Caelan Tiongson’s story doesn’t start off how most professional basketball player’s stories go. He wasn’t blessed with the size nor athleticism from the start. He wasn’t smothered by the sport day and night from a very young age. In fact, basketball wasn’t even his first choice in sports as a youngster. Yet here he is, about to start his professional basketball career for the Nanhai Kung Fu Basketball Club in the ABL.
“My basketball journey was quite unique,” Tiongson recalls. “I actually played hockey for the majority of my youth until I was 12 or 13.”
Hockey didn’t work out very well for the California native, with the cost of the travel hockey program being quite expensive. Tiongson then turned to the hardwood and picked up basketball instead.
“All I needed for basketball was a pair of shoes so it worked out perfectly.”
Things didn’t come easy for Tiongson from the start. He credits his early youth coaches on helping him develop great work ethic at such a young age, but there’s only so much you can do as a high school freshman who was barely 5’2″. Tiongson worked his way through high school basketball and though he became a starter midway through his freshman season, there was not much interest in the collegiate level for the 5’10” guard.
Most people might have given up. Tiongson got back on the grind, put his head down, and went back to work.
The next couple of years were twists and turns. Tiongson experienced a growth spurt after trying out and walking on at a local Division 3 school. He then transferred to Citrus Junior College, redshirted a season at Utah State Valley University, and took a year of being away from basketball completely to find himself religiously before finally ending up walking on at Biola Universoty.
It took time and effort once again for Tiongson, but he was finally able to breakout in his junior year to secure a full scholarship. Now standing at 6’4″, Tiongson experienced heightened success in his final two years, peaking with a senior season which he averaged 13.2 points and 6.2 rebounds. He was named to the All-Conference team as well as being an NAIA All-American (honorable mention).
“[The awards and success] had come after I had been doubted and told to quit several times, so I figured why not push it even more and decided to take up some offers to pursue a professional basketball career.” Tiongson says. “I was contacted by Lukas Peng to play for [the Nanhai Kung Fu Basketball Club]. The ABL was super attractive to me as a league so I jumped on it.”
“Caelen is someone who you don’t need to motivate to play hard,” Peng, General Manager of the Nanhai Kung Fu Basketball Club says. “He will fight for you at all times.”
While Tiongson’s favorite player is Russell Westbrook, he says that his team mates say he’s more of a Draymond Green type of player. He feels that this is because he can score, rebound, pass, and is typically guarding every team’s best offensive player while doing a lot of the dirty work.
“As a player, I would describe myself as a grinder,” Tiongson says. “I have always had the odds stacked against me, so I take the approach like a ‘dog’ when I step on the court.”
“I find a lot of joy in doing the inglorious tasks on the court.”
Nanhai needs exactly that in their line up for the upcoming ASEAN Basketball League season to pair up with the other players that they have.
“Caelan is the perfect compliment player to Justin [Howard] and Anthony [Tucker],” Peng says. “He is someone that does the little things that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet and just helps you win games.”
Tiongson has acknowledged his role as the third option on the team behind Justin Howard and Anthony Tucker, whom he refers to as “arguably one of the best players to ever play in this league” and “one of the most skilled basketball players I have ever played with”, respectively.
“Coming off an All-American college season where I touched the ball almost every play, this has been a bit of an adjustment.” Tiongson says.
So far, the adjustment has been going on fine between the players who have developed good chemistry over the team’s preseason preparations. Tiongson is focusing on being aggressive on both sides of the court to help shoulder the responsibilities. He mentions that his greatest strength is being versatile enough to guard multiple positions and feels that can be highlighted by playing alongside Tucker and Howard.
“However, I want to stay humble and hungry as season begins and let results speak for themselves,” Tiongson says. “I have great teammates and I am very blessed so I am in a good position.”
“Caelan is still young and will develop a lot with us this season,” Lukas Peng adds about his rugged forward. “We think he still has a lot of room to grow as a player. It’s not easy finding the right Heritage import and we are very happy to have him.”
Not only are there adjustments to be made on the court, Tiongson needs to adapt to life off the court as well in the city of Nanhai. Similarly, the process has been going well.
“It is rare to bump into an English speaker and the locals are intimidated by trying to figure out a method of communication,” Tiongson says of his early encounters. “The living adjustment has been a slow process, but it is one that is moving more smoothly now.”
“The organization has taken great care of me and basketball aspect things are going really well. We are wrapping up a great preseason where we have beat some really talented teams that play at really high levels. So I am sure as the season begins the living aspect will catch up to the good experience I have had so far in regards to the basketball experience.”
“The city is huge but oddly quiet. I have had to adjust to eating Chinese food on a daily basis and just finding ways to communicate while out on the streets. I have been making more friends and have some great teammates so that helps a lot.”
“I have just taken a more work-minded approach to basketball which has helped me get through my days.”
Just like all of us, Tiongson can’t wait for when the season starts. The Filipino-American is really looking forward to get his professional basketball career going.
“I am very excited to be playing in the ABL. I have great respect for the basketball culture out here and I am blessed to pursue a career in the ABL and just be a part of this geographic area.”
“I am looking forward to playing against [Tanduay Alab Pilipinas] for sure. I have great love for the country and I am just looking forward to playing in front of those fans.”
“Fans should expect a good time out of me this year. I am playing basketball professionally, which is a blessing, and I treat it that way. I love to smile, laugh, and have a good time. I like to interact with the crowd and have a good time, both in warm ups and during the game. I work hard and I think a lot of spectators can respect that, so I feel that I can connect with a lot of people in these nine different countries!”