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FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers: Assessing Gilas young guns

The Gilas Pilipinas team that will play two games against Thailand on November 27 and 30 in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers will be unlike other iterations of the national squad in recent years.

This will be the first time since the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge Cup that the Philippines will field a team without PBA stars in a senior-level FIBA competition. The 2016 squad, which was bannered by amateur standouts Mac Belo, RR Pogoy, and CJ Perez, had 9 players below 25 years old. 

The current Gilas Pilipinas is even younger than the 2016 team. The 14-men pool in the Bahrain qualifiers has an average age of 22.7 years old.

The oldest in the team is 26-year-old Rey Suerte, while the other 13 players are aged 24 and below. The youngest members are 21-year-old Juan Gomez de Liaño and 20-year-old Dave Ildefonso.

Thailand, on the other hand, is fielding a veteran team that has an average age of 28 years old. (READ: Is Gilas in for a tough time against Thailand?)

What the Jong Uichico-mentored Gilas squad lacks in experience, it makes up for in spunk, energy, and athleticism. 

Critical to Thailand's success will be the quarterbacking of Nattakorn Muangboon, who got recently named the top point guard in the Thailand Basketball League (TBL). Gilas Pilipinas will be more than equipped to answer back with Matt Nieto and Gomez de Liaño.

While Nieto is a pass-first point guard focused on orchestrating plays for the team, Gomez de Liaño is a spitfire scorer who can hurt opposing teams offensively.

In Gilas' victory over Indonesia in the first window last February, Nieto only scored 2 points but led the team in assists with 6 dimes. Gomez de Liaño contributed 10 points. If these two heady, pesky playmakers can tag-team in making Muangboon uncomfortable in the backcourt, then they could potentially disrupt the order and flow of the Thai offense.

Another critical area that Gilas Pilipinas will closely look into will be the battle in the low block. The 6-foot-8 Isaac Go, 6-foot-7 Justine Baltazar, and 6-foot-8 Kemark Cariño will have to limit the touches of 6-foot-8 TBL MVP Chanatip Jakrawan.

The young Filipino frontline also have to contend with a trio of physical bigs in Sukhdave Ghogar, Anucha Langsui, and Anasawee Klaewnarong, all listed at least 6-foot-6.

Baltazar, the only local slotman to average more than 10 boards per game during the previous UAAP season, has proven he does not back down from all the banging in the post while Go has been toughened in the Jones Cup and in the qualifiers and will not get easily intimidated. 

Gilas Pilipinas has a deep rotation of long, athletic forwards which Thailand will find difficult to match up with. Kobe Paras, Will Navarro, Dwight Ramos, and Javi Gomez de Liaño are all tall, versatile two-way players who can play multiple positions, help out on the glass, and run up and down the floor.

The thought of Paras and Ramos streaking together down the floor during a fastbreak play is enough to excite Filipino fans and give the Thai coaching staff fits in their scouting reports. 

What is perhaps lacking in the Gilas Pilipinas arsenal is the presence of deadshot snipers who can consistently drop bombs from the three-point area. The 2016 squad had Pogoy and Von Pessumal playing this role. 

Suerte and Ildefonso will have to be on target for Gilas Pilipinas because outside shooting will be a crucial element in the team's quest to defeat Thailand. Both Suerte and Ildefonso are prolific scorers who can light up the scoreboard.

Suerte, a former CESAFI MVP who led the University of Visayas Green Lancers to 3 straight titles, brought his scoring act to the UAAP when he averaged 17.6 points in his lone season with the UE Red Warriors.

Ildefonso, who moved back to Ateneo from the National University, led Batang Gilas in the FIBA U19 World Cup last year with 16.6 points per outing.

Mike Nieto can be called upon to try to slow down Thai gunners Wattana Suttisin and Nakorn Jaisanuk. Nieto is a tough-as-nail defender, although he will have his hands full against the 35-year-old Suttisin and the 29-year-old Jaisanuk, who are both crafty scorers.

Gilas Pilipinas has had less than two weeks to prepare for the second window, so Uichico will have to rely on the basketball IQ of his players who are some of the best and the brightest in the amateur ranks. 

It is not farfetched that Uichico will employ combinations of players who are familiar with one another, like putting UP Fighting Maroons Paras and the Gomez de Liaño brothers on the floor at the same time.

It is also logical to assume that team consultant Tab Baldwin will have an imprint in the type of system the team will use. There are 6 players from the Ateneo Blue Eagles – Go, Navarro, Ramos, Ildefonso, and the Nieto brothers – who should be at home in a Baldwin-influenced brand of play. Given the time constraints, Uichico may have to resort to these combos to somehow negate the team's lack of chemistry.

This Gilas Pilipinas crew will give fans a glimpse of the future of the national team program. For sure, there will be some players who will emerge as potential candidates for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, which the country will be hosting.

But even as Gilas Pilipinas has its sights set on the future, it also is aware that it has a mission in the present and it begins on Friday, November 27. It knows Filipino fans will want nothing less than two victories over Thailand. – Rappler.com