After missing 11 games, Taane Samuel was finally back in action for the De La Salle Green Archers.
The 6-foot-8 reinforcement from New Zealand competed in his first full game Sunday versus the Ateneo Blue Eagles after missing time because of a Jones fracture in his left foot. He registered eight points and three rebounds in 17 minutes of play in La Salle's 62-71 loss to its rival.
"It was definitely tough especially since it's an Ateneo-La Salle game," Samuel said on his return. "I'm just doing what I can there, just trying to stay as calm as possible and do what I can to just get us into a Final Four spot."
Samuel, who came into the league with big shoes to fill due to the departure of two-time MVP Ben Mbala, was sidelined in La Salle's season opener, playing only five minutes in the loss to the FEU Tamaraws. After missing more than two months' worth of action, he was immediately tested and pitted against Ateneo's formidable frontline.
"I actually got told yesterday (Saturday) that I was actually gonna play. Before that, I was just told that I'm gonna be running and jogging, I'm just really happy to be playing," he shared, mentioning that his foot has fully healed. "My rehab is going well, not 100 percent, but maybe after a couple of weeks I'll be good."
Although Samuel provided solid minutes, his reentry to the roster served as a double-edged sword for the Green Archers. On one hand, adding a player with Samuel's caliber can only bring positive things for La Salle in the long run. A quick big-bodied center who isn't afraid to get physical in the paint should fit perfectly with the Archers' frontcourt.
"I have to find a way to insert Taane and take the opportunity," head coach Louie Gonzalez said. "I wanted to take the opportunity for him to play because he's vital in our team. I know he'll be a big help."
On the other hand, his sudden insertion into the lineup seemingly threw off La Salle's rotation.
In Samuel's absence, La Salle relied on Justine Baltazar, Santi Santillan, and Joaqui Manuel up front and usually extended playing time to Brandon Bates and Mark Dyke. On Saturday, it was the first time that Gonzalez had all his big men at his disposal. As a result, his team had trouble getting a feel of the game.
"That's the story throughout the season - a player would miss time, another player would return," Gonzalez said in Filipino. "Every time someone new enters, we kind of rock the boat. Before, you don't need to tell a player he's the next man up because he already knew he was going in next. They were still feeling things out. But we're still positive because each guy knows that Taane will really help us."
The Archers need to move fast and get used to having Samuel back in the rotation. At the same time, the Kiwi center will have to quickly adjust after his injury and become a significant contributor for La Salle.
"I'm kind of used to the physicality, coming into the rugby background before basketball. If someone pushes, I'll push back, I mean it's nothing new to me, I'll just keep matching and keep trying to play like how they play," the 19-year-old said about the nature of his first game. "The speed is a lot faster, especially coming from New Zealand where the pace is a lot slower. We try to stay calm with everything. That's what I need to adjust to."
The Archers have one game left in the second round and it's a highly crucial one versus the UP Fighting Maroons. If they win, they finally clinch a postseason berth and end up as the third seed with a 9-5 record. A loss, on the other hand, will hurt their chances especially if the FEU Tamaraws win their last assignment against the Adamson Falcons. This scenario will forge a three-way tie that will push UP to number three due to its superior quotient, while La Salle and FEU will have to play a knockout match for the last semifinal slot.
"Hopefully I find my groove in the next game or maybe in the next few training sessions," Samuel said. "These games are gonna be big for us to get our team chemistry right up to the standard that we need to compete up to the finals."