FIBAWC Preview: Twelve Filipino players for a whole nation

Is there a single country in the world that loves basketball more than the Philippines? It’s not easy to find a proper comparison; more importantly, Philippines and basketball are involved in a one-of-a-kind, sometimes poetical love story, that will turn from platonic to real in China, when the national team coached by Yeng Guiao will compete in the FIBA Basketball World Cup, an event that saw their return in 2014 after an excruciating wait that lasted since 1978.

ROSTER

The shape of Philippines’ roster revolves around one key question: Andray Blatche, yes or no? The US-born center/power forward, naturalized in 2014, has ascended to legendary status among his new countrymen and has answered the call of coach Guiao; at the moment, he’s working alongside his 18 teammates in the training camp, waiting for the pool to be shortened. His health, though, is an elephant in the room.

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“We know that we need big guys”, said coach Guiao, “And Andray deserves to be there because he brought us to the World Cup. But he needs to be in top shape”. As a backup plan, the coach also invited to the camp other three naturalized players but he will be allowed to bring just one of them, per FIBA rules, to the China World Cup. There’s Christian Standhardinger, who recently starred in a brief but impressive run at the Asian Qualifiers, Stanley Pringle, and above all Jordan Clarkson, a point guard/shooting guard now playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the .

The plot thickens here: the local federation would like to have Jordan Clarkson alongside Blatche, claiming that his Filipino heritage is enough to make him eligible. FIBA rules, though, seem to suggest a different reading of the issue. While coach Guiao waits to see if Blatche or Clarkson, or maybe both of them, will join the Gilas, he looks at the rest of his roster for more predictable alternatives. He’ll have longtime veterans Gabe Norwood and Japeth Aguilar, who played all but one of the qualifying games combined, and he’ll have the five-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo too, another Filipino legend. Matthew Wright and Roger Pogoy complete the list, while 23 years old Robert Bolick, who plays for NorthPort Batang Pier in the domestic league, could make his Gilas debut on the brightest stage of them all.

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QUALIFYING

Since the very beginning of the Asian Qualifiers it was clear that the Philippines were not messing around, opening on a high note with a big win over Japan, in Tokyo. Yeng Guaio was coaching a seasoned mix of veterans and young players, with Andrey Blatch acting as the backbone, and he already knew most of them from the 2018 Asian Games. The Philippines reached fifth place at that event, led by Jordan Clarkson on that particular occasion – but he would not be back for Gilas in the qualifiers, but on Instagram he promised the fans he will see them again in China.

The Philippines’ campaign kept following the script: four wins and just two predictable losses, against powerhouse Australia. In the second stage, some trouble arose however. Qatar was easily beaten, both at home and away, but then Gilas stumbled in to two losses against Iran: a disappointment indeed, because Iran is one of the perennial contenders the Philippines will eventually have to learn how to overcome, if they want to be King of the Mountain in their own continent.

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The last spot that granted a World Cup qualification was between Philippines and Kazakhstan, an emerging country, yet one that was able to shock Gilas in Manila with a resounding 92-88 victory. It all came down to the very last match, which was played on February 24th in Astana, at a freezing -10 degrees. The Philippines had their revenge this time, winning the game 93-75, and the hero of the day was none other than Andray Blatche: 41 points and 3 three pointers. With this performance, he became just the third player to score more than 40 points in the Asian Qualifiers. “I was born and raised in Syracuse, New York so it’s very similar to back home”, Blatche said. “I’m also just coming from China where it’s very cold. I played 5 years in Urumqi and that’s not so far from here, so I was able to adjust easily”.

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The Philippines will land in China after a somewhat rocky path in their qualifiers; convincingly prevailing over lower-ranked teams, but giving their fans a little too much to worry about when the ball got heavier and their backs were against the wall. Coach Guiao expects to see a more mature and relaxed team in the next run, where they won’t need to hold the brakes because of expectations.

GROUP

The Philippines will play in Group D, in the city of Foshan, alongside Italy (their first opponent on August 31st), Serbia and Angola. On paper, the two European teams are expected to advance to the second stage. Serbia, in particular, is not shy about their gold medal ambitions; they’ve been achieving big wins under coach Djordjevic and their youth sector is clicking on all cylinders too, providing the senior team with a steady stream of prospects.

Italy is looking for big things out of this event too. They will compete in the World Cup for the first team since 2006, a span in which they struggled to have Datome, Gallinari and Belinelli share the floor. This time, though, the roster seems more stacked than ever and they’re eager to close the current cycle with the deep tournament run that Italian fans have been waiting for.

