It’s safe to say that the 2019 FIBA World Cup experience has not been easy for Philippine basketball fans.
The signs might have already been there from the start. This team might not have been given a proper chance to be ready for the World Cup, but the games were a tough pill to swallow nonetheless. After dropping out of contention to advance to the next stage and failing to secure an outright berth to Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it’s time to ask the inevitable question: What’s next?
The answer – or at least one of the answers – is undoubtedly CJ Perez.
There haven’t been many, but among one of the lasting images from the World Cup of this Philippines team came in their very first game.
Down by 36 against Italy in the second quarter, the game was already out of reach. The Philippines were deflated by the red-hot shooting of the Italians, who have already knocked down 10 threes by the end of the first half.
With a little over three minutes left in the half, a deflection by Andray Blatche put the ball straight into the hands of Perez. The 25-year-old burst straight into the open court on the other end. Even with a legit NBA player in Danilo Gallinari sprinting parallel with him, Perez slowed down only once – just a short instance to gather his momentum for a driving layup attempt.
The two players rose into the air; a PBA rookie gliding in for his first points ever in the World Cup, and a seasoned NBA and international basketball veteran stretching out his arms to prevent that from happening.
Perez kissed the ball off the glass, banking it in to register his first points as part of Gilas.
In the entire scheme of things, the basket meant little to nothing. Perez’s layup only cut the lead down to 34 and it would grow on to as much as 53 before ending in a 46-point blowout.
Even so, the it remained in the back of my head.
For his very first basket at the biggest stage in the basketball world, Perez drove fearlessly at one of the world’s best and scored. As fans, we should expect to see even more of Perez as a staple for Gilas heading into future, while he ascends to being one of the best in his own rights.
Perez had already caught attention in his first FIBA stint back in 2016 at the FIBA Asia Challenge as a part of the Cadets squad. Though he was not a highly featured player with only 12.8 minutes per game and even sitting out their game against China, he had his moments.
In that limited amount of playing time, Perez still put up a healthy and intriguing 9.5 points and 1.8 steals on average.
Three years later, only he and RR Pogoy from that Asia Challenge squad have made their way onto the World Cup team.
It certainly says a lot about how much Perez has developed and improved as a player over the years and, more importantly, how much potential he has to become even better if he is a consistent part of the program.
After Gilas’ performance this year at the World Cup, it’s clear that there are changes that will need to be made. One of the focus points will be how to smoothly go through the transition process heading towards the next generation.
The Philippines are among one of the most “experienced” teams at the World Cup. With an average roster age of 29 years old, they are the oldest among all the Asian teams in the tournament. No matter how much fans want to believe that Gabe Norwood will forever be able to play with Gilas, Father Time makes no exceptions.
The torch needs to be passed on soon and the program has done a good job in getting some of the young guns into the mix. Along with Kiefer Ravena and Robert Bolick, Gilas already has an exceptionally good building block to construct around in Perez.
They just have to hold on to him.
Really, really tightly.
“Like Gabe, it would be a huge achievement if I can also play for Gilas for 10 years,” Perez said in Filipino, in an interview with ESPN 5. “But I know there is still a lot of work to be done for me to deserve that.”
Perez had his off moments, as nearly everyone on Gilas did at the World Cup in China. The bright spots for fans has been watching Perez, as he averaged 16.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game through the Group Phase, but he also had a blunder towards the end of regulation in a thriller against Angola.
With possession of the ball and time running out, Perez could have or should have made a play to attack the basket or move the ball, neither of which he ended up doing. The game went to overtime and the Philippines eventually lost the game.
As told by the storm of media who approached Perez after the game, his facial expressions displayed that of disappointment and vulnerability. Soft-spoken as usual, it was as if Perez’s body language was screaming how much he had wanted to win this game and how much he felt he had let everyone down.
That there might be the most important evidence of why Perez should be a key fixture for future Gilas squad heading into the future. This was more than the outstanding on-court statistics and performances.
Perez has been showing, throughout this tournament his wholehearted desire not only to win, but to win for the country.
That is what makes him a player that fans should look forward to see every single time the Philippines national team takes the stage at the international level in the coming years ahead. Perez may have exploded on to the scene. But he proved, not only with his play, that he deserves to stay.