Changing of the guards
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - June 26, 2019 - 12:00am

There were 13 players who showed up at the Gilas practice in the Meralco Gym last Monday and their average age was 28.6 years, slightly lower than what it was at the 2014 FIBA World Cup. In Spain, the average age was 29.8 with Jimmy Alapag and Gary David the oldest at 36 and June Mar Fajardo the youngest at 24.

Last Monday’s group was made up of Fajardo, now 29, Robert Bolick, 23, C. J. Perez, 25, Kiefer Ravena, 25, Mark Barroca, 33, Stanley Pringle, 32, Japeth Aguilar, 32, Raymond Almazan, 29, R. R. Pogoy, 27, Paul Lee, 30, Troy Rosario, 27, Poy Erram, 29 and Marcio Lassiter, 32. Next week, naturalized player Andray Blatche, 32, is expected to join the camp. Gabe Norwood, 34, is also expected to return to the pool. Missing is Matthew Wright who wasn’t named to the 14-man pool for the sixth window of the FIBA Asia/Oceania World Cup qualifiers this year.

With Jayson Castro’s decision to step back from the international game, coach Yeng Guiao will now look to a changing of the guards. Castro, who turns 33 on June 30, was with Gilas at the 2014 World Cup and has been a fixture on the national team for over a decade. He was on the youth team in 2004 and played a vital role in the Philippines’ silver medal finishes at the 2013 and 2015 FIBA Asia Cups, gaining recognition as the continent’s premier point guard.

Ravena called Castro’s withdrawal both a blow and a challenge. “No one man can replace Kuya Jayson,” he said. “Tulung-tulong kaming lahat to make up for his absence. We all know what Kuya Jayson has done for the country. He has served the country well. If there’s anyone with the right to step down for family reasons, it’s Kuya Jayson. We’ll miss him but we wish him all the best because he deserves it. Right now, his focus is on his family. If ever Kuya Jayson wants to help out as a coach or a teacher, I’m sure coach Yeng will welcome him with open arms. He can teach us a lot with his experience.”

The Gilas backcourt will look different without Castro. But as the torch was passed from Alapag to Castro, so it will be passed from Castro to most probably, Ravena. Before his FIBA suspension for unwittingly taking an energy drink with an illegal enhancer, Ravena had played four of Gilas’ 12 games in the World Cup qualifiers, averaging 7.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Castro averaged 14.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 21.5 minutes in eight games, shooting 58.6 percent from beyond the arc. He shot in double figures in six of the eight contests and the two single-digit outings were eight-pointers.

Pringle’s presence at practice raised not a few eyebrows. So far, he’s been allowed to play for Gilas only as a naturalized player. But surely, a case may be made for Pringle as an immersion exception since aside from being half-Filipino, he has lived here for several years. An SBP source, however, downplayed the expectations and said an exception isn’t likely. An appeal to reconsider Pringle’s status may also be too late to push.

The other guards in the gym were Barroca, Pogoy and Lee – all of whom could crack the Gilas 12-man roster. At the wing, Perez also has backcourt skills and his versatility makes him a valuable asset because of his ability to play multiple positions. Norwood is another backcourt option who’s even more versatile than Perez but not as explosive on offense. Lassiter is a sure bet for the three spot while Rosario could get picked either at three or four. Aguilar, Erram and Almazan are fours who complement Fajardo and Blatche at five. Blatche could also contribute as a stretch four.

Only Blatche, Norwood, Lee, Fajardo and Aguilar remain from the team that played at the 2014 World Cup. Without Castro, Gilas will look for a new go-to guy in the backcourt. It could be Ravena or somebody else ready to step up and fill in. As Ravena mentioned, no one man can match Castro’s impact. And that’s the key to this whole process. It will take a total team effort to make waves in the coming World Cup. The Philippines will go up against Serbia, Italy and Angola in the first round with only two of the four national teams advancing to the next round. The task is daunting but the challenge is exciting. 

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