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NCAA MVP or not, Justin Arana proves he has reached potential in Arellano

Arellano big man Justin Arana is the, far and away, frontrunner for Most Valuable Player in the NCAA Season 97 Men’s Basketball Tournament. He’ll only be hoisting the top individual award, though, if the Chiefs defeat Perpetual on Sunday and then down the loser between San Beda and Benilde two days later for the fourth and final playoff berth.

If that doesn’t happen, all his numbers – 15.5 points, 17.1 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, and 1.5 assists per game, specifically – will be all for naught. He’ll still be a Mythical Team member, but not MVP. He’ll still have had a strong showing as an individual, but Arellano won’t be in the playoffs.

If that’d be the case, that’d mean that in his collegiate career spanning 2015 to 2022, he’d have only made it past the elimination round once: as a seldom-used rookie for a UST team led by Kevin Ferrer and Ed Daquioag onto a runner-up finish.

It was the Growling Tigers who discovered Arana from Basud, Camarines Norte and hoped to develop him into their next great big man. At the same time, the black and gold were the 6-foot-7 center’s dream colors. When he committed to go to Espana, he truly, madly, deeply hoped he would be staying there for the next five years.

Unfortunately, after three seasons, it wasn’t meant to be. There was a change of regime in UST and somehow, someway, Arana found himself outside of it.

“Masakit po talaga nung una. Pag-alis na pag-alis ko ng UST, nasaktan talaga ako kasi yun yung dream school ko e,” he shared over the phone as he and his team prepare for the first game in the NCAA’s first-ever play-in tournament. “Pero nung lumipat ako ng Arellano, nawala agad ang pagsisisi ko. Sobra-sobra nila akong inalagaan. ‘Di man ako nag-work sa UST, ginusto ko agad patunayang maganda rin ang mangyayari sa akin sa Arellano.”

The Chiefs now have one of the most dominant, if not the most dominant, young big men. Even that was almost wasn’t meant to be, however, as FEU was the first team to call Arana when he left UST. If he’d have transferred to another UAAP school, however, he’d have to undergo a one-year residency that’d count against his eligibility. That’d leave him with just one season as a Tamaraw.

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Compare that to getting to play two full years for Arellano, and there was no need to second-guess for Arana.

“Sobrang thankful ako sa Arellano. Sobrang thankful akong tama yung desisyon ko,” he shared, also mentioning that the Legarda-based institution also made sure he recovered from mitral valve prolapse, a heart condition he battled in 2018.

“At home na at home ako rito, especially sa coaches and teammates. Sila talaga yung nagbigay sa akin ng kumpyansa.”

While Arellano was not his dream, it was as a Chief that Arana, a dominant big man, turned into reality.

NCAA-Season-97-Basketball-AU-vs-SSCR-Justin-Arana-3 NCAA MVP or not, Justin Arana proves he has reached potential in Arellano AU Basketball NCAA News  - philippine sports news

(C) NCAA/GMA Photos

Because of that, Arana vowed to give his all, vowed to always go all-out for Arellano. In his first year as a Chief, he had per game counts of 13.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, and 1.4 assists en route to Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors. He doubled down on those in the ongoing season – and he wants more, much more.

“May utang na loob ako sa Arellano.

“Gusto kong makabawi sa kanila sa pamamagitan ng pagdala sa kanila sa Final Four,” he said. “Gusto ko gawin yung best ko para makalaro kami sa next round. Nagpupursigi, nagtitiis ako. Nagbubunga naman, pero ‘di pa kami tapos.”

Early in the season, yet again, all of this almost wasn’t meant to be. In just the Chiefs’ first assignment in the tournament, Arana went down with an apparent knee injury. The same night, he was initially tagged with a partial ACL tear in his right knee.

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“Nung nangyari yun, sobrang frustrated ko. Final year ko na nga, ‘di pa ako makakatulong sa team ko,” he shared. “Nung lumabas na ACL daw, sobrang disappointed ko. Alam ng teammates ko, alam ng coaching staff namin, na umiiyak lang ako hanggang dorm.”

