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Sports

Naturalized imports as lottery picks?

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

In the Japan B.League, naturalized players are allowed to suit up as locals. It’s a special privilege given to those foreigners who opt to take Japanese citizenship in order to qualify for the national team. B.League squads are allowed to enlist either a naturalized player or an Asian import, not both. Top-tier clubs prefer to sign up a naturalized import even if they’re more expensive because their budgets are flexible. Lower-tier clubs settle for less expensive Asian imports. There’s a growing list of naturalized players in the B.League with Nick Fazekas, Ryan Rossiter, Gavin Edwards, Ira Brown, Michael Parker, You Tenyoku, Tenketsu Harimoto, Edward Morris, Thomas Kennedy and Nyika Williams showing Japanese passports. Previous naturalized players included J. R. Henderson (renamed Sakuragi), Dan Weiss and Eric McArthur.

In the Philippines, naturalized imports are restricted to play on the national team or as imports in local leagues. Back in the 1980s, three Americans became naturalized to play for the Philippine squad under coach Ron Jacobs although only two of them represented the Philippines in a FIBA regional competition. Dennis Still and Jeff Moore played on the national team that won the last FIBA Asia Cup (then known as the Asian Basketball Confederation) for the country in 1985-86. A third naturalized player Chip Engelland saw action for the Philippines in the Jones Cup and the FIBA World Clubs Championships in 1985 but never for the FIBA Asia Cup. Still, Moore and Engelland played in the PBA for the guest team Northern Consolidated but never as imports for a pro team. Engelland is now a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach. Moore is a coach in Mexico while Still also lives in Mexico.

The three latest foreigners to be naturalized are Marcus Douthit in 2011, Andray Blatche in 2014 and Ange Kouame last year. Douthit, 41, was the Los Angeles Lakers second round pick in the 2004 NBA draft but never got to play in the majors. The 6-11 center saw action in Belgium, Turkey, Puerto Rico, Russia, Korea, China, Lebanon, Venezuela, Taiwan for the Jones Cup, the PBA as an import for Air21 in 2012 and Blackwater in 2015 and his last three seasons up to 2019 in Thailand. In his latest stint in Thailand, he averaged 3.6 points and 6.1 rebounds in 13 games. Douthit was on the Philippine team that took second at the 2013 FIBA Asia Cup in Manila but refused to play in the final because of a leg pain. He didn’t finish the game against South Korea in the semifinals of the same tournament because of the same pain but Gilas won just the same.

Blatche, 35, played for Washington and Brooklyn in nine NBA seasons, bankrolling over $40 million. Then he wore the Philippine colors at the FIBA World Cup in 2014 and 2019. In between, Blatche made good money playing in China. Blatche averaged 20.7 points and 11 rebounds with Tianjin in his final Chinese season in 2018-19. Now that both Douthit and Blatche are unemployed, they’re making noise about playing in the PBA as locals. Koume, 24, is still in college and has many more years left to go with Gilas. Playing in the PBA as an import is farthest from his mind.

Because they’re naturalized citizens, Douthit and Blatche theoretically enjoy the same privileges as any natural-born Filipino. At the moment, the PBA will only allow naturalized citizens to play as imports. But with the changing landscape of global basketball, it may be sooner than later that the PBA revisits this rule and opens the doors for naturalized players to enlist as locals just like in the Japan B.League. If that happens, there must be some kind of control to give the lower-ranked teams the first crack at the naturalized imports. For instance, if Douthit and Blatche were given the go-signal to play as locals, they may be signed only by any two of the four lowest-ranked teams of the previous season in a special lottery draft. Additionally, they may not be traded. But at Douthit’s age and Blatche’s weight, you wonder if there will be interest in their services.

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