By Kevin Scheitrum, NBADLeague.com | @Scheity
The rumbling really started in 2006, when word trickled out that Japeth Aguilar, the springy Filipino kid who wouldn't stop growing – but would swat away every shot that came his way, it seemed – was set to transfer to Western Kentucky University. It grew greater the next year, when Aguilar suited up for the Hilltoppers and became the first Philippines-born player to play in NCAA Division I game. And not even the fact that he didn't even play an awful lot in two years there -- 6.4 minutes a game in two years –couldn't stop the noise from growing to a roar when Aguilar went back to his homeland and became the No. 1 pick in the 2009 Philippines Basketball Association Draft.
And 10 days ago, when Aguilar became the seventh-round selection of the Santa Cruz Warriors, inching closer toward becoming the first Filipino player to crack into the NBA, it only got louder.
By now, Aguilar's grown accustomed to the attention. For a country whose passion for the game at the highest level still exceeds its impact on it, he's The Hope. The Ticket into the most elite of clubs. But for Aguilar, there'll be time to take in the moment. Now, he's just trying to take his next step. And he's got 10 days to do it. Ten days to impress the Santa Cruz Warriors coaching staff enough to keep him around for Opening Night and, by extension, keep the NBA flame lit.
On Monday, after participating in an NBA D-League Cares event with his Santa Cruz Warriors teammates, Aguilar shared his thoughts with NBADLeague.com.
Kevin Scheitrum, NBADLeague.com: It’s been almost 10 days since you were drafted – what’s been going through your head?
Japeth Aguilar: It’s overwhelming for me, really. I was just really happy. But during the draft, actually, it was nerve-wracking. I just really thankful to have this opportunity.
NBADLeague.com: Where were you watching the Draft?
Aguilar: I actually wasn’t watching it. I was so nervous that my parents were the ones watching it. I was watching an NBA game [laughs].
NBADLeague.com: Were you in the Philippines? Or Stateside?
Aguilar: I was in Chicago with my parents.
NBADLeague.com: So as the night went on, did you get more and more nervous that you weren’t going to get picked?
Aguilar: Yeah, that’s why it was so nerve-wracking for me, because it was the next-to-last round. There were only eight rounds, and when I got picked it was a huge sigh of relief. I was like, ‘I don’t have to worry about it [anymore].’
NBADLeague.com: Was there fear it wasn’t gonna happen?
Aguilar: Yeah, there was. But I was just positive. I was thinking like worst-case scenario, if I’m not gonna get picked, I’m gonna move on with my basketball career.
NBADLeague.com: What would you have done?
Aguilar: I don’t really know. I’d have stayed here in the States and try to go to camps and stuff and just work on my game and keep training, and then maybe next go back to the Philippines. There are three conferences in the Philippines, and the second one starts in March. I was thinking I’d go back and play for the second conference.
NBADLeague.com: Would that have felt like a step back?
Aguilar: It would have been disappointing, yeah, but you know what, I at least I had the chance to do it. I was just probably gonna move on, and I thank God he gave me the chance. I was just gonna move on.
NBADLeague.com: So, alright, hours go by you finally hear your name. How crazy was that moment?
Aguilar: Uhh [laughs]. My parents were really emotional. My dad was shouting in our house, “Thank you, thank you, thank you Lord.” He was thanking God. My mom, she had tears in her eyes. This is the highest level of basketball I’ve reached.
NBADLeague.com: So you played at Western Kentucky first before going back home. How do you feel like you showed yourself?
Aguilar: When I was in Western Kentucky I didn’t really have that great of a college career, and I would’ve tried out for the D-League because they had an open tryout and I also tried out there, but I felt like I wasn’t really ready so I went back to the Philippines. There, I had the opportunity there to play for the National Team. I had a lot of experience playing overseas, too, because we traveled a lot. We played countries like Lebanon, Jordan, teams from Europe and Serbia, so it was really a great experience for me.
After my stint in the National Team I played for a professional team in the Philippines called Talk N Text, and I played there for one year. Then my contract was expiring and I thought about not renewing because I wanted to go back here to America to play basketball.
NBADLeague.com: What about you, and what about your game is different from the first time you were here?
Aguilar: In offense, I read the situation better than before. Also on defense. Really, the stuff about playing in the Philippines is that it taught me how to read the situation better. That’s where I’ve improved.
Also, I never stopped working in my game. I keep working on my jump shots, I think that’s improved also. Also, my strength. I’ve kept working on it. I want to be stronger and more athletic.
NBADLeague.com: How much did you grow up, playing pro ball in the Philippines?
Aguilar: I think I learned a lot. I played with a lot of veterans also. I played against some ex-NBA players in my stint with the National Team. In the pros, everyone in every position they’re really – what do you call it -- lethal. Once you make a mistake you’re gonna pay for it. Even a small mistake can cost you the game at the end.
NBADLeague.com: People don’t realize how fanatical Filipinos are about basketball. What do you tell people when you describe the basketball culture there?
Aguilar: Philippines is No. 1. You will ask a Filipino about NBA and he knows it. They’re really connected. I think the Philippines is the No. 2 Twitter follower. They don’t get left behind. Even though they’re on the other side of the world, they’re not left-out in basketball. They love the NBA, and they also do NBA fantasy and stuff. They’re crazy, crazy into basketball. It’s basketball and boxing in the Philippines.
NBADLeague.com: People have long attached their hopes to you of getting a Filipino player into the NBA. Did that take you a long time to accept?
Aguilar: For me, I just want to concentrate and focus on playing basketball and the things I want to accomplish. Then again, in the Philippines, this is the first time it’s happening, so it’s a big deal for basketball followers in the Philippines. So that’s when the pressure comes in. Everyone wants to know how I’m doing. But when you get older you get more mature [so I can handle it more]. I’m really working hard.
I also don’t want to let them down. I’m gonna do the best I can.
NBADLeague.com: Was it exciting for you, or would you rather not have the attention?
Aguilar: It’s like putting – what do you call it – it’s putting you under the microscope. It’s like that. Before, when I was young, I made a lot of mistakes and stuff. I was kind of enjoying the Philippines instead of really focusing on basketball.
But when I was the first pick, that’s when the pressure came. And growing up, you become more mature, and you figure out that you have to really focus on your career and work hard.
NBADLeague.com: So the pressure really started when you went No. 1?
Aguilar: Filipinos expected really high things for me. When I didn’t really live up to their expectations, that’s when criticism came. That’s the turning point. I know I can do it. I just really need to be focused and work.
NBADLeague.com: So now you’re here, in camp. How exciting have the first few days been?
Aguilar: I’m enjoying every moment of it. The place is nice over here in Santa Cruz. The fact that we’re single-affiliated means you have to grab the opportunity and love your job and just keep working harder.
NBADLeague.com: Do you think you are a person who’s gonna play in the NBA?
Aguilar: I mean, it’s everyone’s dream to play in the NBA. It’s really hard to get to the NBA, but I’m willing to pay the price to have a chance to play in the NBA.
NBADLeague.com: What do you bring to a team now?
Aguilar: That’s a great question. I’m committed to the team. I’m willing to do anything. I believe that I can do it. It’s just a matter of working hard. I had the experience playing overseas. I’ve been around basketball for a long time. I think I can really help the team in any aspect.
NBADLeague.com: What are your biggest skills?
Aguilar: Running, blocking shots and mid-range jumpers.
NBADLeague.com: How about weaknesses?
Aguilar: I really want to work on my strength. Some of the more hefty guys, they’re stronger.
NBADLeague.com: Anything else?
Aguilar: I still need to make the cut [laughs]. And I’m still working hard.