Rookie playmaker Heruela proving his worth with Blackwater

MANILA, Philippines – Rookie point guard Brian Heruela quickly emerged as a vital cog for expansion team Blackwater Elite in just his first conference in the PBA. And it isn’t going unnoticed.

Head coach Leo Isaac praised the 25-year old for leading the team to its second-ever win against KIA Carnival on Saturday, February 28 at the FilOil Flying V Arena in San Juan.

“For a rookie he’s maturing well and he’s learning to really be a good point guard,” Isaac said.

The 5-foot-10 Heruela registered a career-high 27 points, including 12 in a strong fourth quarter closing, along with 8 rebounds and 7 assists in the victory. More than his significant numbers, Heruela provided stability in the backcourt and organized playmaking all throughout as Blackwater sustained its offensive and defensive intensity for an entire game.

Lakas ng katawan ng bata eh,” Isaac added. (The kid is strong.)

Heruela was always considered a sleeper in the 2014 rookie draft – where he was picked up in the third round – due to his head-turning stint with Big Chill, Blackwater and Jumbo Plastic in the PBA D-League. 

While other teams did not take a chance on him, Heruela is proving now that he deserves his spot in the pro league, and he can play toe to toe with the some of the best playmakers.

“I'm just happy that things went my way. I'm just thankful that the coaching staff and my teammates tell me what I have to do,” Heruela said.

Vastly improved

The University of Cebu alumnus, who saw action in only the last 4 games of the first conference and instead played largely in the D-League, averaged 10.3 points, 5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists in all of the Elite’s games prior to Saturday. He constantly flirted with a triple-double as he produced numbers across the board every game. 

Burnishing his credentials, Heruela is also currently leading the league in assists with 5.6 a game, counting Saturday’s win, besting veteran point guards such as LA Tenorio and Jayson Castro. 

“For me, I always try to involve my teammates as a point guard. I just focus on my team and what else we can improve in so we can pull off some wins,” Heruela said.

“I'm thankful. I want to represent my team because it's not just about me, this is also about my teammates and the organization.”

Isaac shared the coaching staff is currently working on toning down Heruela’s game.

“Sometimes he’s still uncontrolled but he listens well and he takes our advices seriously. Hopefully he will develop into a really good point guard.”

Talk ’N Text’s Castro, who matched up with Heruela earlier in the conference, only has words of praise for the rookie.

Magaling si Brian and top defender at the same time may mga moves siya na okay din. Magaling siya as a point guard kahit rookie pa lang siya,” the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship Mythical Team member told Rappler, adding that he also had a hard time breaking down Heruela’s defense. 

As a point guard, naco-control niya yung plays nila and na e-execute niya. Nahirapan din ako sa kanya kasi physical defender din siya.”

(Brian is really good and he’s a top defender, at the same time he has other good moves too. He’s a good point guard even if he’s still a rookie. As a point guard, he is able to control the plays and execute them. It was hard matching up with him because he’s a physical defender.)

The two-time Best Player of the Conference awardee said Heruela could be a top league point guard in just a year, Blackwater’s losses notwithstanding.

Just continue what he’s doing kasi maganda yung ginagawa niya. Even if natatalo sila minsan, as an individual, maganda yung nilalaro niya,” Castro advised. “Siguro mga one to two years nandoon siya. Ganoon rin ako nag-start before eh.

(Just continue what he’s doing because he’s doing good things. Even if they lose, as an individual, he plays well. Maybe in one to two years he will get there. That’s how I started before as well.)

Meanwhile, fellow rookie guard Kevin Alas of the Texters admitted he was surprised with Heruela’s vast improvement since his D-League days, where Alas played against him during his time then with NLEX.

Alas shared how the scouting reports have changed drastically as the spry Heruela expanded his arsenal with more options on offense, including slashing and attacking upgrades and a much-improved outside shot.

Actually nagulat nga ako sa kanya. Galing niya ngayon, grabe yung improvement niya. Nakalaban ko siya sa PBA D-League, tapos yung scoring options niya noon hindi pa ganoon karami,” Alas told Rappler.

Gulat ako ngayon kumpleto na yung laro niya ngayon, may pasa, he can drive, he can score outside rin and at the same time may depensa pa. May tira na siya sa labas, kailangan mo na i-respect yung tira niya sa labas.” 

(Actually I was surprised with him. He’s so much better now, his improvement is astonishing. I played against him in the PBA D-League, and he didn’t have too many scoring options then. But now I was shocked he has a complete game already. He can pass, he can drive, he can score outside and at the same time he can defend. He has outside shooting already, you need to respect his outside shots now.)

Former college teammate June Mar Fajardo, however, was not surprised by Heruela’s quick rise. 

Magaling na talaga siya. Naging teammate ko siya ng two years tapos ngayon nagdo-dominate na siya,” said the reigning league Most Valuable Player. “Magaling siya tumingin ng tao. Hindi kasi siya look to score eh, look to pass siya.”

(He was always good. He was my teammate for two years and then now he’s dominating. He has a knack for looking for his teammates. He doesn’t look to score, he looks to pass.)

Redemption as motivation

Heruela’s consistent showing became even more crucial as Blackwater set out to avenge its surprise opening day loss against KIA last October.

The Elite took no chances this time and came out guns ablaze in the first half Saturday and they never eased the pressure until the end.

“We expected our first win right on opening day last October but it was spoiled by KIA so we just had to keep that to ourselves,” Isaac shared.

Sabi namin ang tagal namin bago makalaban ang KIA. Buti na lang nakapagtimpi kami at hindi kami nawalan ng pasensya.” (We kept saying our next game with KIA is still a long way off. But good thing we were able to contain ourselves and not lose patience.)

In their Philippine Cup encounter, Blackwater also built a huge lead but saw it vanish as shots didn’t fall and no stable playmaker was there to guide them.

“We learned our lesson there,” Isaac added. “I challenged our players that deep in their minds they know individually they can match up with the players of KIA and I also challenged them that deep in their minds they know they can beat KIA any time.”

For his part, Heruela pulled his motivation from the fact that KIA has won 3 games in this Commissioner’s Cup, all of which against champion teams in San Miguel Beer, Purefoods, and Talk ’N Text.

“Definitely it was a motivation for us seeing them with more wins and them being able to beat champion teams, we really wanted to win this game,” said Heruela, who plans on using the victory, and his career-high performance, as a springboard to more success for the young franchise.

“This win is really important for us. It's a morale booster. But we're taking it one game at a time and we're looking forward to our next game, prepare harder and give our all in our next games.” –