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MANILA, Philippines – Gilas Pilipinas put together arguably its tallest and most talented lineup for this year’s FIBA World Cup. Not only does this roster feel like a culmination of the multi-year plan laid out by the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, but also a reflection of what the Philippine brand of basketball has achieved in recent years.
Time can only tell what this crew can accomplish. History will be the judge and the perception of the squad always lies on its cohesion on the court. Nevertheless, discussing what the lineup is made of as an individual ethos for Gilas provides the legion of basketball-loving Filipinos a good portrait of the team.
Kai Sotto gets a chance to show what he is truly made of in the World Cup.
He posted pedestrian numbers for the Adelaide 36ers in National Basketball League Australia, averaging 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in his last season there. Sotto then moved to Japan B. League to play for the Hiroshima Dragonflies, for which he normed 8.9 points and 6.1 rebounds.
The 21-year-old played sporadically in the NBA Summer League for the Orlando Magic and struggled to make an impression after a series of DNPs and a back injury in their final game.
Playing in his first World Cup in the seniors level, Sotto will have a chip on his shoulder as he continues to prove his worth as a serviceable big man in the international scene. The NBA dream may have turned slim, but this World Cup paves a way for the 7-foot-3 wunderkind to re-introduce himself.
It is rare to see an active NBA player play for the Philippines, more so when that player is a former Sixth Man of the Year in the most prestigious league in the sport. Jordan Clarkson’s caliber is unquestioned entering his first-ever World Cup. What he brings to a Gilas squad in need of on-ball creation and star power should push the ceiling of this team further.
Playing as the undisputed alpha of the team, Clarkson will have immense pressure offensively while dealing with world-class defensive schemes tailored to contain him – a predicament he has not seen in his career. He averaged a career-high 20.8 points per game for the Utah Jazz last season as a consistent starter for the first time, which should be a solid indicator of how ready Clarkson is for offensive load he is expected to carry. Now that he holds the keys of basically everything offensively, Clarkson has a tall task ahead of him.
Clarkson will most likely be the barometer of Gilas in the tournament. Filipinos will be riding off the back of the 31-year-old for the most realistic goal of reaching the Olympics. How far can he carry a team in a tournament remains to be seen.
Scottie Thompson is the quintessential Filipino player. Relatively small, agile, and a hard worker on the floor, Thompson provides all the intangibles in the point guard position.
The reigning PBA Most Valuable Player will hold the cudgels as the team’s primary playmaker.
There are more to his game than his 13.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 6 assists averages. His energy, grit, and wit on the court are what Gilas Pilipinas can expect from the 6-foot-1 guard who plays bigger than his listed height.
Thompson shall embody Gilas’ long-standing mantra of “Puso” as he debuts in the World Cup just mere weeks after recovering from a hand injury. Knowing Thompson, there are no doubts he’ll carry the flag, setbacks be damned.
AJ Edu could be the team’s X factor in the World Cup. Equipped with great size and athleticism, Edu used a pocket tournament in China to re-introduce himself to the Gilas program as he averaged 8.5 points, while snagging rebounds and manning the paint on the other end of the floor.
The China tournament was a litmus test for him and he surely passed with flying colors – his best game coming against Senegal where he posted 13 points laced with three triples. His presence would be an integral part of Gilas’ frontcourt.
Edu poses more questions on his game than answers. As his health progresses towards the right direction, the future is now for the 6-foot-10 youngster.
It has been four years since CJ Perez emerged as a rising star for Gilas as he led all locals in scoring in the last World Cup. This time around, Perez enters as a spark plug for an offense in need of on-ball creation.
The San Miguel guard posted 18.8 points per game in the past PBA season, an impressive mark considering his team’s stacked roster. Perez is a super scorer capable of putting the ball in the hole whenever he pleases. How that fits for this current Gilas context remains unclear.
Nevertheless, Perez is a weapon, one that could be tapped off-the-bench and provide a scoring punch immediately – an all-important piece in roster building.
A do-it-all highflyer, Jaime Malonzo is a hybrid forward, who will play multiple roles for the team. Standing at 6-foot-7, Malonzo bridges the gap between a small ball lineup and a macroball option. His athleticism and his threat from beyond the arc gives Gilas a layer of versatility in its lineups.
