Big Things: Batang Gilas showed a glimpse of the future in their road to the FIBA U17 World Cup

It’s believed that the soul of Philippine Basketball can be found around the streets, where the makeshift hoops, the asphalt ground and slippers have a marriage unlike any other. It’s a potential recipe for disaster. Sprained ankles, stepped on broken glass and bruises are commonplace. But the Pinoys continues to play, all for the love of the game.

The game being played on these settings are blistering. There are careless passes being thrown, but you get a feel for what these players are trying to do. They all lack the size normally associated with the game of basketball. Filipino Basketball players are more David than Goliath. A 5’11” athlete is considered a beast already, no matter the body size. So they make up for this playing up and down, the kind of pace built on pushing the pace at every opportunity.

The streets offer us more than just soul, fearless, sometimes to a fault. They also offer us mind, an understanding of how the Filipino thinks of the game when in action. He blends in bravery with a fast-paced style. He may lack height, but he makes up for it with speed, and aggressiveness.

The style of play on wooden floors isn’t much different from what we see on cement courts. For the longest time, Gilas Pilipinas has played with the same principles in mind. Except, they don’t throw around passes carelessly. They work within a concrete system pickup basketball can’t exactly offer. They the use of the Dribble Drive Motion Offense, which has emerged as the staple offense of Philippine basketball from the ground up.

“The dribble drive motion was built upon our necessity to score even if we’re undersized,” said Coach Josh Reyes, assistant coach for Gilas Pilipinas and Batang Gilas. The DDO encourages faster play by allowing guards to attack the basket off a spread out floor. Faster play, whether it be off the half court or in a full court setting, circumvents whatever lack of height or size the Filipinos have.

Jayson Castro is the peak DDO artist. Ranidel de Ocampo worked in the middle ground as both a shooter and creator, while Jeff Chan feasted on finding open seams within the set. It worked, and a big part of that were these players who were tailor made to work in such a system. The results of this system spoke for itself. Gilas broke the curse of Korea, played at the World stage and continued to rise up the FIBA rankings.

The Batang Gilas U16/U17 squad built themselves within the same mold, starting from the 2017 SEABA U16 tournament up to the 2018 FIBA Asia Cup. A big part of it was personnel, guards were slated to be the priority of the team. At the same time, the absence of a particular wunderkind prevented the coaching staff from changing things up.

“Late na nag-ensayo si Kai (Sotto),” said Batang Gilas Head Coach Mike Oliver. “Yung system, hindi naman totally for Kai.” This Batang Gilas batch is the biggest yet, boasting of three players above 6’7” in Kai, Raven Cortez and Geo Chiu. But Raven and Geo were too raw, while Kai attended practice late. So Coach Mike went with the safe choice of running his sets around his guards rather than his bigs. It’s been the norm in Philippine Basketball, so picking up the system wouldn’t have been too difficult.

During the 2018 FIBA Asia Cup, Batang Gilas ran off those principles first, and the results were discouraging. The execution of plays was sloppy. It led to fans criticizing Forthsky Padrigao and Terrence Fortea, saying that they didn’t know how to play the point guard position properly. Partly, the fans had a point. But at the same time, it was important to contextualize the struggles of the flamboyant guards of Batang Gilas.

A big part of their struggles was how surprised they were when it came to the size and speed of their opponents. Most notable was Australia, who threw wings who had pro level size and athleticism already. Even getting the ball past half court was already a chore:

This was a problem since Padrigao and Fortea’s games thrived in space. The FIBA Asia wings length ate up whatever space the two guards could use to create separation. Prototypical DDO guards like Jayson Castro of Gilas Pilipinas, or Matt Nieto and SJ Belangel of past Batang Gilas squads used their quickness and strength to get past the length of opposing wings. Padrigao and Fortea weren’t elite with those qualities, and as a result, no creation was being done. The Dribble Drive Motion was nowhere to be found.

Batang Gilas faced a dilemma. The strength they’ve relied on for so long — the quickness of their guards leading to great action off the Dribble Drive — was nowhere to be found. The mind of Philippine Basketball did not know what to do. That’s the thing when facing problems. Sometimes, you have to think outside the box if you want to find a solution. They had to go way out for this one, to a realm no one would have imagined Philippine Basketball to be in.