Fortunately, three days later, there was good news. There was still a tear in his right ACL, but it was Grade 1 instead of Grade 2 – meaning all that’s needed is therapy rather than surgery. Even better, Arana could come back and play for Arellano. He rested in the Chiefs’ next game before returning against Benilde, looking like he wasn’t even injured by posting a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double.

The 23-year-old hasn’t looked back since and is the crystal clear leader in terms of Statistical Points.

“Okay na naman siya ngayon. Buti na lang, misdiagnosed lang pala yung tuhod ko,” he shared. “Nung nakuha namin yung second opinion, naka-immobilizer pa ako nun, pero gusto ko sanang magtatalon sa tuwa. Thankful lang akong nakabalik ako ngayon. Ilang lang nung una, pero ok na naman. Ito na talaga yung pagkakataon kong dalhin yung Arellano sa Final Four.”

Without a doubt, Arana is leaving his all on the floor for Arellano. On the floor, or even on the glass.

NCAA-97-Arellano-vs-JRU-Justin-Arana NCAA MVP or not, Justin Arana proves he has reached potential in Arellano AU Basketball NCAA News  - philippine sports news

(C) NCAA/GMA Photos

In a must-win game for Arellano, Arana hauled in 29 rebounds, while also adding 18 points, as the Chiefs topped EAC. Just one rebound more and he would’ve matched the record for most boards in a game. Just two rebounds more and he would’ve erased two-time MVP Allwell Oraeme from the history books. Nonetheless, the win was what mattered most to him.

“‘Di ko rin talaga alam na naka-29 (rebounds) na ako. Sa akin lang kasi, gusto ko lang rumebound, dumepensa, kasi yun yung kailangan ng team,” he shared. Then reacting to comments that the only reason he was able to do that is because there no longer are any foreign student-athletes (FSAs), he stated, “Bumaba nga yung competition, kasi malaking kawalan naman talaga sila, pero ang kinaganda naman nun, yung local bigs, nabigyan talaga ng break.

“Sa akin na lang, papatunayan kong may FSAs man o wala, kaya ko pa ring gawin yun.”

Indeed, it’d be a bad bet to go against Arana coming close – or even matching or surpassing – that record, even if the likes of Donald Tankoua and the late Clement Leutcheu were still patrolling the paint. After all, a couple of battle-tested and wily veterans played a huge role in his much-improved game.

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“Nung naglaro ako sa MPBL, FilBasket, D-League, maraming-marami akong nakuhang aral. Marami akong natutunan lalo na sa mga nakalaban kong ex-pro sa PBA,” he shared. “Si Kuya Mark Yee, si Larry Rodriguez, sila talaga yung marami akong gustong gayahin kasi sobrang hasa na sila, sobrang dami ng knowledge. Pag binabantayan ko sila, sobrang effective nila kahit ‘di sila ganun ka-talented.

“Gusto ko ring maging ganun.”

If he gets even half of Yee’s non-stop motor as well as Rodriguez’s wily mentality, then those would only further weaponize his God-given height and length. And that, sounds very much like a PBA big man to us. Perhaps a top five pick in the upcoming PBA Draft, even?

“Marami pa akong pagtatrabahuan para makuha yun. ‘Di ko iisipin na goal ko yun,” he shared. “Para sa akin, kailangan ko pa ring paghirapan lahat kasi sobrang daming magagaling na players.

“Ako, kung anong role lang ang ibigay sa akin, pagsisikapan ko yun.”

NCAA Season 97 MVP or not, 2022 PBA Draft top five pick or not, there is no longer denying Justin Arana as one of the best young bigs of today. A dream school turned nightmare scenario couldn’t stop him. A rare heart ailment and a misdiagnosed knee injury couldn’t stop him. For so many times, it looked like it just wasn’t meant to be for him. But no, he’s still here, and he’ll just keep going and going.

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