Gilas Diaries: Asia's Adopted Sons (Part 1)
(First of six parts)
MANILA, Philippines -- It is July 19 here in Manila, and there are only 13 nights left before the 2013 FIBA Asia Men’s Championship Tournament, the first ever held in these parts in 4 decades, kicks off at the ultramodern Mall of Asia Arena and the historic Ninoy Aquino Stadium.
An air of excitement can be felt all around the metropolis as promotions for the event continue to ramp up each day. Various signs along highways, advertisements on radio and TV, and promo spots on YouTube have popped up, readying the rabid Filipino populace for what should be the biggest sporting event of the year.
And as the last one-time-big-time FIBA Asia Men’s Championship (the format will change after the 2014 World Cup) closes in, we will take a look at the players and teams who will take part in it. I actually wanted to start with a reasonably thorough team-by-team preview (I mean, honestly, who else is going to do that here in Manila, right?), but seeing as FIBA Asia has not yet publicized the official submitted 12-man rosters of each team (despite the deadline coming and going last July 12), I am forced to look at the players from a different perspective.
In this first in a 6-part series, I will look at some key players who will undoubtedly make a great impact in the tournament. In the first two parts, I will put the spotlight on the naturalized players from West/Central Asia and East Asia. In parts 3 and 4, I will focus on the veterans who are still persistently chugging along despite wobbly knees, and in the last two parts, I will write about the stars who are expected to be in peak form when the basketball version of Thrilla in Manila commences.
I hope that at the end of this series, Rappler readers and fans of Asian hoops will be more enlightened, and that FIBA Asia will finally release the official rosters.
Here we go.
Parts 1 & 2 are entitled Adopted Sons because I will detail the naturalized players expected to take part in the August joust. The naturalized players, of course, are those who were born citizens of a different country and who, eventually, chose to become citizens of their new Asian homes.
By virtue of this, they have also chosen to play for a flag, a nation, a culture, and a people not entirely (originally) their own, but it is the hope of this new flag, nation, and culture, and the faith of these people that are carried by these adopted sons.
Jimmy Baxter, Jordan
Specs: 6’6", 33 years old
College: University of South Florida Bulls (2000-2004)
Latest Achievement: Led Krko Novo Mesto to the Slovenian Supercup Title, averaging 10.5ppg, 4.0rpg, and 1.3spg.
Last Tournament: Played in the 2013 William Jones Cup (Taiwan) and named to the Tournament Second-Team alongside Samad Nikkhah Bahrami (IRI), Curtis Marshall (USA), Fadi El Khatib (LIB), and Kim Sun-Hyung (KOR).
Baxter is the replacement for Jordan’s first-ever naturalized player, Rasheim Wright, who played for Al Nashama in 3 FIBA Asia tourneys (2007, 2009, and 2011). Needless to say, Baxter has big shoes to fill as Wright led the Jordanians to their best-ever finish in Wuhan two years ago. They upset the Iranians in the quarters, flipped Gilas in the semis, and lost by just 1 point to hosts China in the Finals.
Based on early returns, it seems Baxter is in an unenviable position. Despite being known as an athletic and explosive scorer, I doubt if he will be able to consistently put up the numbers Wright was able to in his tour of duty with the WABA powerhouse. For one, Baxter’s game isn’t as well-rounded as Wright’s, and he isn’t known to be a player who helps his teammates get involved. Another big factor is the absence of star point guard Sam Daghlas, whose uncanny ability to cut through the defense, find his teammates in good spots, and knack for hitting big shots in big moments will be sorely missed.
Baxter will have to do with Wesam Al Sous and Mahmoud Abdeed helping him out at the wings, which is to say he will have to score more heavily than Wright was ever expected to, and he will have to do it with less help.
* I will feature two potential Qatari naturalized players, since Jarvis Hayes seems to be the frontrunner, but rumors of Al-Annabi considering NBA Draft pick Tanguy Ngombo have surfaced as well.
Jarvis Hayes, Qatar
Specs: 6’7", 32 years old
College: University of Georgia Bulldogs (2000-2003)
Latest Achievement: Helped the Detroit Pistons to reach the East Finals in 2008, averaging 2.1ppg and 1.5rpg in the Playoffs.
Last Tournament: Played 10 games for Elizur Ashkelon in the 2013 Israel-Winner League, averaging 19.5ppg, 4.4rpg, and shooting 45% from downtown.
Perhaps Hayes is best known for being part of the same NBA Draft class as guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. Hayes was taken by the Washington Wizards at the 10th spot way before future All-Stars David West, Josh Howard, and Mo Williams. Hayes eventually moved away from the NBA and toured Europe as a journeyman player for clubs from Russia, Turkey, and, eventually, Israel.
It is no wonder a country as rich as Qatar got NBA blood as its naturalized player. Just last year, former LA Laker Trey Johnson also played for QAT in the 2012 FIBA Asia Cup, helping them place 3rd ahead of Gilas. And though recent online reports have alleged that Hayes is no longer being considered for the Gulf power’s NT, photos from their Lithuanian training camp suggest otherwise.
