Gilas Pilipinas will deploy the most ambitious and controversial lineup yet against its hardest and most unfamiliar assignment to date, when the 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers action resumes on Thursday, February 22.
Coach Chot Reyes will attempt to blitz a taller Australian team out of the gate by utilizing several guards in the lineup. Expect Gilas to run often and run hard. Is our roster enough to keep things competitive or are we doomed to suffer like Japan did last November?
Australia has always been a balanced team, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t prolific in scoring—after all, this is the nation that produced NBA hotshot Joe Ingles, who is shooting .580 from the field, .570 from three, and 1.000 from the line in Utah’s current 11-game winning streak.
Gilas will be hard-pressed to fully control the interior due to our lack of height and length—so it's vital for us to shoot well from beyond the arc. Confident shooting will attract defenses, opening open up the paint and allowing more high-percentage drives and post stabs. This explains why our guard rotation is loaded with outside snipers, albeit with varying efficiency.
GILAS GUARDS AND WINGS FG% AND 3PT%; PBA 2017-18
(based on RealGM statistics)
This season, Gilas’ three best shooters—Carl Bryan Cruz, Jayson Castro, and Matthew Wright—are also coincidentally the only ones shooting above .300. Take that percentage with a grain of salt, however; the PBA has always adopted a faster, more physical style of play that prioritizes productivity more than efficiency.
Our local gunners do tend to shoot much better in a more team-oriented system, and the figures show more encouraging trends.
GILAS TOP SHOOTERS, PBA 3PT% VS. FIBA 3PT%
(based on RealGM statistics)
This table better illustrates our shooting metrics in international play, which prioritizes spacing and role specialization more than one-on-one talent seeming preferred by the slimmer Andray Blatche. Under international rules, we have three shooters capable of making it rain at almost a .400 clip.
One explanation for lower PBA percentages this season might be the increased physicality brought about by 2018’s new management. Unbridled and aggressive defense seems to be having an adverse effect on shooters this year (particularly the young ones), and the rest of Gilas’ roster certainly aren’t immune to this.
GILAS BENCH WINGS, LAST YEAR VS. CURRENT YEAR 3PT%; PBA
(based on RealGM statistics)
Based on the 2017-18 data alone, it seems like we're fielding the wrong crew for our upcoming matches. But last year’s sample proves most of them are still capable of shooting upwards of .300, with the lone exception of Kevin Alas, who is shooting progressively worse every year since his 2014 PBA debut (where he shot a less egregious .287 from long range).
Theoretically, seven of our eight backcourt guys can shoot .300 and up, which is a plus. Coach Chot needs to sharpen his plays and ensure his shooters receive the ball in the right spots, and not relegate them to last-second bailout shooters, which is normally what happens when Blatche goes solo in the paint.
Regardless of their middling shooting cllips, Pogoy, Jalalon, Ravena, and Alas were brought in for a reason—to quicken the pace. Gilas will need their attacking mentality along with their playmaking in order to find gaps in AUS’s defense and establish our game plan. Granted, Terrence Romeo should have been perfect for this role, but injuries will keep him away from international play for a while.
The most surprising addition to the frontcourt has to be the fledgling Abu Tratter, a 6’4” big who spent minutes as a mobile forward for the Green Archers. Beating out several taller and more experienced players in the pool, Tratter represents the biggest question mark in the roster. He truly is a jack of all trades in college, averaging only 7.3 ppg, but shooting a solid .547 underneath the basket. His 6 rpg isn’t much either. Tratter will likely defend Australia’s larger wings; his scoring from the weakside will be a bonus, if he weaves in and out of the paint during Chot’s typical dribble drive scenarios. But Tratter’s inability to do one thing incredibly well will be his biggest challenge moving forward.
It’s entirely possible that Tratter exists as insurance for a much more experienced Calvin Abueva—perhaps an improved version of Tratter in virtually every facet save for height. Historically, Abueva has done terribly in these tournaments—he’s sporting a .380 FG shooting and .154 long-range shooting per game in limited minutes, a far cry from .437 from the field and .333 from three in 2015—his best shooting year in the PBA.
Returning to the fray is a slightly leaner Andray Blatche, a more committed June Mar Fajardo, and a predictable version of Japeth Aguilar. Aguilar’s athleticism and Blatche’s skills might be the best among even Australia’s players, but for everyone else Australia simply is larger and more experienced. Australia’s mobility and versatility will also make it difficult to play one-on-one.
The same criticisms we have made before are still valid: Blatche and Fajardo need to rely on playmaking rather than size in order to maximize Gilas’ offense as a whole.
There’s a reason why the Australians are regarded as the unicorns of FIBA Asia: they can shoot, run, and play physical despite being much taller than their competition. They’re a longer, taller, and more iso-friendly version of the disciplined South Korea team we’re used to seeing in FIBA.
The Australians have a bunch of players across multiple positions that can do damage from the field—and many have been doing so in their native league for a while. At least a third of their roster can be seen in top 20 statistical lists in the National Basketball League, a competitive league which has already seen talents advance in the NBA such as Ingles, Patty Mills, and David Andersen.
Along with 6’2” wing Mitch McCarron, who is 5th in rebounds this season in the NBL, and 6’8” Nicholas Kay (14th), Australia can field a 5-man lineup with little to no offensive or defensive downswing (McCarron is also shooting .360 from the three). They play the long game and maximize their height and shooting to stretch defenses towards their tipping point. When all else fails, their guards are tall enough to shoot over anybody at an above average clip.
Australia doesn’t have elite-level rim protection—but they don’t really need to. Proper rotations and playmaking ensures they can have a competent rebounder and outside shooters at any point on the floor.
It becomes urgent for Gilas to use the three wisely and efficiently the way Japan did early against its match versus Australia in November. If Gilas clanks their long-range bombs early, a simple zone defense can render our dynamic but smaller guards ineffective due to their middling efficiency at the paint.
Australia’s November game was an 82-58 drubbing of Japan, in which the Akatsuki Five shot a valiant 46% (vs. AUS’s 55%) from the paint, but a miserable 4/18 or 22% (vs. 43%) from beyond the arc. Japan’s speed gave Australia fits in the first half, but defenses collapsed on them late when Japan could no longer utilize their long-range shooting, making interior drives unproductive. Makoto Hiejima led Japan with 17 points, but only two other players scored in double figures, and only six other players scored at all.
Daniel Kickert has been the ultimate mismatch-maker for Australia—a 6’10” rebounding and sweet-shooting power forward who can push his way under the rim for a quick two. Fajardo is too slow, short, and flat-footed to consistently defend against him, and Blatche may not be able to cover anyone beyond the paint. He’s not too strong nor athletic to dominate a game single-handedly—which means one of our twin towers will have to sacrifice their offensive energy to contain Kickert for heavy minutes.
Gilas will just have to accept that they will be outrebounded most of the time—but having a more prolific shooting can destabilize Australia’s half court offense and hopefully give us productive possessions down the wire. Now is the time for Tratter to prove the team’s trust in him, and now is the time for the NLEX boys (Alas and Ravena) to prove they can fit in the system. And more importantly, now is the time to see just how far the Philippines can go in competing with the world’s basketball giants.
Watch Gilas Pilipinas' first game of the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers second window against the Australian Boomers, which will be held in the latter's homecourt at the Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne, this coming Thursday on ESPN 5