He wasn't supposed to be among the top contenders for the Rookie of the Year award, the distinction initially reserved to his more prominent batchmates. He wasn't even expected to be among a major contributor for TNT KaTropa this early, let alone play a career game in a PBA Finals game.
But the 25-year-old forward from Cebu is defying expectations, particularly in the ongoing series for the Commissioner's Cup championship where he has solidified his status as one of KaTropa's most reliable players.
He introduced himself as a future star under the bright lights of the Big Dome with a career-high 27 points in his first finals game, half of the output produced in the fourth quarter of TNT's 104-102 victory over the San Miguel Beermen.
The next two games were rough for Pogoy, going scoreless both times. Frustration also set in for the usually stoic freshman in Game 2, when a low blow to the groin of a leaping Arwind Santos in the third quarter resulted in an ejection and a P30,000 fine.
Pogoy bounced back in Game 4 with 14 points as TNT leveled the series at 2-2. The finals has perhaps become a sort of realization for him as he continues with his PBA journey.
"Maganda naman yung experience na makalaro sa finals, parang may ups and downs nga," Pogoy told FHM before he went to practice some shots hours before Wednesday's Game 4 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
"Dami kong natututunan kasi first finals ko 'to, kaya dapat kung ano yung nangyayari ngayon, dapat aware ako sa mga lessons na itinuturo nito."
Queen City boy
Many have been pleased with the way Pogoy has played this season; his performance reminiscent of his solid play at Far Eastern University (FEU) in the UAAP. His five-year career in Morayta would have not been possible if not for a series of events he had experienced in his native Talisay, Cebu.
Pogoy, for example, recalled how his father taught him the basic skills at home and usually applied those skills at a nearby court with friends after sunset. "Kelangan talaga minsan na hintayin matapos yung maglaro ang mga matatanda kasi kami nga mga bata. Natatapos sila gabi na, mga 6 p.m., medyo madilim na, dun na kami maglalaro kahit walang ilaw,"
He later got a chance to play those guys on the same court, but Pogoy was so good that he eventually joined the University of the Visayas' (UV) high school varsity Team B—a spot given to transferees or recruits who had to wait before being elevated to the main roster.
The early practice time and the lack of opportunity prompted Pogoy to transfer to University of Cebu after two years. The big move eventually paid off as he eventually became one of the stars of the Baby Webmasters' 2008 title victory over, incidentally, UV, in the Cebu Schools Athletic Federation, Inc. (CESAFI) high school finals, winning the series' Most Valuable Player to boot.
His performance drew the attention of Manila-based coaches and opened up a chance for him to suit up for the national youth team. But the timing wasn't right for Pogoy.
In 2011, FEU came to the Queen City of South to search for talented Cebuano players.
Pogoy didn't join the first two days of the three-day tryout. But one teammate told him an FEU coach was looking for him. That FEU coach was Bert Flores, the Tamaraws head coach at the time. Flores, a long-time member of FEU's athletic department, had long been credited for his ability to recruit players, particularly from the provinces. The names of Mac Baracael and Mark Barroca come to mind.
When Flores, also a Cebuano, noticed that Pogoy was absent, he asked someone to invite Pogoy for the final day of tryout.
"Nagpa-tryout sila sa Cebu, ta's yun nga sabi nila ako lang pala hinahanap nila," Pogoy said. "Pumunta ako nung third day, Saturday nun. Then nakita ako ni coach Bert, sabi niya, 'Ikaw ba si Pogoy? Sige, sa Monday aalis ka na.'"
He would go on to make the FEU roster under Flores in 2011, when the Tamaraws lost to the great Ateneo Blue Eagles in the UAAP Finals, playing the final minutes of the final game when the outcome had already been decided. His role steadily grew a year later, but FEU's failure to make the Final Four prompted school officials to hire Nash Racela as coach, an appointment that gave Pogoy his big break.
Under Racela, Pogoy climbed from reserve to starting small forward, eventually joining forces with Mac Belo and Mike Tolomia to form a big three that succeeded the vaunted backcourt tandem of Terrence Romeo and RR Garcia who left for the PBA in 2013.
"Parang si coach Nash, gusto niya ng palaban, yung dumedepensa, yung parang ganung type na player ako. At saka siyempre nagkaroon na rin ng playing time nung nawala sina Terrence at RR,” he said.
Pogoy considers 2014 and 2015 as his most memorable years in the UAAP. The Tamaraws reached the finals both times, with the second ending in a victory over the University of Santo Tomas growling Tigers, ending the school's 10-year UAAP title drought. In Game 3 of the 2015 showdown, Pogoy's three-pointer with under two minutes left allowed him to end his collegiate career on a high note.
Pogoy would later join Racela's Gilas Cadets squad that ruled the 2016 SEABA Cup in Bangkok, and win two championships for Phoenix in the PBA D-League, again with Racela as consultant and Eric Gonzales, an FEU assistant, as head coach.
So when the PBA Draft came along and an arrangement of a special draft was made for Gilas Cadets members to be picked by teams, it came as no surprise that Racela went with someone he's familiar with.
Eight months after the draft, Pogoy has proven to be a great investment for TNT. The big minutes and the chance to make a quick impact were something Pogoy didn't expect.
"Sa totoo lang na-surprise ako kasi noong nag-usap-usap kami nila Mac Belo at Mike (Tolomia, who was picked by Rain or Shine), alam na namin na talagang gagamitin si Mac (Blackwater Elite). Kami ni Mike magiging masaya na pag nakalaro ng 10 minutes sa court," Pogoy says. "So na-surprise talaga ako nang bigyan ako ng playing time, buti naman at blessed ako kasi maganda din pinapakita ko."
Belo, after a strong start, has since been sidelined by an injury, while Tolomia has yet to play a major role at Rain or Shine.
Pogoy has become a possible candidate for the Rookie of the Year, with Phoenix's Matthew Wright and Star's Jio Jalalon, fellow Gilas teammates, being the other contenders. Pogoy has also become a key component for Gilas, as seen with his performance in the country's title run in the SEABA Championship in May.
After his Game 1 performance, Racela said he was caught unaware that his longtime player had a career night.
"Did he play well today?" Racela asked reporters after the series opener. "I really don't focus on those things. To me I think what I got from Roger were the normal things that we were getting all along. Siguro it was...maybe it was extra special because he scored a lot—27?"
The KaTropa coach added: "But his defense was crucial and that's something that we always require of him. I think he was just blessed to hit three-pointers. That's something that is part of his arsenal."
Games 2 and 3 exposed Pogoy's status as a rookie, his low blow on Santos highlighting his struggles. Santos was upset, but understood his fellow FEU alumnus after getting an apology from him. The Beermen forward also offered a piece of advice.
"Si Pogoy isa rin siya sa inaasahan ng TNT," Santos said after Game 3. "Siguro nasa kanya yan kung paano siya mag-a-adjust. Kailangan alamin niya kung paano i-handle ang ganyang pressure.”
It didn't take a while for Pogoy to make adjustments. He ended the first quarter of Game 4—and his 0-for-18 two-game slump—with a three-pointer that put TNT up, 27-24. His confidence grew in the second quarter, scoring seven straight points that allowed the KaTropa to go up by a high of nine. The second half became a seesaw battle, with Pogoy making key baskets and solid defensive plays that complemented Jayson Castro and import Joshua Smith.
Game 4 ended with him as one of the heroes of TNT's win. The KaTropa are two wins away from winning the Commissioner's Cup. But Pogoy knows he's still miles away from the player he wants to be.
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