The Star Hotshots are currently 3-1 in practice games as they prepare for the PBA Commissioner’s Cup set to start exactly a week from now.
The team under rookie coach Jason Webb is itching to get back deep in the playoffs the way the franchise has been doing over the past four seasons.
Below are five things to watch for the Hotshots heading into the mid-season, import-conference:
1. Championship itch
It was only four conferences ago when the Star Hotshots celebrated the franchise’s first-ever PBA Grand Slam and just the pro league’s fifth in its 40-year existence.
The veteran core of James Yap, Marc Pingris, Peter June Simon and Mark Barroca are not considered too old to make another championship run.
In fact, the Hotshots boast of a deep bench that also includes Alex Mallari, Allein Maliksi, Justin Melton, Jake Pascual and last year’s first-round rookie pick Norbert Torres.
Coming off a ninth-place finish in the Philippine Cup is certainly unacceptable for Yap and Co.
So come the Commissioner’s Cup, the local bunch of Webb, coupled by the return of former Best Import Denzel Bowles are out to make some serious noise once more.
2. “Big Game” James is back
With Webb’s move to install an up-tempo attack in his first year, the direct beneficiary was none other than long-time superstar James Yap, who saw his stats rise from a career-low 11.7 points last season to 15.2 points in the all-Filipino conference.
Yap admitted that playing the triangle offense for the past four seasons under former coach Tim Cone restricted his movement as he tries to play within a complicated system.
But under Webb, the 6-foot-2 former UE Red Warrior is allowed to be “Big Game” James again.
Dubbed the “man with a million moves,” expect the soon-to-be-34-year-old Yap, to be at the forefront of the Hotshots’ impending resurgence in this coming conference.
3. Getting back their defensive groove
Star’s got a stack of players who can score at any given time, but we all know that over the past four years, the team under Cone is known for its stingy defense.
In fact, before Webb ascended to his current coaching post, Star ended the 40th season as the no. 1 defensive team, holding its opponents to just 87.5 points per contest.
In Webb’s first conference, Star slipped to no. 4 on points against with its 94.7 points per game average.
The 42-year-old Star freshman coach said they’ve been consistently talking about deliberately getting back their defensive groove since the team regrouped in practice at the start of the year.
With seven-time all-Defensive team member anchoring the Hotshots’ defense, there’s nowhere to go but up for this proud franchise.
4. Monster Bowles is back
Star fans can’t help but get excited when management formally announced the return of Denzel Bowles at the Hotshots’ import for the Commissioner’s Cup.
And why not?
Bowles has a proven track record, having led the Purefoods franchise to the 2012 Commissioner’s Cup title during Cone’s first season as coach.
Though he failed to lead Star back to the PBA’s “Mount Olympus” in the 2013 and 2015 seasons, the sweet-shooting standout from James Madison has the youthful zeal (hey, he’s just 26) that could help the Hotshots contend for more championships in the years to come.
5. Webb of doubt?
Not too many fans wondered what would happen to Star when management announced that Cone will be passing the coaching baton to Jason Webb during the offseason.
You see, Webb is more familiar to PBA fans as an eloquent and bright TV analyst during the games.
But coaching? Fans had their own reservations.
Their worst fear came to pass during the Philippine Cup when Star struggled under Webb’s initial conference, even blowing a double-digit lead and allowed of all teams, Cone’s Barangay Ginebra to stage a vicious comeback in the fourth-quarter to take a heart-stopping 92-89 overtime win on Christmas Day.
The loss marked a sorry ending to Webb’s first conference as coach.
But as they say, all that is water under the bridge.
Webb may be new in coaching, but this guy is a student of the game, who is determined to carve his own name in the PBA other than just being the son of basketball legend and former Philippine senator Freddie Webb. — By Richard Dy