A few weeks ago, I made the trip over to the Warriors practice facility in downtown Oakland to sit in on the open tryouts that the Santa Cruz Warriors were holding. The gym was packed with 40 or so hopefuls wanting to take the first step towards achieving the ultimate dream of playing in the NBA. But before playing alongside the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant, they would have to do enough to impress the brass of the Warriors’ D-League affiliate. If they were one of the lucky few to make an impression, there was the possibility that they could be drafted in the D-League’s annual draft.
The draft took place last Friday and after eight rounds, many names were not called. But luckily for Filipino basketball star Japeth Aguilar, a former number one overall pick in the Philippine Basketball Association, he was selected in the seventh round by the Santa Cruz Warriors.
While this draft wasn’t quite the extravagant production that the NBA Draft is, potential draftees remain on edge just the same. “It was different from when I got drafted from the PBA. In the D-League [draft] even though I [was] just at home, even though I didn’t follow the draft, I was still nervous. I was so anxious and just waiting for the time to pass by ’cause I could not watch [the draft],” said Aguilar via phone from his home in Chicago. “When my parents told me my name got called, we just burst out in joy. I was trying to keep calm because I know the journey just started so I still have a lot of things to do.”
Aguilar, who also tried out for the Bakersfield Jam and Los Angeles D-Fenders, thinks his time playing overseas was a factor in catching the eye of the Warriors’ talent evaluators. “I gained a lot of experience when I was playing in the Philippines. Even though the Philippines kind of lacks height, they’re very high in basketball IQ. I learned from the veterans there, how to read plays and [different] situations” said the 25-year old.
The former Western Kentucky Hilltopper is actually not a stranger to American and even NBA competition. During last season’s NBA lockout, a handful of stars, including Kobe and Durant, packed their bags and toured through Asia playing basketball games with those at their designated stops. When the tour passed through the Philippines, Aguilar was one of the few selected to take on the band of superstars. In that game was a moment that he’ll never forget:
“Playing against them live was just unbelievable. It was overwhelming. It looked like I was calm, but deep inside me, I just didn’t want to show it. Especially when I got that dunk, it looks like I was just running back but, oh man, deep inside me, I was bursting [with excitement].”
He arrives in Santa Cruz on Friday to begin a two-week training camp with seemingly everything on the line. Santa Cruz is near the Bay Area which boasts a heavy Filipino population. They undoubtedly would love to see one of their fellow countrymen playing so close by but Japeth knows that that alone won’t be enough to sway general manager Kirk Lacob and coach Nate Bjorkgren to keep him on the team. “In the D-League, it really doesn’t matter if I’m the first Filipino [to be drafted], they’re still going to get the best players for their team. So I still have to fight for a spot in training camp, still have to work hard. I’m very focused to make it happen.”
For most basketball fans, the D-League seems like basketball purgatory with those playing there having little to no shot of making it to the big leagues. However, for some – like Aguilar -the D-League stands for the beginning of making a lifelong dream come true. Achieving that dream may definitely still be in its infancy but he is currently venturing into territory that no other Filipino basketball player has ever been.
Now the question remains – will he make the team? Stay tuned to find out.