiting for and work his way up," he said.
Aguilar said that the most important part of his journey of working out in front of NBA scouts and competing in open tryouts is that now, NBA and NBA D-League officials have him in their radar.
"They know me now," he said.
"That's part of this process. All that working out with those teams was to see how he walks, jumps, shoots, plays defense. He was an unknown players," McGarry said. "No one in the NBA really knew anything about Japeth."
"Now, look at him. He's gone farther than any other Filipino baller has ever had," he added.
McGarry said it was a "privilege" for Aguilar to have worked out in front of the NBA scouts.
"It's been an honor for him to be given this chance. Now, he knows to get there to the NBA, it takes a lot of hard work. Watching all of this, we have more respect now for the NBA teams and the players who make it to the league," he said.
Developing his game
One of the biggest knocks on Aguilar through all his workouts is that the slim, 215-pound Filipino is "not aggressive enough" on the court. Standing at 6-foot-9, Aguilar is considered a tweener – small for a power forward yet not quick enough to play small forward.
Aguilar is hoping to change that. Over the past month and a half, he has worked on developing the mental aspect of his game.
"In my mind, I'm telling myself I can compete with anyone with my talent," he said. "So far, I've been working hard. There are a lot of improvements in my game."
"I'm learning from players competing here in the US. In the Philippines, they are not really athletic but they are mentally sound," he added. "Everyday, I'm motivated to improve. Every time I work out, I want to get better."
"I'm more excited than nervous. I'm really pushing myself. Before, I wasn't like that. Now, there's hunger. Everyday I'm thinking, I'm hungrier and hungrier to get better."
This is evident when he steps on the court. He explains that before, it would take him "a while to get started," especially when he played in the Philippines but he has now seen the errors of his way.
"I'm starting every game mad, galit, galit na ako," he said while explaining the magnitude of his pursuit. "What I'm aiming for is not ordinary. It's hard. There are a lot of players I'm competing against here that are good. I need an edge."
Message to fans
If he weren't in the US training, there's a good chance Aguilar would be on the PBA's Talk 'N Text squad. He still keeps tabs on how the team is doing and is really excited that "the PBA is blowing up," and doing a great job of promoting himself.
Aguilar admits that he misses playing in the Philippines.
"Actually, for the fans, I miss it. But right now, I'm liking my situation. I have a chance to improve here in America and follow my dream," he said.
Aguilar is hopeful that Filipino fans understand what he is trying to accomplish.
"I devoted myself to basketball my whole life. I'm really focused. All I really do is workout and sleep. That's it. That's all I do," he said. "For me, I'm just focused on my life right now. I'm just being patient."