Rejuvenated Vic Manuel a picture of optimism for reloaded Phoenix Fuel Masters

Vic Manuel is happy and relieved that his situation with Alaska has been resolved. Ernie Sarmiento

The relief was palpable on Vic Manuel's face when he opened up about the sign-and-trade deal on Tuesday that brought him from Alaska to Phoenix.

"I'm happy," he said in Filipino during a Zoom call on Wednesday. "I'm excited. This is a fresh start for me."

"It's still difficult on my part to leave Alaska because I stayed for seven years there. But I just wanted to refresh myself. I wanted a different ambiance, a different environment," added Manuel.

A fruitful seven-season relationship dissipated into a six-week standoff between Manuel and the Aces, who managed to trade away the forward by packaging him in a deal that involved guard Brian Heruela, picks swaps and a future first-round pick.

Instead of dragging the whole situation longer than it should have been in order to retain Manuel, Alaska, according to the new Phoenix acquisition, put all its focus on finding a suitable trade partner so that both parties could finally move forward.

"I was just waiting for updates, really," Manuel shared. "They just focused on granting my wish to be traded. I think this is the best possible solution. I was the one who asked for a trade for them, and they didn't force me to stay. They just granted my wish. I'm happy."

It's almost a dream situation for Manuel. In Phoenix, he is reunited with former Alaska teammates in Chris Banchero, Jake Pascual and RJ Jazul. He's also on the same side again with Matthew Wright, a dear teammate from that 2019 Southeast Asian Games team that swept the tournament to clinch gold.

More importantly, Manuel gets to work again with coach Topex Robinson, his very first coach at the professional level. Robinson coached a young Manuel in the very first season of the PBA D-League, where both pushed Pacific Pipes to a quarterfinals appearance.

"He just told me to play my game," Manuel said of his meeting with Robinson on Wednesday. "He said he missed some aspects of my game that I wasn't able to showcase in Alaska."

The only factor that prevented this deal from becoming perfect for Manuel was the fact that he won't be able to play with Calvin Abueva. Phoenix was reportedly on the 33-year-old big man's trade wishlist because of Abueva, who was traded by the Fuel Masters six days before consummating the deal with Alaska.

"It was a bit disappointing because I wanted to play with him again. We missed each other by a couple of days -- coach Topex also told me that earlier. But that's the life of a player," he said. "I'm still looking forward to playing against him, but this time I'm with his former team. It's still exciting."

Now that the worries from the last month are behind him, Manuel can now firmly set his focus on the future, where expectations of surpassing Phoenix's ceiling await. In order to do that, he has to familiarize himself in a new environment that consists of players who are just as capable at creating their own offense like Manuel.

Manuel says all the team needs is a full off-season to get the chemistry part of the equation down.

"I just need to get used to their system," he said. "I hope we're also able to practice fully soon so we can prepare better, play longer and get more familiar with each other and the plays so that in actual games, we're comfortable with each other. The offseason matters -- if we have a good one, we'll have a good season and we'll play better in actual games."

"I don't think I'll have a difficult time adjusting with the big guys in Alaska who play the same position as me. And I think I can understand the plays they'll be running pretty quickly. It won't take long. My mind's always focused on the job," Manuel continued.

In his final year with Alaska, Manuel averaged a team-high 15.6 points on 44.4 percent shooting, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists while helping the Aces reach the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup semifinals. With Phoenix, Manuel will have to match -- or improve on -- that production in order to fill the void left by Abueva.

But Manuel acknowledges it won't be easy. Abueva, who earned a nomination for the Best Player of the Conference award at the end of the season, was a force and averaged 15.4 points on 45.6 percent shooting, 11.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.7 steals in his return from suspension.

"(Coach Topex) told me to be thick-faced like Calvin," Manuel shared with a laugh. "(But) Calvin's different. They went to the semifinals with Calvin last conference, and we all know what Calvin does for a team -- his energy and hustle are different. It's difficult to match that level of play."

Manuel is more than capable of forging his own path. Offensively, he gives Phoenix an extra dimension in the low post as a capable scorer.

"We didn't really have that presence in the post. Justin (Chua) was big for us, but he pretty much fed off from the outside. Having that post-up, that's going to create a lot of double teams. If not, that's going to be a big opportunity for Vic Manuel to really step up. He's been solid in the bubble," Robinson said on Wednesday's episode of The Game on ONE News.

Aside from that, Robinson said the nine-year veteran is already in line for a mentorship role over the young Fuel Masters frontcourt.

"Vic still has a good few more years in this tank, and he's excited to pretty much be on a different team now after serving Alaska well for the past seven years. It's a huge thing for us to have Vic," said Robinson. "He [said he] was excited to play alongside Jason Perkins. Vic, right now, is in the mentorship stage, and we're happy that Jason is there to really learn a lot from Vic Manuel."

Manuel, for his part, is more than ready to embrace that opportunity.

"Of course I'm definitely going to share my experience and my abilities, because if (Jason's) able to apply those, that's gonna be huge for us. We all know how skilled he is; if he's going to be more effective in the post, that's going to be huge for Phoenix. That goes for Justin and the other big guys as well," he explained.

Despite a busy offseason, it's still a little hard to predict where Phoenix will end up at the end of every conference. For all of the talent that the Fuel Masters have on paper, Manuel understands that other powerhouse teams still present a real and different challenge come game time.

But Manuel remains optimistic.

"It's difficult to look too far ahead," he said, (but) I think we do have a chance to go far with this group."

"I'm going to give my 100 percent to be able to help Phoenix. We have a goal, and as players we want to win each game," he added. "We all know how strong Ginebra and San Miguel are. But we don't have any other option but to fight. As long as we can give ourselves a chance to beat them, why not try?"