“Ginamit lang natin yung potential na mayroon tayo,” recalled Coach Mike Oliver. “Binigay natin yung bola kay Kai, minaximize natin yung strength niya.”

For the longest time, Filipinos have been known as the country that loves basketball immensely, but lacks the height to be competitive at it in the world level. To have someone with that much height in Kai Sotto as a strength was unheard of in Philippine Basketball. This was uncharted territory Batang Gilas was entering.

They went outside of what they were comfortable with versus Japan, where a spot in the World Cup hung in the balance. They pounded the ball to Kai in the low post and maximized not just his height, but the skill he had around that area. He could literally not be stopped versus Japan, putting up 28 points, 21 rebounds and three blocks. It was the kind of masterful performance Batang Gilas needed to clinch a spot in the World Cup.

There were skeptics after the game versus Japan. The only reason Kai dominated was because he was so much taller than the smaller Japanese. Versus China in the Semifinals, he went ahead and put up 26 points, 21 rebounds and six blocks. He was outplaying every Chinese big that was being thrown at him, even fouling out rival Jiao Boqiao.

The beauty of Kai’s dominance was, it was also opening up things for his teammates as well. Raven continued to showcase wing potential, finding open lanes and vigorously cutting to the rim. Things opened up in the perimeter, which made things so much easier for Forthsky and Terrence to swing the ball around. RC Calimag showcased his potential as a scorer, putting up points thanks to the space that was being created.

If you had to pick one play which you could call as Kai’s signature moment, it was when he used a Dream Shake on China during the second quarter of their game. This wasn’t some Dream Shake that looked forced or awkward. It was fluid, as if he’s practiced it ever since he was a kid. It was a thing of beauty to watch.

Understandably, many Pinoys were blown away with the move. But for Kai, it’s something he’s been keeping in his back pocket for quite some time now.

“Simula pa lang ako magbasketball, tinuturuan na ako ng tatay ko niyan,” shared Kai. “Dati noong mas maliit ako, noong mas matangkad yung mga kalaban ko, doon ko ginagamit yung mga foot work, yung mga fakes.”

We’ve never seen Kai execute such a move in the UAAP, because it would pointless. He’s so much taller than everyone else, so putting up a fake wouldn’t do much to make life easier for him. So he just stands, finds good positioning to get easy buckets. It just so happened that the competition in FIBA Asia opened the opportunity for Kai to showcase the tricks he’s always had. It helps his opponents weren’t too familiar with those moves that he had.

“Kaya noong FIBA Asia, alam ko na gagana yun dahil di ako kilala ng mga kalaban ko,” mentioned Kai.

It was a revelation not just for Batang Gilas, but Philippine Basketball as well. For once, the big man was an advantage for the country, looking like the best player on the floor on most occasions. It wasn’t the DDO we’ve grown accustomed to, but we were willing to take our chances on whatever Batang Gilas was putting up with Kai in charge.

When Batang Gilas faced New Zealand after barely losing to China, the expectation was Kai would continue his reign of dominance. Except he didn’t. It was in this game where Filipinos were presented with an important lesson in this level of competition.

Australia and New Zealand are not only far better than whatever Asian team we’ve faced in past FIBA Asia tournaments, but they’re also far more physically developed. Most Chinese big men aren’t physically imposing. Even past youth team members like Zhou Qi or Wang Zhelin didn’t possess the same strength as Australians or Kiwis.

Pinoys are somewhere in the middle in terms of strength when compared to the Chinese, Australians and Kiwis. We’re strong, but that normally comes with the trademark gulang Pinoys are known for. This is what past, undersized bigs like Mike Nieto and Jonas Tibayan used in their FIBA Asia stints. Kai not only had the gulang, but he also had the height and the skill to complement that Filipino trait. It worked versus China. But New Zealand was a different monster that the Philippines failed to tackle.

“If Kai gets shut down, it’s almost like we don’t know how to play anymore,” said Assistant Coach Josh Reyes. Kai was uncomfortable versus the Kiwis, so he was often forced to pass out to his other teammates.