Malonzo averaged 15.1 points in the past PBA season, playing as an athletic winger that is an automatic highlight every time he breaks loose. He plays hard on defense and is reliable enough as a valve in the offense whenever he is asked to, regardless of in-game circumstances or choice.
Malonzo, as under-the-radar as he is, provides useful tools as he persists to be an intriguing piece for Gilas, especially when one puts in mind the game-to-game adjustments as the tournament progresses.
Rhenz Abando is a proven player on every level. He steered UST to the UAAP Finals, carried Letran to an NCAA title, and reached the pinnacle of the Korean Basketball League with Anyang KGC. A winning player in any league he played at, Abando looks to inject Gilas his pedigree in the World Cup.
Abando averaged 8.5 points in the KBL, a league where shooters are celebrated and athletic specimens are lauded. He is that and more as he shot 35% from three on low volume and posted 1 block a game, often in jaw-dropping fashion. He brings Gilas a movement shooting threat and someone who can electrify the crowd in moment’s notice.
Few in this country offers the skillset Abando possess. How that will translate to the international scene is anyone’s guess.
Kiefer Ravena has not been a well-liked figure in this World Cup buildup. Yet, he remains a fixture – and for good reason. Ravena provides stability in the guard position, which seems to be not as deep as Gilas’ previous iterations.
Ravena normed close to 8 points in all his Gilas stints, highlighted by his often overlooked floor generalship. What he does on the floor has often seen as a worse version of what he truly delivers. A polarizing figure, Ravena has all the World Cup to redefine himself.
June Mar Fajardo
June Mar Fajardo is a man that needs no introduction to faithful Filipino basketball fans. He has won titles both in the PBA and as a member of Gilas.
Fajardo is a towering big man whose size and strength earned him the nickname “The Kraken.” His on-court dominance has translated into nine PBA championships, four PBA Finals MVP awards, and six PBA MVP plums, to name a few.
The 6-foot-10 stalwart enters the World Cup as a tenured veteran with undisputed championship pedigree. His greatest asset to Gilas is without a doubt his size and strength to match up against opponents of the same build. Even as he heads into the twilight of his storied career, Fajardo still offers the brute physicality only few can match on court.
Japeth Aguilar is the longest-tenured Gilas player.
The top pick in the 2009 PBA Draft, Aguilar gave the NBA a shot, but his dreams of making the big league did not materialize.
Aguilar’s legacy flourished upon his return to the PBA in 2013. Known as half of Ginebra’s legendary Twin Towers alongside Greg Slaughter, the eight-time PBA champion has been a key defensive anchor for both the Gin Kings and Gilas throughout his career.
It can’t be overlooked that at 36 years old, Aguilar’s prime has indeed passed. But, with a widely successful career that has spanned nearly 15 years, the fact that he is still part of the national team speaks volumes about his undeniable impact and longevity.
One of the younger members on the squad at just 24 years old, Dwight Ramos is no stranger to foreign opposition. In fact, most of his playing career has been away from the Philippines.
Ramos was born and raised in the United States and played in the NCAA there. He made the jump to professional status after forgoing his final year of UAAP eligibility, moving overseas to the Japan B. League.
His decision has since paid off, having just signed a contract extension with Levanga Hokkaido after averaging 10 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists last season. It won’t be Ramos’ first time to don the Gilas jersey, but eyes will be on him as the World Cup will be his debut at a major international tournament.
Roger Pogoy is a household name in the local scene. He is best known for being an efficient, high-volume scorer throughout his PBA career – a huge necessity for Gilas.
Pogoy has demonstrated his ability to completely take over a game and drop 30 to 40 points on multiple occasions. Even as his professional career enters its eighth year, the two-time PBA champion keeps adding more weapons to his arsenal as he is coming off his best three-point shooting season with a 41.3% average.
Up against opponents who will undoubtedly put a premium on perimeter offense, Pogoy’s proficiency from beyond the arc fills in a crucial gap that can prove to be the difference between winning and losing. – Rob Andrew L. Dongiapon and Joaqin Iñigo R. Valencerina/Rappler.com
Rob Andrew L. Dongiapon (University of Santo Tomas) and Joaqin Iñigo R. Valencerina (De La Salle University) are Rappler interns. Their work on this article was guided and vetted by a staff reporter and editor.