Angola is a recurring name in African basketball, a country that’s similar to the Philippines in many ways; they’re often capable of coming out on top of their own continent – 11 gold medals at African Championships – despite being a very small nation. Just like the Philippines, the trick is their passion for basketball, which is hugely popular among Angola’s people. Gilas will try to score a victory in this seemingly balanced matchup, and then go all-in against Serbia and Italy, hoping to catch either one of them on a bad day. European basketball is clearly more established, but the Philippines could try and steer the game towards the emotional side; this way, they could be able to at least give Serbia and Italy a run for their money.

MATCHUPS

We ended the previous section saying that the Philippines should try and face their opponents with a pure “feel for the game” approach; a task that could prove particularly difficult against Italy, though, because few teams can display a deadly trio such as the one of Gigi Datome, Danilo Gallinari and Marco Belinelli. Those “three musketeers” have been on and off in their commitment to the national team, mostly due to injuries, and have struggled to share the floor effectively in the past.

If involved in 1on1 action, however, they will gladly face the whole Gilas’ roster altogether; being such proven sharpshooters from the outside, coach Guaio’s defence would need to stay attached to them on the perimeter, opening chances for easy baskets in the paint when Gallinari and Datome, both strong and tall enough to play the 4 spot, will match up against opposing bigs. On the flip side, Italy’s weak point is the lack of a reliable starting center, and that’s where Andray Blatch could go to work.

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Serbia is an entirely different animal. Nikola Jokic, Boban Marjanovic, Miroslav Raduljica: coach Djordjevic will have these top-notch big men at his disposal, and then some. Serbia’s roster also features an array of interchangeable swingmen with a knack for gritty defense. It will be hard for Filipino guards to break free from their watch, even for lightning-fast Roger Pogoy, whereas Nikola Jokic could prove to be simply unstoppable at the World Cup after his MVP-worthy season.

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Let’s go back to the Angola matchup. The African team has its strong suits in center Valdelicio Joaquim and in the experienced, 40 year old Eduardo Mingas. If the Philippines’ federation wins its ruling battle, allowing coach Guiao to bring Jordan Clarkson to China, the Cavaliers’ guard could impose a high pace to the game, perhaps too fast for Angola to follow, putting up some kind of a one man show: in the 2018 Asian Games he scored over 26 points per game, to go with 6 rebounds and 5 assists.

KEY STORIES

There’s one thing we can be sure of: the Philippines will keep their heads held high against every Group D opponent, playing like they weren’t the group’s cinderellas. Listening to how coach Guiao talks, it’s easy to realize how his confident, lively demeanour has become contagious for the entire team. “Returning to coach the Philippines is destiny”, he says, but just a minority of people would have thought that he’d come back to coach the national team, ten years removed from a disappointing eight place at the 2009 Asia Championship.

In four years the Philippines will co-host the next FIBA Basketball World Cup, sharing the honours with Japan and Indonesia, and they would love to present themselves to the world in flying colours – let’s not forget the Tokyo Olympics, in between: it will be very hard for the Philippines to earn a spot, but should they succeed, their worldwide popularity will increase greatly, and without even travelling too far from Manila.

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When a single grows such a cult following among people, branching through all levels of society – we’ve all seen those beautiful pictures of remote playgrounds rising among the forests – the people’s pride for what they feel like their game becomes sometimes overwhelming. PBA, the domestic league, is hugely popular in the Philippines, but the league’s following has struggled to translate to the international stage, despite American players moving to the Philippines for many years. The youth sector, however, seems to have a bright future and will try to pave a new road.

The team that recently took part in the U19 World Cup held in Greece boasts the talented Kai Sotto, a modern-day stretch big already pursued by American colleges and European clubs, paired with the other promising big man Ariel John Edu. There’s also the highly intriguing Kobe Paras, son of the legendary Benjie, who’s already been through an NCAA stint: his high-flying play style is pretty “American” indeed. Kobe Paras has already suited up for Gilas in 2017 but won’t be part of the China squad: at only 21 years old, though, he still fits the bill of a rising star.

If Andray Blatche and Jordan Clarkson represent on the one hand how Filipino basketball is leaning towards the international stage, on the other, fan-favourite June Mar Fajardo and a veteran squad led by Gabe Norwood will try and channel the passion of the entire home country, mixing these two – sometimes conflicting – identities. By squaring off against highly ranked European and American teams, Gilas will try and learn how to conquer back the Asian throne: until the Eighties it was almost trivial to see them winning medals at the Asia Championship, but with countries such as Iran, China, Australia, South Korea and even Japan emerging since that time, the Philippines fell behind. A back-to-back silver medal, though, in 2013 and 2015, seems like a good way to jump-start the pursuit. We will see in China whether the team can maintain this momentum.

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