By Jerome Lagunzad
Powerhouse La Salle won’t have any shortage in height and heft for the next UAAP basketball season even without two-time UAAP Most Valuable Player Ben Mbala.
Former New Zealand national juniors team standout Taane Samuel could fill in the big shoes left by the 6-foot-7 Mbala if and when he gets the green light from Green Archers’ coaching staff as well as the UAAP technical committee.
The 6-foot-8 Samuel is already undergoing the league’s required one-year residency for foreign student-athletes and has been training with the Green Archers’ Team B handled by coach Anton Altamirano.
Also waiting in the wings are Altamirano’s blue-chip recruits, 6-foot-9 Fil-American CJ Lane from New Jersey and 6-foot-8 Fil-Aussie Brandon Bates from Sydney.
Promising G-Boy Gob, who is recuperating from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, should be back in the mix along with mainstays Prince Rivero, Justine Baltazar and Santi Santillan.
However, all eyes will be on the 18-year-old Samuel, who made a good account of himself despite New Zealand’s 11th place finish in the FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup in Cairo Egypt last July.
He came up with 11.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
Since he enrolled in La Salle from high school, Samuel could play the maximum of five years, giving the Green Archers an inside presence for a longer period.
Samuel also has his work cut out for him since he will try to duplicate or surpass the dominant performance by Mbala during his two-year reign with the Green Archers.
The do-it-all Cameroon big man powered La Salle to a near flawless title run last year and towed it back to the finals in UAAP Season 80, only to fall prey to archrival Ateneo in their winner-take-all encounter early this month.
With a cloud of uncertainty hovering over his eligibility next season, the 22-year-old Mbala opted to turn pro by joining Fuerza Regia de Monterrey in the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Professional, the top-tier league in Mexico.
“I feel like its time to get to the next level,” said Mbala in a recent TV interview. “It’s been a long time for me to stay in college and I feel like it’s time (to go up) to the next level.”