The desire to add more size and ability to an already vaunted roster resulted in Ateneo landing a pair of big offseason recruits in Fil-American talents Kai Ballungay and Andrew Bongo.
The team's top brass, led by head coach Tab Baldwin, coach Dean Castano, and team manager Epok Quimpo unveiled the new UAAP commits in a virtual press conference Monday.
The 6-foot-7 Ballungay will redshirt for a year after transferring from NCAA Division II school California State University, Stanislaus and will be available to play for Ateneo in Season 85.
Meanwhile, the 6-foot-4 Bongo can jump into collegiate action straight away in the upcoming Season 84.
"We're really excited, and these are both really high-quality basketball players. They've proven themselves in the U.S at the high school level, with Kai having a year of university under his belt. A lot of people here haven't seen much of these guys but obviously, we're bringing more size into the program," Baldwin said.
Ballunggay, 19, saw action alongside projected 2021 NBA Draft lottery pick Jalen Green over at FilAm Sports in the 2019 edition of the NBTC Finals, where he averaged 19.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game.
Before that, he played for Kimball High School in Tracy, California and later committed to play for Stanislaus. He suited up for 24 games in his first year with the Warriors and was effective in limited minutes, averaging 2.5 points on 47 percent shooting from the field along with 1.9 rebounds in 6.8 minutes
He sat out his second year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and later made the decision to continue his amateur basketball career in the Philippines.
Ballungay described his decision to play under Baldwin with Ateneo as one that is "two years in the making."
"Two years ago I was able to compete in the NBTC tournament. And during that time, I was able to showcase my abilities and really draw attention from some of the local universities out there. I was able to sit down with coach Tab and management and really talk about the possibility of playing out there," he began.
"During that time I was committed to Cal State, Stanislaus. And at that time, I kind of had tunnel vision when it came to where I was going to play at that time. But as things progressed and I played one season at Stanislaus State, and as the pandemic hit, I knew that I always wanted to come back to the Philippines."
Seeing his future Ateneo teammates play tremendously for Gilas Pilipinas in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers and the Olympic Qualifying Tournament also helped sway Ballungay into committing with the Blue Eagles.
"The amount of work that they put in on a daily basis just totally shows up on the court. And to see that caliber of talent on the court is just something that was really appealing to me. It's something I've really wanted to be a part of," he noted.
Baldwin refused to pigeonhole Ballungay into one position and described the talent as a "very complete basketball player" who, at the same time, still has a lot of room to grow moving forward.
"[Kai is] complete in the sense that he has a broad range of skills and he's athletic, he runs the floor really well, he can shoot the ball, he puts it on the floor well for a 6'7 player," he observed "But he's also incomplete in terms of the fact that he still has a lot to learn."
Baldwin added: "So it's about what we are programmed to do to help Kai, flesh out disabilities, and become the most complete player that he can rather than it is about us trying to figure out what role he will play."
On the other hand, Bongo is an 18-year-old guard coming out of Covina, California.
Bongo played for Charter Oak High School, where he averaged 22 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.3 steals and 2.2 blocks in 10 games, per MaxPreps.com.
Choosing to play for the Blue Eagles was a decision made in consideration of his growth both in and out the court, according to Bongo.
"I think Ateneo is the best school that will help me grow in every aspect, not just basketball, but school-wise as well," he said. [And] I'd say I like to try new things. I like to be under pressure, I like seeing myself become better. So I thought it was a great opportunity to take."
Bongo cited Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic as one of his idols and said he tries to play the game at a controlled pace.
"I don't play very fast. I play smart, I play controlled. I try to read every situation. I try to play like Luka. He's probably one of my favorite players. He plays a little slower but he makes the right decisions and smart plays," he shared.
But Baldwin also raved about his unselfishness and his ability to see the floor on both ends of the floor while noting that he wants Bongo to pick up the pace once he starts donning the blue and white.
"He's a kid that shoots the ball very well and he makes great decisions. He really plays the game for his teammates. You can see that in everything he does. And when he's out there on the floor, he's really committed to the whole process of what's going on in the court, he's not singular in his attentions during the game. He sees the floor extremely well. He's an exciting guy to watch because of that," Baldwin imparted.
"The defensive end of the floor is an area where, again, he sees the floor really well. We're going to ramp up his athletic ability and he will adjust to the quicker pace here. It's something that he and I have talked about, but he's ready for the challenge and I don't have any doubt about his abilities," he added.