Kai naturally slowed the game down, but when he’d give up the ball, the offense would muck up. His other teammates didn’t know what to do, which is a testament to the situation rather than the lack of skill. In the first place, Dribble Drive clearly wasn’t the best fit system for this group of players. That was born out of the situation at hand, with Kai being unable to practice early on.

In fact, the entire FIBA Asia Cup performance of Batang Gilas was born out of what was presented to them at present. They never expected to dump the ball to Kai, but they had to. That was the correct decision to do, and it led to them clinching a spot in the FIBA World Cup. Mission accomplished, but there was clearly more to everything that was happening.

Coach Mike Oliver said so himself, they used whatever potential there was in giving the ball to Kai, and it was a revelation. That’s why right after FIBA Asia, the team did not hesitate to start preparations for the World Cup.

“Nagkaroon lang tayo ng one week break, then after nun, nagresume na tayo,” said Oliver. The team had a clear direction. Their guards were still of importance, but this time around, they had not just size, but also talent down low. It’s different from whatever this coaching staff has ever handled, but it’s exciting nonetheless. Coach Mike and his coaching staff weren’t settling with their current roster. They went ahead and looked for potentially better players to beef up their squad even more.

“May opportunity kasi tayo na mas lumakas. Gusto natin na kahit papano, manalo,” said Coach Mike. He invited a number of players to join the Batang Gilas pool, but two players in particular stood out.

Gerry Abadiano and Carl Tamayo, both of the NU Bullpups, have been in the radar of Philippine Basketball fans for the longest time now when it’s come to playing for Batang Gilas. They’re undeniable talented. More important, however, was how they meshed to this new approach the team was undertaking.

Abadiano is someone who fits the DDO mold, a bullstrong, quick guard who can get to the rim with ease. It was the perfect compliment to the modern style of both Fortea and Padrigao. Most importantly, it added the dimension of penetration to a team that relied a lot on post-ups and cuts to get its buckets. It feels weird to say, but Batang Gilas needed a guard. Abadiano fit the mold of the exact kind they needed.

Carl Tamayo, on the other hand, is someone who’s shown flashes of playing like Troy Rosario or Ranidel. He’s a four right now, but he’s been putting in the work to learn how to play the at the wings. “I’ve been working on my skills to play three. Ngayon kahit papaano, I can play three naman,” said Tamayo.

In terms fit, it was a bit tricky, since you didn’t know whether he’d play the small forward or the power forward position. He was someone who needed the ball a lot, whether it be from the post or from the perimeter. What’s important was, he was an incredibly talented prospect who deserved to be with this group of players. “Anytime you get a player with that talent and that potential, it’s always good,” said Coach Josh Reyes. The stage was set for Batang Gilas to make a splash in the world stage.

The World Cup came, and it was mixed bag. Batang Gilas continued to struggle versus the length of opposing teams, especially from the wing. Abadiano’s penetration was a welcome addition to the offense, but he was only one guy. The composition of players from teams like Croatia and Canada proved to be too much for Batang Gilas.

The team faced a series of blowouts, but the losses that were most painful to watch were the ones against France and Mali. Both opponents didn’t just have length, but they also had players whose physical development was at a stage far advanced compared to players from their age group. Kai could not get free, failing find positioning from any angle. Even Fortea and Padrigao struggled immensely. If we look at their performance from that lens, it feels like a failure.

But here’s the thing with the World Cup: it was never completely about winning. It mattered. What was more important was the development of the players for the long term growth of the country. As a team, this Batang Gilas squad showcased composure, discipline and promise that didn’t exist during the FIBA Asia Cup.

From the get go the team knew: the system would revolve around Kai. They continued to dump him the ball, and good things continued to happen. You couldn’t doubt the production Kai put up during the course of the tournament, averaging a double double while ranking in the top five in rebounds, blocks and efficiency. He was clearly the best player in Batang Gilas.

There were instances where Kai would struggle immensely, most notably versus Mali and France. It felt like going up against New Zealand and Australia again, except both teams were far bigger, stronger and more athletic.

Remember what Coach Josh said? “If Kai gets shut down, it’s almost like we don’t know how to play anymore.” That was how it was in the FIBA Asia Cup. This was a different Batang Gilas we were witnessing in the World Cup. It was a team that had clearly grown up, learning from the revelation they had a few months before, and applying it with more polish and composure.

