Imagine this: spitfire point guard Aljun Melecio bringing the ball down on offense for the DLSU Green Archers, asking for a screen from big man Ben Mbala, and handing him the leather. Mbala, with the ball beyond the three-point line, sees his defender backing off, awaiting the inevitable strong drive to the basket.
Only Mbala doesn’t take a dribble. Instead, he pulls up from downtown.
Before shaking your head at the possibility, realize this: that’s exactly what DLSU coach Aldin Ayo plans to do.
“Si Ben, we always tell him to do new things, kasi yung bata grabe yung work ethic,” Ayo said last Saturday following La Salle’s season-opening win against FEU.
“So we might convert him to 3 spot when he comes back. He can play 2, 3, 4, 5 for us now because of the skill sets he developed.”
Mbala missed his team’s first game of the season because he’s currently participating in the 2017 FIBA Afrobasket tournament for his home country, Cameroon. Impressively, Mbala has been the best player for his national squad and one of the best in the entire competition.
Through three games, the reigning UAAP MVP is averaging 18.3 points and 9 rebounds a game while shooting 47% from the field. He’s also hit 5 three-pointers, averaging 31% for the tournament. Cameroon is currently 2-1 and will face Nigeria in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
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“Thank you, Lord, may LeBron James na kami. Malaking bagay yun. LeBron James ng Pilipinas si Ben,” said teammate Kib Montalbo about the potential an improved Mbala brings.
“Lagi namin pinapanood yung highlights niya. We’re happy for him,” he later added.
Up next for La Salle is NU, a team with a new import in Issa Gaye who will present problems for the Green Archers if Mbala is unable to return in time for the game. Abu Tratter played well against FEU – showing an improved skill set himself – but DLSU will need all the help it can get, especially from someone like Mbala, to beat the new-look Bulldogs.
“Depende sa resulta nang game nila, pero ang sabi niya kung wala mang yari duon, he might be back before NU,” Ayo said about Mbala’s availability.
If Mbala and Cameroon advance past the quarterfinals, the semifinals will take place the next day on Friday, and the finals will be on Saturday – the same day DLSU takes on NU. The Afrobasket games are taking place in Tunis, Tunisia, which is a 17-and-a-half hour flight from Manila.
The Bulldogs, now led by former San Beda head coach Jamike Jarin, won their season-opener against UE. Both Ayo and Jarin have competitive history, since Ayo’s Letran Knights defeated Jarin’s Red Lions in the 2015 NCAA men’s basketball finals. But with how Ayo spoke of Jarin, it’s clear there’s mutual respect between both coaches.
“I really respect coach Jamike. Everything that he says, everything that he does has a purpose,” Ayo said.
“He’s very competitive, and minsan nga pag titingnan mo yung mga ginagawa ni Coach Jamike, he’s very creative,” he later added.
Montalbo also said that DLSU is right now focusing on how to beat NU, even if it means having to play them without Mbala.
“As of now, what we’re focusing is one game at a time. We don’t focus kailan babalik si Ben. What we’ll focus is kung ano meron saamin now and we’ll deal with it. So next game is NU. So NU muna.”
But Montalbo also said that, “once he’s (Mbala) down here, he’s going to work hard again, kasi goal namin is to win the championship and win it back to back.”