Basketball: ABL has much progress to do but prospects promising

Slingers' Kris Rosales driving past Dragons' Calvin Godfrey in Game 5 of the Asean Basketball League Finals. While lacking stature and financial power, the eight-year-old ABL has much growth potential.
Slingers' Kris Rosales driving past Dragons' Calvin Godfrey in Game 5 of the Asean Basketball League Finals. While lacking stature and financial power, the eight-year-old ABL has much growth potential.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Basketball superstars Stephen Curry and LeBron James enjoy the luxury of travelling to their away games in the comfort of private planes, with plenty of leg room for their long legs.

In contrast, the Singapore Slingers travelled up to Kuala Lumpur last Friday on a six-hour, early-morning bus trip for the deciding Game Five of the Asean Basketball League (ABL) Finals.

Then, after their disappointing loss which ended their quest of their first ABL title, they had to quickly return to their hotel and pack up for an overnight bus trip home.

Such is the story of professional life in the ABL, a young league that is still finding its feet amid a plethora of other Asian basketball leagues.

Inaugurated in 2009 with six South-east Asian teams, it comes as no surprise that its playing standards are way below those of top Asian leagues like the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), which began in 1995, or even the 41-year-old Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).

While the just-concluded ABL Finals enjoyed sell-out crowds in all but one of its five games, the league is still widely seen by coaches and players as inferior to the PBA, by far the region's most popular and established professional basketball league.

It has a dedicated fan base, with almost 2.6 million followers on its official Facebook page. The ABL, in comparison, has just over 160,000 followers.

Ariel Vanguardia, head coach of the newly crowned ABL champions Westports Malaysia Dragons, believes the ABL is currently seen as a good place for aspiring regional basketballers to develop in before they go on to play in the PBA.

The Filipino, who is also an assistant coach with PBA side Blackwater Elite, points out that the top picks of the PBA Draft in recent years have all played in the ABL - proof that good players in this league will be headhunted by PBA scouts.

He said: "June Mar Fajardo (2012), Stanley Pringle (2014) and Moala Tautuaa (2015) all played in the ABL, and were top picks in the draft.

"It is a good stepping stone for these players."

Slingers point guard Kris Rosales, who is Filipino-American, could soon follow in their footsteps.

Describing the PBA as "one of the top, established leagues in Asia", the 25-year-old, who last played in the PBA Developmental League for Jumbo Plastic and Tanduay Light before joining the Slingers in October, has already received several offers.

While the playing standards of top ABL teams are comparable to the level of play in the PBA, one major factor lacking in the younger league is the backing of major sponsors enjoyed by the Filipino league.

Attendance figures are also a major bugbear. Despite two sell-out crowds in Games 3 and 4 of the ABL Finals, the Slingers mostly struggled to fill the 2,505-seater OCBC Arena during the regular season, attracting an average of just 1,200.

Nevertheless, the ABL does have the potential to grow. Vanguardia believes consistent competition from a young age is imperative.

He said: "There should be active and long-term Under-18, U-15 and school league competitions across the region.

"Compare this to the Philippines, where we have leagues for Grade Six (equivalent to Singapore's Primary Six) kids. That's the edge - a lot of competitive experience."

Vanguardia also suggested adding more teams to the current six-team ABL. Talk is brewing that two teams will indeed be added to spice up the competition levels of the ABL next season.

Slingers assistant coach Michael Johnson is also in favour of limiting the number of foreign imports to three per team, and giving local players more opportunities to improve their games.

He said: "To strengthen the league, you need to strengthen the local talents. It will give the locals more exposure, leading to a greater following from local fans."

The ABL admittedly still lacks the stature and financial power to call itself the best in the region. Yet, many believe that, with proper nurturing of local talents, it can become an important feeder for major players such as the PBA or even the CBA.

The players may have to endure long bus trips to games, but at least they are on the right route to eventual success.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'ABL has much progress to do but prospects promising'. Print Edition | Subscribe