Throwback Thursday: The Gilas Blur

This article originally appeared in SLAM 169


Jayson Castro is the Perfect Guy to run The Gilas Offense.

By Robi Raya

It’s eleven on a Friday night. I check my phone one last time before calling it a day. I carelessly crash on the bed. I’m ready to close my eyes and dream about Georgina Wilson. Then, my phone rings. It flashes an unknown number. I pray for the 0.000001 percent chance that it’s Georgina! What could she possibly want? I say, “Hello.”

A man with a noticeable lisp answers, “Ah sir, magandang gabi po. Gusto niyo raw po akong ma-interview tungkol sa Gilas? Sir si Jayson Castro po ito.” I’m stunned. Not because I’m disappointed that the mystery caller isn’t Georgina Wilson. But because the caller, an ultra-talented dude, the most devastating combo guard in the country right now, spoke with the softest tone and utmost respect.

“Ah sige po sir,” Jayson says. “Kita nalang po tayo sa Tuesday para sa interview.”

About four hours before our conversation on the phone, the former PCU Dolphin wasn’t treating Petron Blaze’s Denok Miranda with that much respect. It was the start of the 4th quarter of Game 1 of the Commissioner’s Cup Quarterfinals between the Tropang Texters and the Blaze Boosters. Jayson had the ball at the top of the key. TNT was ahead by the slimmest of margins. Castro was ready to dance. Like the deadly African Cobra sizing up its prey, Jayson took a few steps backwards to look for the perfect point of attack. He caught Miranda off balance with a little shimmy hesitation dribble. He then exploded through the paint.

As Castro prepared to score on a lay-up, Petron’s Arwind Santos quickly responded by joining Castro in mid-air. I anticipated either Santos blocking Castro’s shot or Castro scoring against Santos. Like Santos, I was duped. At the very last moment before taking a shot, Castro delivered a no-look dime to a wide-open Rabeh Al-Hussaini. Easy bucket. Easy two. Castro continued to abuse Miranda afterwards. Al-Hussaini continued to benefit from the alleged mismatch. At one point, Miranda decided to just sag off against Castro to prevent additional forays into the paint. Left open, Jayson nailed a demoralizing jump shot. Three minutes into the fourth quarter, Talk ‘N Text already stretched their one-point lead to a nine-point advantage. It all felt like a blur.

Castro contributed 11 points and 5 assists to TNT’s huge Game 1 victory (in a best-of-three series). It doesn’t sound like much. His performance in the opening three minutes of the fourth quarter, however, tipped the balance to the Texters’ side.

“Before you used to be able to say that you can just back off of Castro and make him beat you shooting jump shots,” Charles Tiu, Barako Bull Assistant Coach and former Gilas Pilipinas Assistant Coach, says. “But he has already proven that he can do that now!”

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Indonesia pic 7 by Roy Afable

The jump shot is highly regarded as a necessary tool to succeed in international hoops. So Castro deserves a ton of credit for converting his own jump shot from a weapon-of-sheer-desperation into an eff-you-if-you’re-backing-off-of-me-dagger.

“Halos tatlong taon ko ring trinabaho yung jump shot ko,” Jayson admits. “Yun talaga yung kailangan sa international na laro eh kaya sakto ngayon may tira na ako sa labas kaya palagay ko pwede na ako sa FIBA.”

The words palagay ko pwede na ako sa FIBA suggest that once upon a time Jayson Castro’s game wouldn’t have worked against the smart defenses of powerhouse teams like Lebanon, Jordan, Korea, Iran, and China. Those teams, as Tiu describes, have good rules on D. They easily recognize which player to pack the paint on or which player to leave open because that player can’t hit the ocean with a pebble. Heck, The Blur’s game was so ill-fitted for international competition three years ago that he wasn’t even in the conversation when the Gilas 1.0 coaching staff was choosing point guards.

“You could say that at that time Castro’s game wasn’t ripe yet for international ball,” Tiu reveals. “We were happy with shooters like JVee (Casio) and Jimmy (Alapag) eh.” “Hindi pa talaga fit yung game ko sa FIBA or kahit sa sistema ni Coach Rajko noon,” Castro admits while flashing a smile. “Kahit ako alam ko talaga kasi number one wala akong outside shot dati. Tapos number two yung military na sistema ni Coach Rajko, hindi rin siguro talaga ako mag-fi-fit doon kasi hindi ko talaga magagamit yung quickness ko. Puro screens at off-ball movement kaya kahit ako naman nasabi ko na ‘Ops, hindi ako pwede dito.’”

It took Jayson countless hours in the gym, doing extra work, putting up hundreds of shots to retool his jumper and bring it to a respectable level. It took even more work to raise the level of his jump shot from respectable in the PBA to legit at the international level. It was difficult to transform himself into a Gilas-ready player. Hence, he wants to ensure that he makes the final cut. “Lahat naman ng players ay pangarap na makapaglaro sa national team kaya sana ma-line-up din talaga ako,” the former Singapore Slinger shares. “Isa rin talaga ito sa mga dream ko bilang basketball player kaya kapag andun na gagawin ko talaga yung best ko.”

Now armed with a complete arsenal that has firmly ensconced him in the “Who are the five best players in the PBA?” conversation, Jayson is practically a lock for the final lineup of Gilas. I fear a riot will erupt if he doesn’t make the final cut; especially when you consider that Jayson will be featured in an offensive system that shouts, “SHIT! DRIBBLE DRIVE IS JAYSON CASTRO!” Just think of that for a second. The DDM (abbreviation of dribble drive motion offense) that Coach Chot is establishing in the Gilas program is predicated on floor spacing (created by shooters), guard penetration, and ball movement. The essentials of the attack are a big man option down low, three shooters at the corner and at the wings, and a guard that is devastating off the dribble and has a knack for finding the open man.

