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What’s next for Gilas Pilipinas?

The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) had to cram in putting together a national team for the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers in Manama, Bahrain. Since the PBA still has the ongoing Philippine Cup in the Clark bubble, Gilas Pilipinas assembled a squad featuring a mix of cadets and collegiate standouts. 

In what has become par for the course for the Gilas nationals, the young players representing the country had very little time to prepare for the qualifiers.

Then the unexpected happened. Given less than two weeks to acquaint themselves with one another and get in game shape after a long layoff, this latest iteration of Gilas Pilipinas came together quickly.

They played beautiful basketball characterized by ball and player movement that looked for the best available shot. They applied unrelenting pressure defense even from the backcourt. They fought tenaciously for the ball against older and heftier foes. They shared the ball unselfishly. They shot the ball from three like the Koreans. 

Pitted against a veteran-laden Thailand team, the Gilas Pilipinas squad that had an average age of 22.7 years old won twice by an average of 28 points. 

The question now in the minds of fans is what is in store next for the national team program. Right now, there are both short-term and long-term goals that the SBP is readying itself for. 

There is the next FIBA Asia Cup qualifying window on February which the Philippines might end up hosting in Clark. Gilas Pilipinas will play at least twice in that bubble, and both games could be against bitter rival South Korea. 

Then there is the bigger target, the 2023 FIBA World Cup which will be held in the country. 

Some think the pool that went to Bahrain, or at least majority of those in the pool, should be retained for both the qualifiers this February and the World Cup. They say that the current pool needs just a few more reinforcements from the PBA and from abroad. 

There is no doubt that Gilas Pilipinas will be formidable with the addition of veteran players from the pro league who have experience playing internationally.

Insert in the national pool the TNT trio of RR Pogoy, Ray Parks, and Troy Rosario, plus sharpshooting Matthew Wright, June Mar Fajardo, Christian Standhardinger, Kiefer Ravena, and CJ Perez, and Gilas Pilipinas instantly becomes so much stronger.

The issue has always been which PBA players will be made available by their ball clubs and how long the league itself will allow these players to train with the national squad. 

In the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Gilas Pilipinas was given only a full 10 days to practice as a complete team. It is rather foolish to think a national team from the Philippines can be competitive against the best teams in the world with that little amount of training.

There are some purists who still find that the Northern Consolidated Cement (NCC) of the 1980s and to some extent, the Gilas 1 program from the previous decade, are the right models for the national team compared to the quasi pick-up system that the country has been employing in recent years. 

They believe that the current pool, if kept together to train regularly for the next 3 years and exposed consistently to tough competitions abroad, will be the better option for the national team in the long run.

By 2023, most of the key players in the current pool will already be in their athletic prime. The team’s leader on the floor, Matt Nieto, along with Kobe Paras and Justine Baltazar will be 26 years old in 3 years. 

Calvin Oftana and Isaac Go will already be 27. Dwight Ramos, Javi Gomez de Liaño, and Kenmark Carino will be 25. The youngest among the core would be spitfire Juan Gomez de Liaño, who will be 23 when the 2023 FIBA World Cup is staged. They all would have developed physically and their level of play would have already improved by several notches. 

The current pool obviously still needs more size, as evidenced by how they struggled to contain 6-foot-9 Thai center Chanatip Jakrawan, who had his way down low in their second encounter en route to erupting for 34 points. 

Good thing Gilas Pilipinas has a trio of behemoths waiting in the wings to bolster their frontline. 

The 6-foot-10 Angelo Kouame, the 22-year-old prized center of the Ateneo Blue Eagles, is close to becoming a Filipino citizen after the House committee on justice approved the bill for his naturalization. 

By 2023, 6-foot-10 AJ Edu would have already played one season as a pro as he is expected to finish his collegiate career in the US NCAA by 2022. The 20-year-old Edu, who sat out his college sophomore year after getting injured while playing for Batang Gilas in the 2019 FIBA Under-19 World Cup, is averaging 7 rebounds and 2 blocks as the starting center this season of the University of Toledo Rockets.

Of course, Kai Sotto will figure prominently in future Gilas Pilipinas lineups, a commitment he and his family have pledged to the national team. This early, the 7-foot-2 Sotto, who just turned 18 years old last May, is projected to be a late first round or early second round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. He could go even higher in the draft with a solid showing in the NBA G League this season. 

Lest people forget, Thirdy Ravena is still part of the Gilas pool. Ravena will only get better from playing professionally abroad. He will be one of the cornerstones of the national squad in the years to come. 

Two Filipino-Americans who have both long insisted they acquired Filipino passports before they turned 16 years old, Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz and Remy Martin of the Arizona State, would be huge boosts to the Gilas roster. Martin is on his senior season in the US NCAA. He averaged 19 points and 4 assists the previous season. 

It is not far-fetched to assume that FIBA recognizes the marketing value Clarkson could bring to the table if he is allowed to play as a local for the home team. The World Cup is not just a competition, but it is also a business venture that FIBA earns from. Having Clarkson as the face of the event will be a promotional tactic that makes monetary sense for both FIBA and the Philippines. 

FIBA did recognize 27-year-old Brandon Jawato as a local for Indonesia which will co-host the 2023 World Cup. Jawato, a college teammate of Standhardinger at the University of Hawaii, only acquired his Indonesian passport recently. Clarkson’s recognition as a local may not seem like a pipe dream after all. 

SBP will need to assess and decide the best track for the Gilas program as the country enters a critical stage where preparations for the next FIBA Asia Cup window and the 2023 World Cup should already be in full swing. 

The country now has a pool of players that can be really good, and SBP needs to stick to and trust the process in making sure the potential of the group is harnessed properly. This latest version of Gilas Pilipinas could be just a few more pieces away from becoming truly special. –