FORMER De La Salle University standouts Jamie Malonzo and Andrei Caracut feel that the upcoming PBA Rookie Draft is the culmination of respective childhood dreams that aren't really too dissimilar from each other.
Both players have taken very different routes on their way to the pros before their paths diverged over at La Salle, where they turned their focus on making the PBA in their lone season together.
Malonzo, a projected top pick in a class filled with depth at all positions, suited up for one season with the Green Archers after finishing his collegiate career with NCAA Division I school Portland State University.
The 6-foot-6 forward averaged 8.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in his final year with the Vikings before moving on to play in the Philippines after considering playing professional basketball in Europe.
"I just always knew that it would always be fun being able to go back home to the Philippines and eventually play in the PBA," Malonzo said Saturday on the Power & Play radio show hosted by former commissioner Noli Eala. "Coming out of college, I definitely was weighing my options. I could have gone to Spain, in Italy, in Lithuania but I figured it would mean more to me if I were to go back home and play in the Philippines and meet some of my family members that honestly I've never met before."
The decision to play in the UAAP worked wonders for Malonzo, whose play with the Green Archers propelled him to lottery pick status for the 2021 Draft. The 24-year-old averaged 15.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.0 steals in 13 games and earned a spot at the Mythical Five in a one-and-done stint.
"I played only one year, but it was just probably the time of my life. So much fun being able to relate with the people, relate with the fans," said Malonzo.
"I learned a lot, especially from guys like Andrei, Aljun Melecio, Justine Baltazar. Those guys were all champions at one point. Learning a lot from them, then just soaking it all in and just having that one year under my belt playing in the Philippines was just a little bit of a taste I needed going into the pros."
The road to the PBA was a little different for Caracut, who won a title with La Salle but dealt with four coaching changes throughout his UAAP career.
The 5-foot-8 guard played under coach Juno Sauler, Aldin Ayo and Louie Gonzales before being mentored by coach Gian Nazario and active consultant Jermaine Byrd in his last year. Caracut, however, said he was still able to take something away from each coach.
"I learned from so many coaches and players. I lost count of the number of people I've worked with, but I learned something from every single one of them," he said in Filipino. "Every coach, from coach Juno to coach Aldin to coach Louie to coach Jermaine, they imparted teachings that I was able to apply later on."
Caracut averaged 9.6 points, 4.1 assists and 2.2 rebounds in his senior year with La Salle before heading to play for Alab Pilipinas in the Asean Basketball League (ABL), where the 25-year-old guard learned a lot about being a pro player from established veterans like Jason Brickman and Justin Brownlee.
In 11 games with Alab, Caracut managed 2.5 points in 7.3 minutes before the 2019-20 season was suspended by the coronavirus pandemic.
"The Alab stint helped so much as well since the players and coaches are very skilled. Being with them really accelerated my growth and improvement," said Caracut. "I can say I'm prepared for the PBA Draft."
IT WASN'T an ideal situation, but both La Salle alumni said the pandemic helped them polish certain aspects of their game.
For Caracut, it was all about playing the point better. He found an ideal model in Brickman, who is actually fourth all-time in US NCAA assists.
"Ever since college, my coaches have really been focused on improving my passing. It's good that I was able to work with Jason because I was able to take a look at his perspective on the floor. He's a great passer," Caracut noted. "I actually still watch some of his games nowadays so I can pick up something new.
"Physically, I also have to be stronger because players in the PBA are bigger and stronger," he added. "I'm ripe for the PBA, but I can say I still have so much to learn. It's different in the league, there are a lot of adjustments to be made. But I'm prepared mentally and physically."
Malonzo, meanwhile, worked on some of his guard skills while he was staying in Las Vegas.
"With all this time we had on our hands, just the quarantine and the pandemic, it gave me a lot of time to think about the areas I needed to improve on, the areas that are weak in my game -- the ball handling, being able to take contact and finish, being able to get my teammates involved, the strength," he shared.
Both standouts are already looking forward to starting a new chapter in their basketball careers when the draft commences on Mar. 14.
"This is the culmination of my dreams since I was a kid. This is more than basketball," said Caracut. "I've waited so long for this. I'm happy whatever the result may be."
"Just being able to call myself a pro is something I've definitely been looking forward to, especially for my family," said Malonzo. "They can't wait to see me wear the Malonzo across my back in the big league. It means a lot, it means the world."
Once they get there, Malonzo and Caracut already have a couple of players they want to play with -- or against -- in the 2021 season.
"I actually have a jersey of Mark in my closet and it even has his signature on it," Caracut said. "I've managed to play against Mark during tune-up games, but I didn't play against them much. I'd love to play against them more next time."
Malonzo added: "I was watching the bubble and there were guys like Paul Lee, Matthew Wright, Stanley Pringle -- I loved watching those guys during that bubble period. As far as guarding, I'm not going to say nothing. But I also want to get matched on Beau Belga."