2018 FIBA Asia U16: The continued growth and the search for balance of Batang Gilas

Batang Gilas 54 – China 60

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During the second quarter, Kai Sotto found himself matched up against a Chinese big man. It was a normal occurence in any game to have two big dudes in the low post. Little did fans know, something special was going to happen.

Sotto quickly spun towards his left shoulder and found himself a free lane to slam it home. The Chinese big recovered and immediately contested the attacking seven footer. Kai remained composed and casually executed a Dream Shake to leave the Chinese big man flying. Kai pulled back, put up a off handed hook shot, money.

That very play captured just how awesome Sotto’s performance was versus China. Admittedly, a number of people were hesitant coming into this game against the Chinese. As awesome as he was versus Japan, China is a completely different force. But instead of putting up a dud, Sotto put on a showcase. His highlight reel for this game is the type of content that gets the attention of international scouts. It was AWESOME.

26 points, 21 rebounds, and six blocks. He thoroughly dominated the Chinese big men. It was reality, and it honestly felt too good to be true.

After the game, the mood surrounding Philippine Basketball Twitter was mostly light and positive. Sotto found himself trending on Twitter. Many fans called for him to go abroad and hone his game even further, so ultimately, the NBA dream would be a lot closer not just for Sotto, but the entire country as well.

As great as Sotto’s performance was, let’s take a step back. It was a showcase for him, but the only reason he was able to get the opportunity to show out was because there was a basketball game to be played. The result of that clash: China slipped past Batang Gilas, 60-54, to clinch a slot in the Finals versus Australia.

Read that score once again: The Chinese scored 60, while the Filipinos put up 54 points. That means, Sotto scored 26 points, while the rest of the team scored just 28. Looking at the game from that lens, we realize this: The game was also a showcase of the amount of growth Batang Gilas still needs to have a shot at a championship in the Asian level.

All tournament long, the guards of Batang Gilas have been struggling. Lots of fans have been frustrated with this. For the longest time, the reason why Batang Gilas has even managed to contend in the Asian level is because of their guards. Jolo Mendoza and Matt Nieto were the main gunners who led Batang Gilas to the 2014 World Cup. SJ Belangel and Gian Mamuyac made for a deadly backcourt combo that took down China in the 2015 U16 tournament. The Philippines is a hotbed for quality guards.

However, it’s important to take note of these points when studying this batch of Batang Gilas guards. First, Batang Gilas has started to become a lot more reliant on their big men, and you can’t blame them for doing so. We can talk all day about Sotto, but backing him up has been defensive maestro Raven Cortez. On the offensive end, the two have made for a deadly combination — Sotto as the playmaker in the post, while Cortez roams around looking for holes in the defense for possible cuts. If Sotto attacks, he can just grab offensive rebounds, or at the very least, make the opposing big men work by just jumping for boards. It’s been a treat to watch.

Padrigao FIBA U16

With the breakout of the big men has come the fall of the guards of the team. The likes of Terrence Fortea and Forthsky Padrigao have failed to match the excellence of Sotto and Cortez on both ends on the floor. Comparisons have been flying across social media, fans expressing their disappointment at how the backcourt has performed.

With this, comes the second point we need to remember: With the new age of big men have also come the new age of guards.

The bigs have emulated the likes of Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic. We can see that with Sotto and Cortez’s versatility and ability to create plays in the post. The guards, on the other hand, have emulated the likes of Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry. We can see that with their slithery play and penchant for shooting pull-up threes out of isolations.

This is a big shift from what we’ve gotten used to from guards in Gilas. Former lead guards of Batang Gilas, Nieto and Belangel, were both muscular, skilled, and physical point guards. They were in the mold of a Jayson Castro or even Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, initiators who start the offense by attacking the rim and speeding past guards. That isn’t the case for Padrigao and Fortea, as they get past defenses by getting creative with the ball and showcasing their handles.

However, here’s the thing we have to realize with guards like Irving and Curry: They’re low key also very capable at attacking the basket. It just so happens, they do it in their own, slithery way. It’s different, but it works. Irving’s won a ring and hit arguably the biggest shot of this generation (Ray Allen says “hi” though), Curry is a transcendent player, so you can’t doubt that model right?

But with that model also comes those little details today’s highlight-driven generation often forgets. We see Curry’s ridiculous range and Irving’s creativity at attacking, but there’s a reason for that aside from their sheer skills. Both players play within the flow of the offense installed in their respective teams. Before every Curry three are multiple screens set and cutters thrown in the motion offense of Golden State. With every Kyrie ankle breaker is a rhythm established in previous plays with the way he curls around the offense, working with the brilliance of Al Horford.

Those details are more than just individual brilliance: It’s mostly a birth of the use of every member of the team within a system. There is holistic development to the games of these greats. The small things matter, and quite frankly, Padrigao and Fortea don’t have an elite grasp of those concepts just yet.

That’s not a bad thing, mind you. What it simply says is this: Batang Gilas is still a work in progress. Not just Padrigao nor Fortea, but every member of the team. Any youth team needs work to be done. It wasn’t like Nieto was already casually hitting game winning free throws in big games already. His jumper was considered just ‘okay’ coming into college.

Sooner or later, Padrigao and Fortea will have big, golden moments, that we will revere them for. But those moments are born from two things. First, struggle. They’re experiencing struggle now, and it’s pissing not just fans off, but even themselves. These players hold themselves to a high regard, they must be frustrated.

Sotto FIBA U16

Then comes second: the desire to grow. The humility to accept that one needs to work on particular assets of his game in order to reach the level one has to reach.

The level of excellence that these guards should aim for? Whatever pantheon Kai is in. He’s viewed so highly right now, and deservingly so. He’s a monster down low, but he also needs his guards to be threats so that there’s balance within the team.

The country, not just Batang Gilas, will soon get to achieve that balance. It’s all part of this process you have to go through to achieve greatness. And when they do reach that goal, it’s going to be scary for rivals in the Asian level. It won’t just be Sotto scouts will be taking note of for excellent play, but the entire country as well.

Photos from FIBA.com