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Nov 29, 2017
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IMAGE www.fiba.basketball

Most Gilas games unfold in the same manner. The team goes out to play thinking all odds are against them, and in turn, fans watch the games thinking it's Gilas' God-given right to win every single basketball game. This response of always seemingly fighting a perpetual uphill battle is usually erroneously referred to as #Puso, far removed from its traditional (and much simpler) meaning of determination and belief.

But is surviving tense and grueling bouts something that comes naturally to us or something we engineered ourselves? Is our failure to maximize our basketball assets the architect of our inability to progress further in international basketball?

Gilas will be locked in an all-out war against Asia and Oceania’s finest for the next three years—enough time to start worrying about harsh realities facing Gilas once the campaign ends in 2019, when dynamo Jayson Castro and polarizing naturalized center Andray Blatche, who will both be 33 in 2019, may finally be running on fumes. 

What happens next in our local basketball scene, from the public fiascos to the private conference room controversies, and how well we treat our national talents may make or break the progress of Philippine basketball in the next decade.

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THE FALL OF ANDRAY BLATCHE

Watching Blatche fumble his way through the Chinese Taipei game isn’t endearing in any way to the experienced viewer. No redemption should be expected after this, no inspiration should be had other than the long-promised breakthrough game of Junemar Fajardo. There is no challenge to overcome —Blatche has always played this way, for better or worse.

In the first 2:30 minutes of the game, Blatche gave up four points to an aging Quincy Davis under the rim, choked up an offensive rebound, missed a pop-up three pointer 6 seconds into a possession, and gave up a pass to a fast-breaking opponent for a free bucket.

This is his game. We’ve lived through it (and, mostly, survived) for a long time and we’re thankful for his commitment. Every year, however, Blatche comes to work out of shape, and learns no new tricks. Our heavy reliance on his rebounding and suspect shot-making may very well be sabotaging the long-term development of the roster.

Junemar Fajardo’s 17-point performance against Chinese Taipei was a revelation. We finally have a legitimate option down low who can succeed at what Blatche can do in some form—even if it took him three years to do it. This is huge because it opens door for more dynamic power forward imports to come in and not simply dominate the ball, but rather involve themselves in a more organized and deliberate offense. 

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Following the Golden State Warriors' model, having a pass-first Draymond Green-like quality rebounder and defender in the 4 or 5 frees up the rest of the roster to run and shoot while still maintaining Gilas' flexibility to go small or big. One can easily imagine a roster with Fajardo manning the middle and either Justin Brownlee or Allen Durham playing above and around the rim instead of gingerly driving into traffic fishing for fouls.

Fajardo’s coming out party also comes with insurance. Once we learn how to integrate local centers into the lineup, hopefully in the next five years we can benefit from the services of young cadets 7’2” Kai Sotto, 6'9" forwards Ethan Kirkness and AJ Edu, and 6’7” Atenean Geo Chiu, while still maintaining the option of naturalizing a more versatile rebounding PF to complement them.

EMBRACE THE THREE

In his brief tenure in college basketball, Tab Baldwin has made Ateneo tops in defense, shooting, and turnovers, creating a modern, democratic offense and an intelligent, unrelenting defense using unheralded role players.

I've always felt Gilas would be a much, much better version of Ateneo had Baldwin stayed on as coach.

Flashback to last weekend, we were subjected to one of the most unwatchable Gilas games in recent memory—a flowless slugfest against Japan’s Akatsuki Five.

Gilas shot 38% from the field and 29% from the long-range in the ugliest, most unsatisfactory win one may witness in his lifetime. The last quarter featured way too much overdribbling by Castro, isolation/desperation threes late into the shot-clock, and a smattering of predictable Blatche iso-drives. It was as if our offense was fossilized in 2013 and never recovered.

In a time when the NBA, NCAA, and even the UAAP is transitioning into long-range, small-ball offenses, we are still stuck in the golden age of the '80s when one-on-one plays and isos were every Filipino’s favorite pastime after dinner. Our rosters have always been built to bring the bang and bustle of the PBA into international grounds.The move hasn’t always gone well.