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Vietnam pic 5 by Roy Afable

You remember the Jones Cup where Sol Mercado, Jared Dillinger, and even L.A. Tenorio had all the liberty to go one-on-one and break down their defenders off the dribble? Yeah? When Iran and Jordan’s heady pee gees Mehdi Kamrani and Wesam Al-Sous had a better shot at dating Taylor Swift than being able to stay in front of Sol Mercado? You remember when “You just don’t leave that guy open” type of shooters in Jeff Chan and Gary David found themselves wide open in the corner after Tenorio black holed the defense towards the paint? I bet you do. I bet you even thought of how perfect the DDM is for the skill sets of Pinoy guards.

While Mercado and Tenorio thrived in Coach Chot’s dribble drive motion offense, I believe Castro is the best guy for the job. Why? Castro is more explosive off the dribble than Tenorio. Plus he’s a deadlier mid-range-to-Rainbow Country shooter than Mercado. And then his finding-the-open-man skills may be as good as Sol’s. So if you’re an Asian guard defending him, you’re left to choose between the lesser of three evils: (1) back off of that Castro guy and make him take the J, or (2) stay close to him and put your ankles in danger, or (3) trap him with another big man, consequently leaving Ranidel De Ocampo, June Mar Fajardo, or Marcus Douthit open. Giving Jayson Castro a free hand to run the dribble drive O is like putting him in a situation where he’s bound to do some serious damage. Like dropping a shark in a tank full of injured and bloodied seals.

“Jayson will be very valuable in Coach Chot’s dribble drive motion offense because it will be tough for anyone to be able to stay in front of him and try to stop him one on one,” Tiu says. “We’ve seen it in the Talk ‘N Text teams and he arguably was the heart and soul of their offense. He was unstoppable then and he was the reason a lot of guys like (Larry) Fonacier and (Ryan) Reyes got their open shots.”

Castro, the third overall draft pick in the 2008 PBA Draft, knows all too well that the liberty he will enjoy with Gilas 2.0 is the same type of liberty he had with TNT when Coach Chot was still calling the shots. It’s liberty with responsibility. He knows that it’s his job to initiate the offense, to create free-flowing opportunities from every part of the floor; whether it be a teardrop in the lane over Yi Jianlian after he leaves Sun Yue with an in-and-out dribble, or a pick-and-pop with Ranidel at the elbow, or a drop pass to Marcus or June Mar in the paint, or a kick-out to Gary David or Jeff Chan at the wings after he sucks the defense to the middle.

Jayson says that running the dribble drive O should come naturally; like a math test that he has prepared for over and over. In addition, he’s even more excited to run the DDM because, in a bizarre way, FIBA-Asia defenders might allow him to actually initiate the offense.

“Kaming dalawa ni L.A., palagi naming pinag-uusapan yung experience niya noong naging Jones Cup MVP siya,” the 27 year-old, 5-11 guard shares. “Sinasabi niya sa akin na hindi raw siya masyadong nahirapan sumaksak kasi yun nga, mas mabagal talaga sila kasi malalaki rin talaga.”

Castro knows that the size disadvantage that Asian guards will have against him will be quickly converted into an advantage once they go to the other side of the court. We’ve seen it in the past, how 6-6 guards like Sun Yue of China and Sam Daghles of Jordan bullied Jimmy Alapag and JVee Casio on the block. That’s why Jayson has made it a point to listen intently to Coach Norman Black (Gilas 2.0’s defensive coordinator) when his current PBA coach is giving out pointers on how to defend the post during national team practices. “Tinuturuan talaga kami ngayon ni Coach Norman ng post defense at iyon talaga yung kailangan pa naming pag-aralan talaga,” Jayson shares. “Yun yung i-ni-improve naming mga guards ngayon kasi nga na-exploit yun mga guards sa post dati nung unang Gilas.”

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Singapore pic 24 by Roy Afable

As good as an individual Jayson is on both sides of the floor, it is always in a team setting that he has always excelled. He has practically accomplished everything on that level; just see his five championship rings. Despite being arguably TNT’s best player for a couple of years now and despite people saying that he’d be a much bigger superstar if he was on another team, Jayson has chosen to stick with his Tropa the way only a few outrageously popular lead singers have ever done with their bands.

“For me talaga, team player talaga ako,” Jayson Castro says with cheeks blushing and with eyes bright. “Yun nga, maraming shooters sa national team katulad ni Larry (Fonacier), Ranidel (De Ocampo), Ryan Reyes, Gary David at Jeff Chan, kaya excited na excited talaga ako to create for them.”

Throughout the interview, that was the only time The Blur removed his eyes on the floor and redirected them to mine. It was as if he was so damn sure of what he was saying. I guess he was sick of talking about himself. That’s the way he is. That’s his nature. He doesn’t like stepping on a pedestal. He tends to deflect the spotlight towards his teammates.

Jayson Castro won’t mind if you focus on someone else. He won’t mind if you focus on Georgina Wilson if you wish. Ignore him if you dare. Leave him open at your own peril. Or…meet him in mid-air. Hijack his lay-up attempt. Try to block his shot. For a truly unselfish weapon of hard court destruction, a perfect no-look assist to a wide-open teammate is just an easy flick away.