The Phoenix Fuel Masters began and ended its season with huge changes. The first big move was luring former Alaska assistant coaches Louie Alas and Topex Robinson over to the Phoenix camp. Alas was hired as head coach, replacing Ariel Vanguardia. Alas and Robinson presented a new era in Phoenix basketball, one that would be defined with an emphasis on defense and high-pressure trapping.
The team also struck gold in the draft, nabbing blue chip prospect Jason Perkins from the La Salle Green Archers. Perkins fit an immediate need for the Fuel Masters, as the team lacked rebounders and inside scorers to complement Matthew Wright and RJ Jazul in the perimeter.
But the Fuel Masters weren't done wheeling and dealing, especially after two subpar conferences wherein they failed to make it to the playoffs. In perhaps the most shocking move of the season, Phoenix and the Alaska Aces pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Calvin Abueva to the Fuel Masters in exchange for Karl Dehesa and a future first round pick.
Calvin Abueva came in and immediately revitalized the Fuel Masters after a Philippine Cup and Commissioner's Cup campaign that went nowhere.
Despite having talented pieces in Wright and Perkins playing alongside veterans RJ Jazul and JC Intal, things never seemed to click on the floor for the Fuel Masters. Perhaps it was a result of still learning the ropes under Alas, but whatever the case may be, the results weren't encouraging. The Fuel Masters stumbled to a 9th and 10th place finish in the first two conferences, crashing out early from the competition.
But there were encouraging signs heading into the Governors' Cup. The first one came in the midst of the Commissioner's Cup, as import Eugene Phelps was signed mid-conference to replace the ineffective James White. Though the move didn't translate to many wins, Phelps was able to develop chemistry with the team, giving them momentum and familiarity heading into the season-ending conference.
Abueva electrified the Fuel Masters at the start of the Governors' Cup. Finally Alas had the game changer he coveted. Abueva was relentless on offense, and was always eager to push the pace and attack in transition. He developed chemistry with everyone on the team, and made sure that there would be no drop-off when the bench unit played.
There were immediate results. Phoenix finished with the best record in franchise history, grabbing eight wins in the Governors' Cup. Phelps was dominant and became a candidate for Best Import of the Conference. With Abueva in the fold, Wright was able to develop his all-around game, averaging career high in assists. Perkins continued to chug along as the team's most reliable big man and is a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year.
Though Phoenix bombed out in the playoffs despite having a twice-to-beat advantage, the future is bright for this squad. They should be one of the most exciting teams to watch next season.
What they need
The Fuel Masters are projected to have a pick in the middle of the first round, due to their 10th and 8th place finish in the first two conferences. The immediate need for the team is a reliable big man, as well as a small forward that can shoot and defend. Most teams will be in the hunt for a center but there are very few prospects here.
Phoenix could take a good look at prospects like San Beda's Javee Mocon and National University's Matt Salem. Averaging 12.7 points and 9.3 in the ongoing NCAA season, Mocon is a solid forward, in the mold of Intal who would be a perfect mentor for the Red Lion.
Salem would be a solid selection as well for his ability to shoot the basketball. The Fuel Masters averaged a league-low in three-pointers in the Governors' Cup, and they need shooters to make up for their lack of ceiling. Salem would be a good pick if they want some size and scoring.
Additionally, they could also look to add to their battalion of point guards. Though that would create an ever bigger logjam at the point, Phoenix could roll the dice on Trevis Jackson, a combo guard that can shoot and penetrate, and slide Wright to the small forward position.
Whichever direction they go in the draft, Phoenix remains an intriguing team because of their legitimate big three in Wright, Perkins and Abueva. With an entire offseason to familiarize and get better with each other, the Fuel Masters will hardly be pushovers come the Philippine Cup next season.