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With help of uncle Johnny, RJ Abarrientos emerges as leader for Gilas cadets

RJ Abarrientos is one of the youngest players in the Gilas Pilipinas pool - be that in age or in experience. In fact, the nephew of Philippine basketball legend Johnny Abarrientos is yet to play a single second at the collegiate level.

Still, the point guard has been one of the more vocal leaders in the national team's training sessions and his voice often stands out in a pool that includes PBA draftees as well as UAAP champions and veterans.

That's because doing so is nothing new to Abarrientos who was a firsthand witness to "The Flying A's" leadership. So in Calamba, Laguna, he has been given an important role despite being one of the newest members of the squad.

"Coach Tab [Baldwin] gave me an opportunity to guide the other players because not everyone will be vocal," shared the 5-foot-11 guard in Filipino. "We need to build our character and communication because we haven't been teammates for a long time. Coach Tab told me I needed to lead and that he didn't care if I'm one of the younger players here."

"He said he needed my effort to help lead the team by my commitment to the program. That's why my confidence is so high," he continued.

That means, however, that there's greater pressure on Abarrientos to quickly learn Baldwin's system for him to become a leader on the floor.

"Along with that leadership role is the pressure to learn the system quickly," admitted the 21-year-old. "All guards will understand how difficult it is because we cannot lead the team if we don't understand the system. We need to set an example for our teammates. They need to see that we know what's right so they'll follow our lead."

Fortunately for Abarrientos, his teammates aren't keen on playing the seniority card. The ego goes out the door once Gilas, as a single unit, walks into the gym.

"The good thing is that even the older players listen. When I tell them we need to do something to help the team, they trust me," exclaimed the young playmaker. "We're a young team, most of us are new, so we need to build the team through communication and just creating more chemistry by just being around each other."

Even better for Abarrientos, he has long gotten used to great expectations. After all, uncle Johnny is arguably the finest point guard Philippine basketball has ever produced - and they share the same surnames at the back of their jerseys.

"There will always be pressure carrying the name Abarrientos, but it has been a part of my life. When people say Abarrientos, they're talking about one of the best players in PBA history," remarked the FEU Tamaraw-in-waiting. "For me, I just focus on doing my part to help my team. People tell me that I'll have to play to the level of my uncle, but I try not to think about it too much. I just want to enjoy the game."

According to Abarrientos, there's a huge advantage in learning from the legendary point guard, but said that he also had to prove to be worthy of it.

"My uncle has tips for me. He guides me and tells me about his routine. When he calls me, he asks how I am, he asks how the team is doing, and he gives me 'tito' (old-timer) tips," he said. "When I wasn't that serious yet with basketball, our relationship was not like this, but lately, he's seeing that I'm really serious about it."

"Since I committed to FEU and now that I am with Gilas, I can feel his presence more. We're communicating more and I'm learning more from him," he added.

The 1996 MVP and 12-time champion has a wealth of knowledge to share from his long career that ultimately thrust him into rare air as one of the PBA's 25 Greatest Players. However, he also wanted to see that his nephew shared the same love for basketball before extending a helping hand.

"I think he wanted to assure that I was committed to basketball 100% before he also committed to helping me. He wants to see my focus on basketball and my studies," detailed the next generation Abarrientos. "If he sees that you take care of your body, you play well, you study hard, you do extra work, you give basketball the time and the love it deserves, then he'll invest in you."