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Arnold Van Opstal: Making Huge Strides

By Paolo Mariano Posted Aug 23rd 2013

Arnold Van Opstal has transformed himself into a consistent and dependable force in the paint for De La Salle this season.

De La Salle University has never had a dearth in talented big men in the UAAP. Here are some names that will easily pop up: Jun Limpot, Noli Locsin, Mark Telan, Don Allado, Carlo Sharma, Adonis Sta. Maria, Gerwin Gaco, and Rico Maierhofer. One could even thrown in Willy Wilson, who despite standing just 6-foot-3, has always thrived in the paint.

That’s why when a rim-rattling beanpole started to make waves at De La Salle-Zobel in 2009, most Green Archers fans keenly anticipated his arrival. He was touted as the next big mean Green Machine.

At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Arnold Van Opstal looked like a man among boys in the Juniors. He towered over his opponents. He looked more mature and more physically developed. Perhaps it had to do with his mixed genes, being born to a German-Dutch father and to a Filipina mother, who hails from Albay.

But aside from his height, which gained him advantages going up against homegrown high school players, he was also athletic. He can jump high, run fast, and move quickly. He can dunk the ball easily. It was clear though that he had limited offensive skills, having only started playing basketball at 12 years old after dabbling in football and track in his younger years. Still, he was a much-coveted recruit. College teams salivated about the prospects of nabbing him.

In 2009, he helped lead the Junior Archers to the Finals with Gwyne Capacio, Nico Elorde, and Luigi dela Paz. They, however, were beaten by Ateneo de Manila University in three games. That Blue Eagles squad starred Kiefer Ravena, Ael Banal, Von Pessumal, and Paolo Romero, who all went on to play for the RP Youth Team. 

After sitting out one year to earn his high school diploma, AVO, as he’s conveniently called, finally joined the Green Archers in 2011. But what came relatively easy for him in high school became a tough grind in college. He faced stronger, tougher, and more experienced guys. He couldn’t just raise the ball on top of his head and expect to score. He couldn’t just out-jump everyone to get the rebound.  

Even though he churned out a respectable 6.4 PPG in 16 minutes per outing in his rookie year, it felt to most La Salle fans that he wasn’t playing hard. He only grabbed 2.9 RPG. Guards L.A. Revilla, Simon Atkins, Almond Vosotros, and Oda Tampus all averaged more rebounds than him. The Green Archers finished with a 5-9 record and failed to advance to the Final Four for the second time in three years.

“My first year was hard. They we’re banking on me right away. It was too much pressure for a kid to handle,” said Van Opstal, who was just 18 years old then.

What most people thought as a breakout sophomore season became an underwhelming one, putting up pedestrian lines of 4.9 PPG and 5.2 RPG. Moans and groans were usually heard when he got the ball in the paint. Fans already expected that he’ll be called for an infraction or miss a point-blank shot.

The guy hailed, albeit unfairly, as the next big mean Green Machine malfunctioned. Instead of belonging to all the esteemed La Salle pivots before him, he was more in the level of PJ Walsham or Ferdinand, two big men perpetually jeered by the hard-to-please La Salle crowd because of their lackadaisical play.

It’s hard to blame the La Salle supporters for their high expectations of Van Opstal. Their team is so used to winning. They want results as quick as Ren-Ren Ritualo's release or Mike Cortez on the break. That’s why when AVO didn’t pan out in his first two years, they let him hear ‘em.

“I always hear negative comments, but as soon as I hear them, I instantly tune them out. I know it’s like that (with fans). If you play well, they like you. If you play bad, they hate you,” said Van Opstal, who has close to 8,000 followers on Twitter.

Unbeknownst to many, AVO didn’t even plan to don the White and Green. After studying kindergarten and Grade 1 at Zobel, his family moved to Sydney. His mom’s work as a diplomat forced them to relocate a lot. He spent majority of his youth Down Under. That’s where he picked up the game of basketball, playing it constantly with his friends. In 2007, a year after his dad passed away, his mother was reassigned to the Philippines. They had to leave again. By that time, he has already lived in four countries. 

“I hated it. I didn’t want to leave my friends. I wasn’t even planning on staying (in the Philippines), I was just there vacationing for the Holidays,” admitted Van Opstal. “It was hard at first, but God got me through it.”

He was playing pick-up hoops in a neighborhood court in Alabang when someone spotted him. The guy apparently had connections at La Salle—a case of someone knowing someone who knows someone. Next thing he knew, he was back at Zobel. Then eventually, he arrived in Taft. Only, it was a rude two-year welcome. Like a fraternity neophyte undergoing daily hazing.  

But instead of spending his time sulking, he decided to finally silence his haters this season. Perhaps he had enough of the bashes and the jokes. He refocused himself to becoming a more efficient player. Since the off-season, he's been doing extra work every practice with Limpot, the man who set the lofty standards for La Salle big men in the first place, having won three MVPs and three titles in a stellar UAAP career. They work on post moves, foot work, and the needed composure underneath.

Clearly, the hard work has paid off. Now, AVO doesn’t look panicky in the paint. He bides his time and surveys the defense before making an aggressive move to the basket. He even has a semi-hook! With his length, quickness, and leaping ability, it’s difficult to block his shot. In fact, he's third in the league in field goal percentage at 56.7%. He's simply been an entirely different player.  

“It’s my third year, I’ve matured as a player and a person. I’ve matured as a whole. I’m also benefiting from our improved chemistry. My teammates are the main reason why I’m playing well, they trust me, they give me confidence,” said Van Opstal, who is also averaging career-highs of 11.0 PPG and 6.7 RPG.

“It’s been a big improvement for him, he’s now a threat in the post and he’s become a good defender,” said head coach Juno Sauler.

With back-to-back wins to start the second round, the Green Archers are hoping that they'll finally hit their stride. They were tagged as one of the heavy favorites to win it all this season but consistency has been their problem, especially in endgame. Their four defeats in the opening round have an average margin of only 4.5 points. But with AVO gaining more confidence as the season progresses and his teammates slowly settling into their roles, La Salle will be very tough to beat. 

“Closing out games has been our problem. But the good thing is, it (string of tight losses) happened early, we can learn from it, it will help us mature,” said Van Opstal.

After two years of hearing hurtful comments and unsavory remarks, one would think that AVO would bask in all the positive things being said about him this season, not only by La Salle fans but the entire league. But if he were to choose, he’d rather be a fly on the wall—a 6-foot-7, 220-pound fly.

“I’m taking it one game at a time. I set goals for myself before the season to really improve. I always emphasize positive energy and encouragement,” said Van Opstal. “But I just wish everyone would forget about me. (Like) I don’t exist or (like) I don’t care about the outside world.”

With the way he's playing though, it's difficult not to take notice. Make room, talented La Salle big men, you got new company.