NZ Saints coach thinks Gilas can win FIBA Asia

MANILA, Philippines – After playing Gilas Pilipinas twice in very close games, New Zealand Wellington Saints playing coach Kevin Braswell has seen enough to believe that the Philippine men’s basketball team can win the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship.

“That team competes, they play hard every possession. I think they have a great chance at winning the Asian championship,” the 36-year-old said during the MVP Cup held in Manila last weekend, where the Saints clinched second place out of 4 teams.

“I think they’ll be fine especially when Andray (Blatche) gets more fit. They have great guard play. I really love their guards. I think everyone comes in and plays their part.” 

Wellington, whose roster Braswell put together just days before the William Jones Cup in August, after he was appointed head coach early that same month, lost to the Filipinos by an average of 3.5 points in two games.

In the Jones Cup in Taiwan, the game had to be decided in overtime, while the second one at the MVP Cup was also a come-from-behind triumph.

It was two character wins for the side of Gilas. But on the part of Braswell, it was enough for him to gauge what might make the Philippine team a force to be reckoned with in Asia in the coming years. 

“With the Oceania and Asia are merging, if you can get 3 or 4 more big guys in the next 3 or 4 years, I think that the Philippines actually can (become a powerhouse),” explained Braswell. He even cited top PBA rookie Moala Tautuaa as a center he thinks is “gonna be special.” 

He explained: “Because the guard play is there. You have the guards that can play against any country. It’s just more of having those bigs that can compete with other team’s bigs possession for possession.” 

Impressed with Abueva, Romeo 

Despite not having a solid big man, Gilas can take some comfort in having a relentless energizer bunny in Calvin Abueva, whom Braswell said he was "especially" impressed with. 

“One guy that I especially love is Calvin. I love him. He comes in and he changes games. A lot of people probably don’t see the little things he does and he brings to the team but his energy, and for his size, to be such a great rebounder. It’s hard,” he explained. 

And rebounding, according to Braswell, will be critical for Gilas Pilipinas to go far in the FIBA Asia wars. 

“What he does so great is if he gets a defensive rebound, he pushes the ball and a lot of people can’t match up with that,” he said. “So I think if they (Gilas) can rebound the ball well, they’ll be fine in the Asian championship. That’s gonna be their biggest issue, rebounding the ball.” 

Rebounding the ball means being able to control the pace of the game – and for Gilas, who plays a very fast, up-tempo style of basketball, controlling the pace is everything.

“It goes back to the number one thing which is rebounding. If you guys can rebound the ball, no one can do that with the team I saw in the MVP Cup,” Braswell said. “Not for 40 minutes. You might be able to do it in 20 or 25 minutes but not for 40.” 

He used host China as an example. 

“China is always gonna be good. It’s a bigger country, they have a lot of talent,” he stated. “I think the biggest thing with them, if you can play at the speed that you play it, I don’t think they can keep up. I think they play in a lot of slower paces than what you guys do.” 

China, Iran, and the Philippines are Braswell’s bets to win the gold this year and the accompanying slot to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. For him, it all just depends on “who’s going to be better on that day.”

One other player that caught Braswell’s eye is prolific scorer Terrence Romeo, who is so ingenius with the many ways he can put the ball into the hoop no matter the opponent in front of him.

The Gilas rookie torched Wellington in the MVP Cup, dropping 14 of his 18 points in the final quarter including 4 booming 3-pointers, to overturn a 13-point Saints lead and have Gilas win the game by 3 points. (WATCH: Terrence Romeo catches fire in another Gilas comeback)

But just like Gilas head coach Tab Baldwin, Braswell believes Romeo still needs to unlock another side to himself. (READ: Romeo works on maturity under Alapag, Racela at Gilas)

“Terrence Romeo, he’s more of a one-on-one player, he’s not someone who can control a basketball game. He’s someone you give the ball to and you just let him go to work,” explained the veteran, whom Baldwin described as a “prototype point guard.” 

“I think what they’re gonna need to become a powerhouse and on of the stronger teams in Asia is a point guard who can actually direct.” 

Braswell has played in a number of countries throughout his professional career since 2002. But for most of the last 5 years, Braswell saw action in the New Zealand National Basketball League. 

“I watched him (Romeo) when they were shooting around, and he was in there doing his ball handling drills, similar to what Steph Curry was doing every game,” he added. 

“So it doesn’t go unnoticed for someone like myself who’s practiced years and years to see someone doing that and to see it actually performing on the court. He puts a lot of time and a lot of work into the game and that’s why you see the product on the court.”

Key to beating Iran

The Philippines is currently 0-4 against Iran since the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, where Gilas settled for the silver. And if the Filipinos want to win the gold, they will likely have to overcome the seemingly unassailable giants led by 7-foot-2 behemoth Hamed Haddadi. 

Braswell believes mighty Iran has a weakness.

“I believe if you can put Haddadi into some of those big guys in pick and roll situations over and over again, they have to defend. They get tired,” he explained. “Then towards the end of the game, they’re not so efficient on offense. That’s how you beat Iran.” 

There is also a possibility for Gilas to shock Iran, Braswell said, if guards Romeo and Jayson Castro are able to take over and seamlessly integrate naturalized big Blatche into the flow. But having Fil-Am Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, according to Braswell, would have improved their chances. (READ: Baldwin assesses Gilas: 'We're not ready yet')

“I swear, the Filipino team, they play more like the NBA. It’s more one-on-one and stuff like that,” Braswell said, before pointing out another key factor that could boost the Philippines’ play. 

“It’s good sometimes but sometimes you’re gonna actually need structure. When you’re playing a good defensive team that has chemistry. It’s hard to go one-on-one after every possession.

“Sometimes you have to draw up plays, you have to run specific sets to get the ball in people’s hands and I think that can be one of the other things – rebounding and having a little bit more structure.” 

He added: “Because Iran has great structure, they get the ball to Haddadi and he’s able to pick guys apart. It’s a different style of play but if they have a bit more structure, teams will be a lot better.”

The Philippines is set to vie for the gold in the FIBA Asia tilt starting on September 23 in Changsha, Hunan, China. They are in Group B and will be up against Kuwait, Palestine, and Hong Kong. –