How the other Batang Gilas players stepped up as Kai struggled was a revelation. Carl in particular, was impressive in the offensive end, showing aggressiveness in finding his spots to score. He was sometimes a bit overeager, trying to do a bit too much when he could have just settled with a simpler, more efficient move. But that comes with growth, and if you’re patient enough, you’ll be treated to flashes like these that make your mouth drop when you realize this kid is 6’7″.

Raven may not have the polish of Carl or Kai yet, but he more than makes up for it with a high basketball IQ and motor. He was a beast on the defensive end, disrupting passing lanes and drives, stuff you can’t see on the box score. He also kept on moving off the ball, looking for open seams as if he was a wing. Here’s the thing: he isn’t. He stands at 6’7″, someone who was accustomed to playing center rather than the forward spots.

Forthsky and Terrence also had their fair share of highlights. There were still plenty of critics, but they showcased far better control and composure this time around. They were still able to do the flamboyant things they loved such as taking LONG threes, but it was within the system now. It also helped they had a Gerry Abadiano, arguably the most consistent scorer in the perimeter for Batang Gilas all tournament long, to provide some stability in creating when everything else failed.

Trusting the system and staying disciplined eventually paid off for Batang Gilas. They won versus Egypt in the 13-16 qualifying match, setting up a rematch versus New Zealand in the battle for 13th place. New Zealand also added some new players, but it was largely the same dynamic. It was a group of Kiwis who had physicality and size that were built to disrupt Batang Gilas. By just looking at that, a blowout was to be expected.

We did get a blowout, except one that favored Batang Gilas. The difference lay with how this was a completely different Batang Gilas team that was up against New Zealand. They were much more mature and composed, and more importantly, there was direction to the way they played. They weren’t learning things anymore on the fly. That was what FIBA Asia was for. What the World Cup meant for Batang Gilas was testing out whatever they learned in Foshan, while showing better polish.

There was no one particular moment that blew the minds of Filipinos, but if there’s one image that should stick out when remembering the 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup, let it be this. A 7-footer finds himself in the low post while being surrounded by a variety of offensive weapons. He suddenly whips a quick pass to a cutting 6’7″ forward for the easy layup. Kai surprised the defense because he whipped the pass like it was second nature. But also more suprising he passed the ball to a cutting player with that kind of size.

That was a dream before for many Filipinos. Today, that’s become a reality. We can truly say that the future of Philippine Basketball is here.

“Definitely,” Coach Mike confidently answered when asked whether things are changing for Philippine Basketball. “Hindi lang dahil nagkaroon tayo ng Kai Sotto. Lumalaki na karamihan ng mga bata. So kung makikita mo yung mga line-up natin, talagang ito yung future ng Philippine Basketball.”

The easy way out of this is to say Kai, Raven and Carl are anomalies. That’s what others said when talking June Mar, Greg and Troy. They were supposed to be flukes within the original framework of Philippine Basketball. But as more prospects emerge, we’re learning that isn’t the case. Sooner or later, players of that size will become the norm. As a result, coaches will have to adjust with the kind of talent they’ll be surrounded with.

That was what happened with this Batang Gilas team. They were forced to adjust because of the level of skill Kai and Raven showed during the FIBA Asia tournament. They made their mistakes, but that’s the entire point of having this Batang Gilas program in the first place.

“This is Batang Gilas, that’s why we’re starting the program this early, so that we make our mistakes now, we learn our lessons now, and in the future, improve on it,” said Josh Reyes.

Even the players themselves acknowledge the uniqueness of the circumstance they’re in right now. “Yun nga sa height diba? Iba talaga yung height pati talent namin,” said Terrence Fortea. “May mga kanya-kanya kaming kayang gawin na puwede ipagsama sama para makuha yung goal namin dun sa Argentina.”

Their goal was to win, and to put up a good fight. Mission accomplished, but there was clearly more to everything that’s happening.

“I really believe this group of players, it won’t be the last time they’ll play together for the National Team,” said Coach Josh Reyes. We were witness to a glimpse of the future of Philippine Basketball. The soul which is filled with fearlessness and PUSO remains intact. But the mind continues to grow and go out of the box. It’s filled with big things, one with so much promise for a group of young and talented players who are only realizing their potential right now.

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