The Last Push: Coach Yeng Guiao talks the Philippine Team and lessons from the international stage

Yeng Guiao is living the dream of every coach in the Philippines: leading the national team. Since taking the job in 2018, he’s been able to assemble a squad from across different PBA teams—something many thought was not possible—and while it’s a rare privilege, the journey has also tested them time and again. Right now, they’re on the road with no room for error in the last qualifying window of the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifier.

The Philippine Team needs to win both games against Qatar on February 21 and Kazakhstan on February 24, and then hope that Japan splits their games for a chance to move on to the next stage.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons from our experiences. It’s a different thing coaching in the PBA and coaching international games,” Guiao told us in an exclusive interview before he left the country. “One thing you notice right away is the officiating. International officiating is very inconsistent because you have referees from different countries with different styles of officiating. Another thing is players are a lot bigger and more talented, so you have to come ready and prepared. In international competition, you’re not gonna play each other for 2 rounds, several times a season. Your scouting work is going to be crucial in determining wins and losses. You need to know what plays and what kinds of players are fit for the international stage.”

“What works locally does not necessarily work internationally,” Guiao stresses.

While we lavish praise upon our stars in the PBA, playing internationally gives a perspective about the Philippine basketball scene and how we still need to develop. When people ask, “would you rather be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond,” that assumes the size of fish will always stay the same. Perhaps a better way to think of it is: We should grow the damn fish.

“We still need to develop, especially the talents of our big men,” Guiao says. “You have to be able to utilize your height in the low block and still have the skill to step out and use the three-point shot. That’s what I noticed with the key big men in the international game. They can post you up and take you out and beat you in both areas.”

“The problem with our bigs [in the Philippines] is we’re one-sided. But slowly we’re developing, getting guys like Poy Erram who are capable of scoring from close and from distance. Even Japeth [Aguilar] is developing a decent outside shot. June Mar [Fajardo] is actually the best in operating in the low block, he has a good perimeter jump shot, but his range is still limited compared to the range of bigs from other countries.”

Quickness is another key factor Guiao is hoping to see in the future. “We need to develop bigs who can run up and down, switch on small guys, cover two people at the same time, helping out and recovering back,” he adds. “That’s why Andray Blatche is so important—his game epitomizes what is effective in terms of skill set and style,” Guiao says.

With this being the Philippines’ last push for the window, the team is feeling a sense of urgency. But Guiao says when it comes to adjustments, there’s “nothing complicated,” but instead they hope to refine their execution and capitalize on what Blatche brings to the team.

“Blatche is going to be the game changer. He’s going to create opportunities for our shooters because he demands a double team,” Guiao explains. To prepare for this (and the very fact that they’re playing back to back games away from home), Blatche maximized every opportunity to familiarize himself with Guiao’s plays. In between commitments across countries, he spent a short break earlier this month training not only with the national team but even joining practice with the NLEX Road Warriors, Guiao’s home team in the PBA.

As for the Philippine Team practice itself, Guiao says seeing the younger players leaves him hopeful about the future. “Yung mga Gilas na Under-18 or junior Gilas players, all the people we’ve invited [to the training pool] have shown great potential. Ricci Rivero, Kai Sotto, Thirdy Ravena, Kobe Paras…I don’t have any regrets inviting them and trying to measure how they can play against the big boys—they’ve proven they can,” Guiao shares.

Guiao has always said his time with the national team has been a special period in his coaching career.

“There’s a different kind of satisfaction and pride that comes with coaching the national team. I don’t know if you can capture it in words. It’s a sense of commitment and fulfillment that’s unique. In the first place, there can only be one head coach of the national team at any given time. And you’re that person,” Guiao says with a small smile. “In as much as you get recognition for it, there is a great sense of responsibility and pressure. In that aspect, it’s probably one of the most stressful jobs in the country.”

“You feel you have a sense of responsibility to your countrymen to make them proud, to keep them happy with the way you perform, and anything less than that—you lose or underperform—you take it really hard. At the end, it’s definitely something you miss but you’ll also feel relief.”

For now, expect Guiao and the whole team to give it their all. The challenge is difficult, but the goal is simple: “We want to make Filipinos proud.”