Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Future of Gilas Pilipinas Five ?

The past week, the coaching staff and players of Gilas Pilipinas has been showered with well-deserved accolades for its historic accomplishment in the FIBA-Asia tournament. 

Marc Pingris Marcus Douthit Gilas Pilipinas

Against all odds, the team finished second and booked a much-appreciated ticket to the World Cup of Basketball in Spain next year. So far, Iran, the Philippines, Korea, the USA and host Spain have qualified. We’ll have to wait for the rest of the 24 slots to be filled.

Having learned our lessons about preparation, this early we are asking what line-up we will be sending to the World Cup. Had coach Chot Reyes revealed that he has been begging for certain players because their mother teams in the PBA have been reluctant to lend them to the national cause. 

The other teams heading to Spain will be built around current NBA talent, and veterans of tough European and Australian leagues. Many of the teams have been playing together for years; some players have been practicing together since their teens. 

Of course, the overwhelming sentiment would be to have the entire roster unchanged. After all, they were the ones who sacrificed and risked to put the country in this position, and it would seem fitting that the players reap the rewards of their labor by being given the honor of playing in the World Cup of Basketball. 

But pragmatically, if we want to turn some heads, pull some surprises and shock some other teams, some rather substantial changes would have to be made.

The current team’s most pronounced vulnerability would obviously be its size. The culture of the Philippines is such that, when a child is of above-average height, he is automatically trained to be a center. But the great majority of these players end up as “tweeners” when they reach college, their growth stopping at 6’3” or 6’4”. 

There have been very few guard-oriented camps even in Metro Manila, but looking long-term, we would be better served if we trained all our players to have guard skills like ball-handling and passing even at a young age.

Immediately, though, there are three main areas of concern. First, the current line-up has three point guards below six feet tall. When you’re switching, or even just trying to defend the pick and roll, you’ll get stuck guarding someone 6’10” or taller. Other teams will be smacking their lips at that prospect. This is not to take away anything from the gallantry of our players, but it’s something to look at. 

Our opponents will be looking at the path of least resistance, and they’ll always look to post up or pick and roll smaller players for mismatches. The small guard is increasingly rare outside the Philippines. How many teams even have guards below 6’2”?

As 1972 Olympian Freddie Webb told this writer, our next area of concern would be the small forward position. We have great players who have outstanding medium-range jump shots, but they average 6’4” or so. In international competition, their equivalents would be 6’7” to 6’9” on other teams. It would be a tough task to guard them at one end of the floor and try to shoot over them at the other. Given that the teams will be playing every day, the bumping and banging will wear our smaller players down.

In the FIBA-Asia finals, Gilas Pilipinas held its own against Iran despite the absence of Marcus Douthit, which means we’re just a big man away from possibly stealing a couple of games in the World Cup. A talented, legitimate seven-footer or a healthy Douthit aided by another big man would at least put us on equal footing with some teams in that regard. Our forwards have already proven that they can guard much taller players, but we do need a big man to anchor the defense and battle for the rebound on equal terms. You just can’t win without one.

Outside shooting has been our great equalizer for over three decades. But against taller, athletic defenders, our shooters will need to gun on the run. In the FIBA-Asia, Gilas Pilipinas got a lot of open looks at the basket and made a lot of three-pointers. It’s doubtful we will get that many opportunities to spot up or take set shots. The coaching staff will have to devise more complex screening for our shooters to have time to launch their long-range jumpers. Luckily, our coaching staff and scouts are among the best anywhere.

Of course, the draw will also be a big determinant of how we will fare. It will be tougher just to get out of the group stages simply because of how the tournament is set up. If we get bracketed with the US, Spain or some other European countries early on, it will be much more difficult. But you never know. As the FIBA-Asia proved, anything is possible. As Chot Reyes says, now we have hope because we’re there.

Lastly, there will be no home crowd to push our team on and give it energy in Spain. If only we could ship our countrymen there to give us that edge, it would make a big difference.

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