Belgrade revelations

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

Gilas’ two-game stint at the recent Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in Belgrade was an eye-opener. Here are 10 revelations that were glaring in evaluating how the team performed against world No. 5 Serbia and world No. 19 Dominican Republic.

• Team still evolving. No doubt, Gilas is a work in progress with an average age of 22, rough around the edges, in the process of maturity. Whether coach Tab Baldwin will tinker with the lineup and bring in gunslingers from the PBA or elsewhere is subject to discussion. At least, there is now basis to make an intelligent evaluation on how to build up for the FIBA 2023 World Cup.

• Interchangeable pieces. To be consistently competitive, Gilas must be deep at every position. The ability to play multiple positions is a luxury as versatility is becoming more and more the norm in high-level basketball. Gone are the days of exclusivity and one-on-one artists.

• No less than full strength. Against the Dominicans, Gilas felt the absence of Dwight Ramos and Ange Kouame was far from 100 percent. Kouame was scoreless in the first half but in the third quarter, schooled Jhonathan Araujo despite his condition until he had to be brought back to the bench. Gilas can only be 12-strong to survive the international grind, meaning every player must be as good as the next.

• Exposure to global game. There’s no better teacher than experience. The pandemic took out opportunities for Gilas to play tuneups overseas. Playing in six World Cup qualifying windows starting this November up to February 2023 will provide tons of lessons for Gilas to learn from even if the Philippines has a guaranteed ticket for the 32-team Big Dance as co-host.

• Legs can’t fail. Gilas went neck-to-neck with the Dominican Republic until the last 12:42 minutes when the players gassed out. In the fourth quarter, the Dominicans ignited 12-0 and 7-0 runs that left Gilas limp. The Dominicans were 15-0 in fastbreak points and 24-4 in turnover points in the second half where Gilas failed to complete two three-point plays and took only six free throws, missing four. In six FIBA Asia Cup qualifying games, Gilas averaged 10 turnovers and 7.3 fastbreak points allowed. Against the Dominicans, Gilas committed 23 turnovers and gave up 23 fastbreak points.

• Bullies will bully. When Serbia realized Gilas was for real, the hosts started to play physical and abandoned their perimeter game to lean on 7-4, 290-pound Boban Marjanovic. The Dominicans played physical from the onset, set bone-crunching picks and bullied their way to a 44-32 edge in paint points and 15-7 in second chance points. In the third quarter, the Dominicans paid the price for bullying by entering the penalty early but Gilas failed to capitalize with legs compromising their aggressiveness. The Young Guns are easy targets for bullies so they’ve got to be prepared to make the roughhousers rue their tactics by raking in free throws and getting them into foul trouble.

• No room for jitters. In basketball, growing up can’t be a slow process. Mental toughness is something that comes with maturity. In Belgrade, there were instances of too much dribbling because no receiver was available, missing an overhead pass with the ball going out of bounds through outstretched hands, dribbling off the foot, backing violation, 8-second infraction, getting trapped in the baseline and passing to no one. Those were nervous errors that will go away with experience.

• Heading’s emergence. Jordan Heading sat out the first game against Korea in Clark then scored three points as a starter in the next contest and shot 10 in the Korean rematch. In Belgrade, he had 16 points, including 4-of-6 triples, and three assists against the Dominicans in 30:14 minutes and 13, including 4-of-5 triples, and three assists against Serbia in 28:02. The Australian-born Heading was 15 when he played for the Philippines in the 2011 FIBA U16 Asia Cup. He was the PBA’s first overall draft pick by Terrafirma, ceded to Gilas, this year.

• Health is wealth. Going down with an injury is something you never wish for a player but it happens. Ramos’ availability could’ve been the key to beating Serbia. It’s not his fault and Ramos desperately wanted to play despite pain in his right groin. Just think of the NBA playoffs and how things could’ve been different if Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, Anthony Davis and Mike Conley weren’t injured.

• Gilas can compete with the big boys. Keeping in stride with Serbia for 40 minutes and the Dominican Republic for 27 until fatigue set in are signs that Gilas is coming into its own as an Asian title contender. Eventually, Gilas will be a world contender.

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