So how does Hayes complement the Qataris? He will probably play up front together with the legendary Yaseen Ismail Musa and other solid frontliners Mohammed Yousef and Omar Salem. Hayes is versatile enough, however, to also play at the wings alongside shooters Saad Abdulrahman and Erfan Ali Saeed.
Simply put, his quickness will be an asset as a PF and his size-and-shooting combo makes him a more-than-viable swingman option. Will QAT be better with him around? Definitely. Will he make them an instant title contender? Not necessarily, since most of the Qataris’ star players are already in the twilight of their international careers.
Tanguy Ngombo, Qatar
Specs: 6’6 - 29 years old
Hails from: Congo
Latest Achievement: Led Al Rayyan to the 2013 Gulf Club Championships Semifinals.
Last Tournament: Played in the 2012- 2013 season of Qatar’s Division 1 Pro League, averaging 12.5ppg, 6.1rpg, 1.3spg, and shooting nearly 50% from the field for Al Rayyan.
Ngombo has played as a local for Qatar on several occasions (the 2010 Asian Games, the Pan-Arab Games, and the 2011 FIBA Asia Champions Cup to name a few), but the citizenship snafu in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championships happened, and he was tagged as a “foreign” player who had to go through naturalization to play.
Fast-forward to 2013 and rumors have gone around about how Qatar is working a way to put Ngombo back in the NT roster. He will definitely never be considered a local, so Qatari officials have allegedly considered making him the team’s naturalized player should the Jarvis Hayes deal fall through.
In case the rumors are true and Ngombo does get the nod, he will pretty much bring the same skills Hayes does to the table. Though Ngombo is not as deadly from long range, he is definitely the more explosive slasher and more aggressive defender. Perhaps his best asset, however, is his familiarity with the Qatari players and their Asian foes, making his experience invaluable.
CJ Giles, Bahrain
Specs: 6’11", 28 years old
College: University of Kansas Jayhawks (2004-2006) and Oregon State Beavers (2007-2008)
Latest Tournament & Achievement: Led Al-Muharraq to the Finals of the Bahraini Premier League.
Many Pinoys will be familiar with Giles, since he was the original naturalization candidate for the Gilas program. He was always a skilled big man who could control the game with his rebounding, shot-blocking, and athleticism, but he was never a vocal leader and definitely more of a distraction off the court.
For Bahrain, however, he plugs a very significant hole in the middle. When the Bahrainis hosted the 2012 Gulf Championships, he helped them beat UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia and arrange a showdown with Qatar in the Finals, losing 74-64. Giles netted 13 markers in that loss, where he went up against the likes of Musa and Salem. He will, however, also go up against tough foes in Manila as Kazakhstan’s Anton Ponomarev and India’s Amritpal Singh await in Group D.
Should BRN advance, even heavier competition will meet him in the form of Yi Jianlian, Hamed Haddadi, and Kim Joo-Sung. Nonetheless, Giles adds much-needed size and depth to the Al-Ahmar quintet, and they should not be taken lightly because of it.
Jerry Johnson, Kazakhstan
Specs: 6’0", 31 years old
College: Rider University Broncs (2001-2005)
Latest Achievement & Tournament: He has played for Kazakhstan’s top club, BC Astana, ever since 2011. This past season, he averaged 11.2ppg, 2.6rpg, 4.4apg, and 1.2spg. With Johnson, Astana copped the titles for both the Kazakhstan Cup and Kazakhstan League in 2012 and 2013.
Despite being on the wrong side of 30, Triple J (Jerry Jamar Johnson) can still definitely burn rubber. He won’t be a big time scorer for the Kazakhs in the FIBA Asia tourney because they have a bunch of other guys who can score (led by Ponomarev and Rustam Yargaliev of course). Instead, he is expected to be the primary ball distributor and the designated star-stopper for KAZ.
On paper, it seems Johnson is the perfect fit for a team known more for its size than its playmaking, but the potential downside is he hasn’t played a lick of FIBA Asia hoops. He hasn’t really seen or played against most of the key court generals, especially the ones he will play against in Group D play -- like India’s Vishesh Bhriguvanshi or Bahrain’s Bader Malabes. And if the Kazakhs do play to expectations, veteran guards Yang Dong-Geun (KOR) and Mahdi Kamrani (IRI) will definitely test Johnson.
In the next part of this series, I will discuss the other naturalized players. This time, we will look at the ones from East Asia.
#parasabayan - Rappler.com
Enzo Flojo is one of the closest followers of the Philippine National Basketball Team. He is a self-proclaimed Asian Basketball hoop nut, and he doubts if anyone knows as much as he does about the best players in this corner of the world. He maintains a nationally-recognized basketball blog (HoopNut.com), and he hopes you can pester him on Twitter -- @hoopnut.