MANILA, Philippines – One of the oldest sayings in basketball goes, “Next man up.”
That’s currently the conundrum faced by the Philippines’ men’s national basketball team, which will most likely have to fair in the upcoming 2015 FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan, China, without injured two-time reigning PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo.
The 6-foot-11 Fajardo, 25, was invited to join the Gilas pool of head coach Tab Baldwin, but has been unavailable to practice due to plantar fasciitis issues in both his feet he suffered during the recent PBA season.
Fortunately for Baldwin, two veteran big men have answered the team’s call to make up for Fajardo’s absence.
“I’m excited,” said Alaska center Sonny Thoss about being the national team’s chief local center – a task he shares with NLEX veteran Asi Taulava.
“There’s an opportunity here to step up,” Thoss added, speaking with Rappler during Gilas practice last week. “And we’re both big guys capable of playing in the paint. We’re going to step up to the challenge and go from there.”
“[I’m] most definitely looking forward to it,” Taulava said to Rappler. “That’s part of the responsibility. June Mar’s not here. Gotta step up for my brother.”
The 57-year-old Baldwin likes what he sees from both Taulava and Thoss. Though the two aren’t threats in the open floor, they bring a lot of positives that Gilas can benefit from, he says.
“I like both of them as very strong, physical centers in the post, and both of them have decent low-post games; back-to-the-basket games. Asi’s a pretty good midrange shooter, so is Sonny. Defensively, they’re both pretty smart. They’re experienced guys, and they’re tough,” said Baldwin, who’s in his first year as the national team head coach.
“They’re not going to be great transition guys, so we’ll have to see how our game suits them in that regard, but they’re clever defenders, they’re physical players, and they’re both smart. I like them.”
Another strong quality both guys bring that even Fajardo can’t is years of experience. Taulava is 42 and has been competing internationally since 2002. Thoss, 33, has worn Philippine colors in 3 different international tournaments.
According to Baldwin, the strong work ethic of both guys have been on display during Gilas practices – which started on August 3 – even if the two utilize different approaches to show it.
“Asi’s more vocal. Sonny’s fairly quiet. But both of them have great attitudes,” said Baldwin, who led Jordan to a silver-medal finish in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship. “Both of them come to work every day. Asi leads vocally, Sonny leads by example. Both of them do a good job of that.”
“Coach obviously sees something in us; what we can contribute, so we’re taking it one day at a time, getting familiar with the system, learning what he wants to do. Come game time, we’ll go from there,” said Thoss, who will have a lot of pressure on his shoulders for Gilas.
Besides Fajardo, the national team also doesn’t have Ginebra big men Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar (injured). Talk ’N Text veteran Kelly Williams is out after suffering an MCL injury in Gilas practice last week. Ranidel de Ocampo is still nursing a hamstring injury. Long-time national team representative Marc Pingris has yet to attend practice.
Even the team’s naturalized player, Andray Blatche, suffered an undetermined injury in practice – either in the upper groin or lower stomach area.
“I’m just going to come in and try to work hard, try to listen to him (Baldwin), and follow him at the same time,” said Thoss.
“Me and Sonny’s got to do our best to fill that gap that’s left open by June Mar,” said Taulava. “We all know he’s the face of the PBA.”
Blatche a great fit
However severe Blatche’s injury is, it’s no secret the quicker he can get back on the floor, the better for Gilas Pilipinas.
The former NBA player’s contributions on the court is impressive. In the 2014 FIBA World Cup, he averaged 21.2 points a game (3rd best overall) and 13.8 rebounds a contest (best overall). But more than the statistics, his ability to make the national team better as a collective unit is what’s more formidable.
“He’s got such an elevated skill level,” Baldwin said about the 28-year-old Blatche. “He can pass, he can shoot, he can post up. Puts the ball in the floor. He’s very intelligent, especially defensively. Take your pick.”
“I like all of that,” added the head coach, “and I like what he gives to the team, cause he’s unselfish on top of all of that. He’s a great fit for our team.” – Rappler.com