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Arvin Tolentino's Outstanding Rookie nomination a validation of the work he put in

Despite all the praise thrown his way throughout his rookie year, the focus for Barangay Ginebra rookie Arvin Tolentino was always on the bigger picture.

Thanks to that selfless approach -- which, of course, helped produce the Gin Kings' first PBA Philippine Cup title in 13 years -- Tolentino now finds himself on the cusp of joining esteemed company with a nomination for the 2020 Outstanding Rookie Award.

"To be honest, during the season it never crossed my mind. My mindset was all about wanting to help my team win," Tolentino told ESPN5.com.

"But when I was nominated, I was very happy because you only get one chance to win a rookie award in your career. And that also meant that I was able to perform well and repay the trust given to me by my coaches and teammates even though I was just a rookie."

Tolentino, who also won a Rookie of the Year citation in his first season with Ateneo in the UAAP, joins Aaron Black of Meralco, Barkley Eboña of Alaska, Aris Dionisio of Magnolia, and Roosevelt Adams of TerraFirma in contention for the award.

It's not exactly the same award traditionally given to PBA freshmen as the league decided to do away with the traditional ROY trophy, but a win would make Tolentino just the fifth player in franchise history to win the highest honor for a rookie after Greg Slaughter (2013), Mark Caguioa (2001), Marlou Aquino (1996), Dondon Ampalayo (1986) and Willie Generalao (1980).

"It's really an honor to be a candidate of this season's Outstanding Rookie. It would be a perfect bonus to close out my rookie career," said Tolentino.

Playing amid the coronavirus pandemic was certainly not the most ideal way to start off a professional career. For the newly-married Tolentino, that meant being distanced from his family in favor of living a life purely dedicated to the game for more than two months inside the bubble in Clark, Pampanga.

"It's hard because I was far from my family. Me and my wife just got married in July 2020 but we had to deal with separation early on," he explained. "Second, the schedules were so tight. We had to play every other day, sometimes back-to-back. Then you also had to practice. It was exhausting. And you can't do the things that you're used to doing outside the bubble. Your routines changed."

Naturally, that setup had its benefits. As a rookie in a new environment and with a lot to work on, Tolentino was able to focus on adding new facets to his game while integrating himself completely with the rest of the team.

"I was really able to focus more on basketball and improving my game because you had nothing else to think about but basketball. If I wasn't busy doing anything, I watched our games and I looked at both my mistakes and my highlights," shared Tolentino. "And our team bonded. We were able to know each other better, especially us rookies because we're just new to the team. I think that helped with our chemistry."

Coach Tim Cone was probably Tolentino's biggest advocate, with the two-time Grand Slam coach often going on record to rave about the 25-year-old's skillset and guts. After Game 1 of the best-of-seven finals against TNT, Cone had this to say about Tolentino, who sent the game into overtime with a late layup in regulation: "The thing I like about Arvin is that he's fearless. He's not afraid of taking shots, or driving to the basket. He's absolutely fearless. He's fearless of me, he's fearless of the game."

That may be one of the biggest reasons Cone didn't seem to hesitate to throw Tolentino into the fire immediately despite his natural preference for playing veterans over rookies. Inside the bubble, the 6-foot-5 forward played more minutes per game (15.3) than Joe Devance (13.7) and Jeff Chan (14.4) and started 15 times in 21 games, the fourth-highest mark within the team.

"I'm a student of the game and coach Tim is like a teacher to me. Everyday I learn something new from him. He helps me a lot, down to the smallest things in basketball. Sometimes when he talks to me I feel like I don't really know anything about basketball because I find out that there are more to things that I already know," said Tolentino. "And when he talks, I always make sure that I listen with both ears and absorb them. He corrects me if I'm doing something wrong, and he also lets me know if I've done something good."

With the exception of a very few names, rookies tend to be pretty inefficient scorers. Tolentino wasn't any different in this case; in the All-Filipino Conference, he averaged 4.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.7 assists on 30.6 percent shooting from the field, including a paltry 24.6 percent mark from long range.

However, a lot of these struggles can simply be attributed to a positional shift and a change in his shot diet, with Cone emphasizing the need for Tolentino to get more shots as a wingman moving more off the ball instead of playing the spot-up power forward role that he was used to for most of his collegiate career.

"At first, I struggled because I had to transition into being a small forward after playing as a big man my entire collegiate career. I had to move more than before. I worked on that in the offseason, during the pandemic -- getting shots off the move, off the screen," Tolentino explained.

"Me and coach Tim actually worked on it exclusively, especially when the PBA allowed practices. He's the one who really pushed me to get used to the fact that these are the shots that I'm going to get instead of the usual pick-and-pop and spot-up shots that I got in college. I have to come off screens, I have to shoot off the dribble and off movement, especially since our offense is really predicated on movement."

Getting a lot of minutes to go with a lot of reps definitely helped. In five games where he played 20 minutes or more, Tolentino's numbers rose to a more respectable 11.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists on 37.7 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent from downtown.

"[Cone] also noticed that I was rushing my shots, so we worked on drills to get my rhythm. It worked, and I was able to adjust in the second half of the season," said Tolentino.

"He always tells me that if I have it, don't think twice -- shoot it. It's a big boost for my confidence knowing that I have coach Tim's trust, and for my part I have to repay that by playing well and helping our team win."

Tolentino is bound to get better in his sophomore season. Free throw shooting is usually a good indicator to see whether or not a player can extend his range, and the rookie holds a lot of promise that regard after hitting a healthy 83.3 percent of his foul shots in his first season.

Then there's also the matter of Tolentino improving his defense against both wings and bigs, which the forward says is the main focus this offseason. Helping him in that aspect is assistant coach Freddie Abuda.

"I want to be a lot better on that end," he said. "I'm happy because coach Freddie Abuda is guiding me. We all know coach Freddie, 'The Scavenger'. He's an excellent defender. He's always there to give me tips on how to defend.

"I have to be better at defending wings and bigs. Coach Freddie can defend both wings and big, and him teaching me is just a perfect situation for me right now."

With one title in his bag and with endless possibilities ahead of him, Tolentino's confidence is sky-high.

"I'm confident," he said when asked about developing more in his sophomore season. "When I do get the opportunity during games, I carry that confidence in the fact that I worked on my game in the offseason, so I have no reason to doubt myself."

"Hopefully all my hard work pays off coming in the next season. We'll see."

The PBA's 45th season Special Awards will be held on Jan. 17 and will be shown live on TV5 and streamed on ESPN5.com starting at 6:00 p.m.