Matt Nieto, team captain Rey Suerte, and Dave Ildefonso are out with injuries. There’s also still is no guarantee that Kai Sotto will have adequate time to train with the national pool before they plunge into action in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers starting June 16 in Clark, Pampanga.
So the immediate question on people’s mind will be what iteration of the national squad will be seeing action in Clark. These young Gilas nationals had their baptism of fire when they won two games in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers in Bahrain last November. The level of competition they will be facing this June, however, will be notches higher than when they beat Thailand.
The Philippines will be playing Indonesia once and arch-nemesis South Korea twice.
Will Gilas coach Jong Uichico and SBP program director Tab Baldwin go with a big lineup – a luxury they have with the array of lengthy players at their disposal – to match up with Indonesia’s naturalized 6-foot-10 center Lester Prosper and South Korea’s Ricardo Ratliffe, also known as Ra Guna? Or will the Gilas coaching staff opt for a smaller, more athletic combination to keep in step with the quick Koreans?
The 7-foot-3 Sotto teaming up with newly naturalized 6-foot-10 center Angelo Kouame will create a matchup problem of nightmarish proportions for Indonesia’s tactician Rajko Toroman and recently appointed Korean coach Cho Sang-hyun. Kouame as a rim protector and a force off the glass will allow Sotto to slide to the 4 spot which would make him an even more potent threat.
The 6-foot-8 Isaac Go has been with Gilas since the February 2020 window in Indonesia and looks to be a cinch as a backup slotman. He has been a steady presence in the middle as he has averaged 7 boards in three games in a Gilas uniform.
Justine Baltazar also appears poised for a return engagement. The 6-foot-7 stalwart was the leading rebounder of Gilas in Bahrain with 8.5 boards. He also scored 7 points per game.
Who among the other bigs will be joining the four will be contingent on whether or not Sotto will see action for Gilas.
The Gilas coaching staff can go with the more agile 6-foot-8 shotblocker Kenmark Cariño or 6-foot-6 Will Navarro, a tireless defender who can guard different positions. Both Cariño and Navarro have been immersed extensively in the Gilas system.
Two new frontliners in the pool could make the Gilas coaching staff think hard about their choices. Tzaddy Rangel is a 6-foot-8 banger who can help push Prosper and Ra Guna away from the basket. Youthful 6-foot-9 center Geo Chiu is said to have been displaying remarkable improvement in the team’s practices and could be worth considering as a future investment for the national pool.
It will be interesting to see how 20-year-old Carl Tamayo will be utilized in the Gilas system. Reports coming out is that he is being converted to the 3 spot.
Tamayo is one of the most talented young big men in the country who averaged over 12 points and 6 boards for Batang Gilas in the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup. Standing at 6-foot-7, he has shown the toughness to bang bodies in the low block and the skills to put the ball on the floor and shoot from outside.
Gilas Pilipinas will need to also be able to defend the perimeter and chase after the gunners of both Indonesia and Korea. Fortunately for the Gilas think tank, the choices for the wing and the backcourt are quite deep.
Two tall and versatile forwards will be focal points of the Gilas offense and central figures on defense. Projected starter, 6-foot-4 Dwight Ramos, shone the brightest in Bahrain with his averages of 16.5 points built on 57% shooting from the three-point region and 61% from the field.
The 6-foot-5 Javi Gomez de Liaño topscored for Gilas in their second game versus Thailand as he sank four triples on his way to finishing with 19 points.
These two must remain sharp and healthy to give Gilas a fighting chance, especially against Korea which features a lengthy wing rotation.
The addition of Jordan Heading, a 6-foot-2 combo guard, gives Gilas not only a solid combo guard to cover for the sidelined Suerte, but also a veteran presence. The 25-year-old Heading, a product of the California Baptist University in the US NCAA who has played for Batang Gilas and Alab Pilipinas in the ABL, will be called upon to provide stability to a team made up mostly of players aged 24 and below.
In the absence of his twin brother Matt, Mike Nieto’s role in the Gilas squad becomes even more invaluable. Big Mike is one of the recognized and vocal leaders of the team who will make sure no one loses sight of his assignment. On top of that, Nieto will share duties with Jaydee Tungcab in running all game long after Korea’s sharpshooters and Indonesia’s proven backcourt scorers.
Closing out on the shooters will be critical in giving Gilas a fighting chance to win. Even youngsters LeBron Lopez and Jason Credo, with their length, could be called upon to shadow the opposing teams’ wingmen.
RJ Abarrientos and SJ Belangel will have big shoes to fill as they try to replicate the steady playmaking job that the injured Nieto and Juan Gomez de Liaño did for the team in the last two windows of the qualifiers. Abarrientos and Belangel will have to earn the respect of their more experienced teammates and get everyone to listen to them both on and off the floor.
But more than the individual talents, the real strength of this version of Gilas Pilipinas is that it enables the players’ strengths to complement each other and fit into the system that the coaching staff has designed for the national team.
It is a system that works. It is a system that already defeated Indonesia last year on their home floor and could repeat over them in Clark. It also just might be the system that finally beats South Korea anew. – Rappler.com