It should’ve been Clarkson

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - September 12, 2019 - 12:00am

Now that Gilas’ campaign in the FIBA World Cup in China is over, it’s time to wonder what could’ve and probably should’ve happened to avoid the tragic 0-5 letdown. Lack of preparation was the main reason for the debacle. How that issue will be addressed in getting ready for future international competitions is something the SBP and PBA must work out sooner than later.

While the losses to Italy and Serbia were foregone conclusions, the margin of difference in both setbacks was totally unexpected. The Philippines bowed to Italy by 46 and to Serbia by 59. But the 84-81 overtime defeat to Angola shouldn’t have happened. That was the Philippines’ first loss to an African nation in World Cup history after beating Egypt, Central African Republic and Senegal.

It’s easy to single out Andray Blatche as the biggest underachiever of all. Ranged against the bigs in Group D where the Philippines battled in the first round, he looked terribly out of shape and overweight. Angola’s naturalized player Reggie Moore, 38, is older but in far better shape. Fans who watched Blatche at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain wondered what happened. The Blatche who played in the sixth window of the FIBA Asia/Oceania World Cup Qualifiers wasn’t the same Blatche who showed up in China. Gilas head coach Yeng Guiao said he wished Blatche came in 15 pounds lighter. Blatche’s strength and conditioning coach Rory Jones said he shed 20 to 25 pounds before leaving the US for Manila a month before the competition. So working the math, Blatche put on at least 40 pounds from the sixth window last February to when he arrived in Manila.

In China, Blatche was a picture of slow motion on the floor. His moves were anticipated, his passes were predictable. Against Italy, he had a near triple double with 15 points, 10 rebounds and nine turnovers. In the classifiers, Blatche couldn’t lead Gilas to victory as the Philippines went down, 86-67 to Tunisia and 95-75 to Iran. In the World Cup Qualifiers, the Philippines lost twice to Iran but never by double figures.

After five games, Blatche averaged 15.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 4.4 turnovers and 32.9 minutes. He shot 40 percent from the floor, 28.1 percent from beyond the arc and 62.5 percent from the line. Blatche took 32 attempts from three and 16 from the stripe. In 2014, Blatche averaged 21.2 points, 13.8 rebounds, 0.8 assist, 5.0 turnovers and 33.8 minutes. He hit 44.2 percent from the field, 27.3 percent from distance and 80 percent from the line. Blatche took 22 threes and 30 free throws, meaning he was more active in attacking the basket and settled a lot less. The difference in stats reflected his poor conditioning in China.

There was talk before the China competition, that maybe Jordan Clarkson should be Gilas’ naturalized player instead of Blatche. Although he is of Filipino descent, Clarkson isn’t considered a local by FIBA because he didn’t receive his Filipino passport before 16. The rule goes against Philippine law but it is what it is. Under FIBA rules, Clarkson is a naturalized citizen and since a country may enlist only one naturalized player, it was either Clarkson or Blatche for the World Cup.

Clarkson averaged 26 points in four games for Gilas at the Asian Games last year. He led the Philippines to wins over Japan, 113-80 and Syria, 109-55, to finish fifth. Clarkson shot 28 points in Gilas’ 82-80 loss to China. In the World Cup, Clarkson would’ve averaged at least 20 a game, no doubt about it.

At hindsight, Clarkson should’ve played for Gilas instead of Blatche. Here are 10 reasons why. First, Gilas didn’t need a lumbering big to play outside which was what Blatche did. He was an eyesore in the perimeter because of his lack of mobility. Second, Clarkson would’ve been a nightmarish mismatch at two or three and if doubled, he would’ve found an open teammate for sure. With Blatche, opponents didn’t need to double. Third, Clarkson is quicker than Blatche and the Philippines had to be quick to find an edge. Fourth, without Marcio Lassiter or Matthew Wright, Gilas could’ve used an outside deadshot with the consistency of a rocket launcher. Fifth, Clarkson is fit and in condition to battle. Blatche wasn’t. Sixth, Clarkson, 27, is much younger than Blatche and surely more motivated. Seventh, Clarkson is a more active defender than Blatche at any position, even at four and is more adaptable to the European system which requires fast reaction and motion. Eighth, Clarkson has no emotional baggage. Ninth, Clarkson was willing to suit up for the Philippines and in L. A., waited for a call that never came to fly over. Finally, Clarkson would’ve lifted the spirits of his teammates. It’s a fact that how an import performs has a major impact on how his teammates play. Blatche was a shadow of his old self on the court and that was clear not only to the fans in the stands but also his teammates on the floor and on the bench. With Clarkson in the lineup, Gilas would’ve brought down Angola and may have also beaten Tunisia or Iran or both.

Gilas fans should be grateful to Blatche for what he has done for the country in the past. But gratitude shouldn’t justify a continuing presence for a player who doesn’t care about staying fit to be competitive. It was a mistake not calling in Clarkson for China.

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