Fan favorites Marc Pingris, Calvin Abueva, and Sonny Thoss have all nobly supported the Gilas backcourt, to middling results. Simply put, most of the PBA’s power forwards were built during the back-to-the-basket era, something that is no longer sustainable given the rise of more skilled and athletic big men in the region. Korean Seounghyun Lee, Australian Daniel Kickert, and Houston Rocket Zhou Qi, all shooting centers, will inevitably cause trouble for Gilas in the next windows of play.

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Maybe Gilas should have kept its revolving door of shooters open longer. Larry Fonacier, Jeff Chan, Marcio Lassiter, and the magnificent Matthew Wright were all worthy of their roles and perhaps should have played together longer, if at all. During the mediocre FIBA Asia Cup run, the Philippines averaged third in total three points made, just behind Japan and Korea, sowing the seeds for our next evolution. But we fielded a less talented team then—we could certainly improve with better personnel on the bench.

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In February 2018, Gilas will face an Australian team (its Team B, no less) that shot 52% from the field and 35% from three during the FIBA Asia Cup. If we intend to stay for the championships in 2019, we have to figure out a way to utilize our speed and shooting similar to what South Korea and Australia have done so far in their own respective games.

THE YOUNG GUNS

Gilas’ talent pool looks amazing. The problem is, we can lose any number of them due to PBA controversies and team spats. The PBA and SBP’s maximum number of players per team rule will prevent us from fielding the best fitting players in the roster, but it’s worth imagining what we could do if we had them all.

Kiefer Ravena, Matthew Wright, and Roger Pogoy have given Gilas a breath of fresh air and energy; Ravena’s elite penetration and playmaking skills, Wright’s sharpshooting, and Pogoy’s offensive versatility quicken our pace of play than one we’ve been accustomed to seeing. To a lesser extent, former Gilas standouts Raymond Almazan and Carl Bryan Cruz have also added a more athletic and physical element to the game.

It would be fun to see key cogs of the San Miguel Beermen and the Ginebra Kings torturing teams with their crazy lineups—Arwind Santos in a Calvin Abueva-type role but with better shooting and defense, Alex Cabagnot firing off his magic on the open floor, Scottie Thompson breaking down offenses and rebounding like a man undone. Heck, let’s bring back Greg Slaughter even.

Down the college ranks, we have other tantalizing talent prospects that seem ready to contribute in the next three years or so. 

CJ Perez, no doubt, is a future gem. Ateneo’s 6’7” center Isaac Go can be the next Ranidel de Ocampo with his smooth long-range shooting and high IQ play. Ricci Rivero and Thirdy Ravena can be next in the line of explosive above-the-rim players in the PBA. UE’s Alvin Pasaol and FEU’s Arvin Tolentino all stand above 6’3” and can develop into well-rounded players should they finally choose to get in shape for high-level basketball.

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The talent is there, but the question is simply whether the PBA, the SBP, and everyone else involved will allow these young men to grow into the people they deserve to be. 

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BLURRED LINES

We go where our go-to player, and perhaps the finest international point guard we have ever produced, Jayson Castro takes us. Rarely have we seen a player with the ideal strength, size, skill, and shooting prowess that “The Blur” possesses—and in this tournament it is even more evident.

Castro is currently No. 4 in the FIBA Asia Qualifiers in PPG with 20.0, right above former Dallas Mavericks summer league invitee Ding Yanyuhang. Our next top 50 player is Fajardo at 39, which means as early as 2018 we should be looking for the next great go-to player for Gilas right now.

Whether this turns out to be Terrence Romeo who will have hopefully improved his playmaking skills above and beyond simply playing Rambo behind the arc, or a newly resurrected Fajardo lording it over opposing centers, is still a mystery. Castro may very well be one of a kind, and we may never have a player as complete as him in the next decade or so.

What's urgent now is for Gilas to find a right offensive and defensive system capable of bringing out the best in the current and future rosters, no matter their limitations and quirks. Utilizing modern trends in maximizing scoring and defensive opportunities while matching the roster's skillset is a must. Also undeniable: We need to evolve together with the Asian giants and transition into a faster and more prolific shooting game. Doing otherwise could spell doom for us in the long run.

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