RJ Abarrientos

RJ Abarrientos Gets Real On Playing Abroad and Which Pinoy Player Can Make Waves Overseas

Having played in both Korea and Japan, the former FEU guard offers a unique perspective on what it means to be an Asian import.

In 2022, FEU Tamaraws point guard RJ Abarrientos made the big decision to forgo his remaining eligibility in the UAAP and become the second Filipino basketball player to sign a professional contract in the Korean Basketball League.

Abarrientos went on to have a stellar season for the Ulsan Hyundai Mobis Phoebus, winning KBL Rookie of the Year honors and being crowned KBL 3×3 All-Star Game champion. Yet despite his individual success, RJ and the team mutually decided to part ways, paving the way for his transfer to the Japan B.League.

This past basketball season, Abarrientos saw action for the Shinshu Brave Warriors, joining a host of other Filipino ballers currently plying their trade in Japan.

RJ is also now the only Filipino player who has seen professional action in both Korea and Japan, giving him a unique perspective on the East Asian style of play. And when asked which local college player has what it takes to play at this level, he had only one player in mind.

Si Kevin Quiambao for sure,” RJ told a group of reporters during a recent viewing party of the B.League championship series between the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Hiroshima Dragonflies. “Siya yung isa sa pinakamagaling na college players. ‘Di ko nasasabing college player, hindi siya college player for me.”

Quiambao, the reigning UAAP MVP, mulled over offers from both Japan and Korea before ultimately deciding to run it back with the De La Salle Green Archers as they seek to repeat in Season 87.

The Brave Warriors had a rough season, going just 10-50. Abarrientos played in 49 of those games, putting up averages of 7.8 points, 1.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists. He admits this past season was challenging.

“Very rough season for our team, especially me individually. Pero sabi ko nga, mas marami kang learnings na matutunan. So hindi ko naman iniisip na once na natalo kami, hindi na kami magle-learn sa mga ginagawa namin. So yeah, I’m looking forward for the next season.”

Life as an import

RJ, nephew of PBA great Johnny, says he has learned a lot from playing abroad, including learning to cope with a new culture and language.

“So generally, kailangan mo maging leader sa teams mo. For me as a point guard, hindi lang dapat skills yung ini-improve mo. Outside of basketball, pati yung communication mo sa coaches and players. So yun yung kailangan ko, sa tingin ko kailangan ko improve.”

Adjusting to life as an overseas worker, he adds, has made him mentally tougher.

“Actually, yun yung isa sa mga pinaka-mahirap na pagsubok sa ibang bansa, lalo na sa, hindi lang sa sakin, sa ibang Filipino Asian imports, na unang una malayo ka sa family mo, and kailangan mong alagaan ang sarili mo kasi ang trabaho mo is physical. So physically, kailangan mong maging tough. Mentally, kailangan mong maging tough.

“For me, kailangan mong maging better every day. So kailangan mong ma-feel yung hindi ka comfortable para maging better sa next day.”

With more and more Asian teams looking to Filipino talent for their Asian quota slots, RJ realizes the importance of his and other Filipino players being trailblazers for the next generation.

Siguro, sobrang big factor to for the next generation din. I’m talking about the other players, yung mga possible na bata. So, syempre, kami yung tinitignan sa international.

“So, para sa kanila, or para sa amin, ito yung parang crucial. So, dapat gawin namin yung part namin. Para din sa mga next, o sino pang susunod, o sino mga nag-idolize sa amin na gustong mapunta ng international, not just here in the Philippines.

Pero, yun nga, sabi ko nga, na sa amin yung pressure sa Filipino people. Pero, for them, kailangan din na lang, ma-secure din yung sarili nila, mapakita yung best nila every day. So, sa tingin ko naman, overall, yung Pilipinas pa rin talaga yung magiging usapan for them every day.

Tamaraw rebirth?

Like his uncle Johnny, RJ is a proud product of the FEU basketball program. The Tamaraws recently made a big splash by hiring former Alaska Aces import Sean Chambers, Johnny’s longtime teammate with the Aces, as its next head coach.

The move has made RJ hopeful that the Tamaraws, who have missed the Final Four the past two seasons, can start turning things around.

Sobrang naging exciting yung team ngayon kasi Sean Chambers, one of the best imports na naglaro sa PBA and my uncle, naging teammates sila sa Alaska before. And nung nakausap ko nga si Tito, sabi niya, syempre iba rin yung takbo ni Sean Chambers sa ibang bansa and then mapunta dito sa Pilipinas.

Pero overall, sobrang excited ako sa magiging result ng FEU kasi ilang years na rin na parang bumababa yung kumpiyansa nila. So, sana makuha nila yung rhythm na gusto nila this year and sa susunod pang taon.”

Special thanks to Jan Ballesteros of One Sports for assistance on this article.

Banner Image from UAAP Media Bureau.

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