The San-en NeoPhoenix became the first team in the B. League to take advantage of the league’s new roster spot for Asian players when they announced the signing Wednesday of Filipino phenom Thirdy Ravena.

The rule is one of several changes regarding import players the league announced last fall for the 2020-21 season. Japan’s professional basketball circuit is hoping to use the rule to grow its presence in Asia as it approaches its fifth season.

“I’m really excited because the league attracts a lot of big-name imports outside of the NBA,” Ravena said from the Philippines during an online news conference Friday.

The 23-year-old shooting guard, who won MVP honors in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines Finals for the last three years in a row, said he was looking forward to hitting the court in Aichi Prefecture.

“I have goals and chose the NeoPhoenix because I just felt it was a wonderful organization, and it was definitely an amazing factor (to) be a great help to the success for the club.”

Ravena signed with San-en for a year, according to the Manila Times.

Under the new rule, each club can register up to three import players plus an Asian or naturalized Japanese player. While B. League teams have been allowed to have two foreigners and a naturalized Japanese player on the floor until now, from next season they may field an Asian import rather than a naturalized player.

Muscular but athletic, the 189-cm Ravena was born to a family with an athletic pedigree. His father, Bong, is a five-time Philippine Basketball Association champion who currently serves as head coach of the PBA’s TNT KaTropa. His mother, Mozzy, is a former star collegiate volleyball player.

His elder brother, Kiefer, plays for the PBA’s NLEX Road Warriors and was part of the Texas Legends, then of the NBA’s D-League, as a development player a few years ago. Ravena’s younger sister is a collegiate volleyball player as well.

Ravena donned the national team jersey in two second-round games during the Asian qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. In the first round of FIBA Asia Cup in February, he led the Gilas to a 100-70 win over Indonesia with a 23-point effort.

According to Filipino reports, Ravena has been receiving offers to play overseas since last year, prompting him to skip the PBA draft in December.

Ravena, who hinted that a couple of other Japanese teams had shown interest in acquiring him, said he was nervous about playing abroad but jumped at the opportunity because it was something he could not afford to miss.

“I realized that the only reason why I’m here is because I love challenges and love competitions, and love always being outside of my comfort zone,” Ravena said.

Ravena’s signing in Japan is big news for the Philippines’ basketball scene, said the Manilla Times’ Josef T. Ramos.

“To tell you honestly, Thirdy Ravena is the first-ever Filipino basketball player to play as an Asian import in a progressive country like Japan,” the basketball writer told The Japan Times. “That’s why it’s a milestone to Philippine basketball.”

Ramos said Ravena is a player who is “not afraid to do those daredevil moves inside the court” and one you can count on “in every corner of the court” offensively.

However, Ramos believes his top traits are not to be found in his offense, but in his “relentless defense.”

“That’s what Thirdy is all about,” Ramos said. “He is known for his energy, rebounding, hustle steals and chase-down blocks.”

According to NeoPhoenix President Kenjiro Hongo, roughly 8,000 Filipinos reside in Hamamatsu and Toyohashi. As much as his team will value his results on the court, Hongo said Ravena would also impact the team’s regional profile.

“This area has ties with the Philippines, with some of our sponsors having relationships with the country,” Hongo said. “So cooperating with the league going forward, we would like to increase the exposure of ourselves as well as the B. League in the Philippines,” he said. “There is merchandise from Thirdy that has already been sold (in the Philippines) and we would like to make that available here, too.”

After making the 2016-17 postseason with a 33-27 record, the NeoPhoenix have failed to post a winning season. The club hired Serbian head coach Branislav Vicentic after finishing with a top-division-worst 5-36 record last season.

According to the B. League’s monthly marketing report, San-en ranked 10th in home attendance in the B1 League with 2,967 per game through Feb. 10 this season, which was canceled by the COVID-19 outbreak in late March.

In the meantime, the Shinshu Brave Warriors have likewise acquired former South Korea U-19 player Yang Jae-min for their Asian spot.

The 201-cm forward previously played in the United States for Neosho County Community College and competed for Spain’s Torrelodones. At the 2017 U-19 World Cup in Egypt, the 21-year-old averaged eight points and five rebounds.

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