It’s been an exceptionally crazy year for youth basketball. It started off with the (delayed) FIBA Asia U16 tournament that was held in Foshan, where Batang Gilas U16 locked up a slot for the FIBA U17 World Cup. Fast forward to July, Batang Gilas competed in the World Cup, where the U17 team showcased a ton of potential that could possibly be brought to the future of the National Team.
It’s only been a month but the FIBA Asia U18 tourney will already start next week in Thailand. Every tournament this year has led to success and growth. Will this group of players be able to attain the same? Let’s try to answer that by looking at the key characteristics of this group:
For the second straight FIBA Asia tournament, Batang Gilas has one of the tallest teams, with the size of its front court serving as the biggest strength for this group.
We already know of how good Kai Sotto and Raven Cortez are, along with the flashes of potential Geo Chiu has shown. But what makes this group particularly special is the addition of AJ Edu, someone who Filipino hoops fans have been salivating to represent the country for so long now. There was an opening, and both the camps of Batang Gilas and Edu took it. We’re having Edu represent the country along with Sotto. THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING.
What makes the addition of Edu so exciting is the different dynamic he adds to the team. While Sotto is set as their primary scorer from the post, Edu acts as their bigger, much more skilled and athletic version of Cortez. On the offensive end, he roams around the perimeter looking for lobs or catch and shoots. On the defensive end, he’s shown potential as a weak side defender, using his length and athleticism to help protect the rim. It was something Cortez did so well, and now Batang Gilas supercharges it with Edu.
The addition of Edu also brings forth something Batang Gilas didn’t have before: positional versatility. On his own, Edu can play the 3-4-5. Cortez and Sotto can play both the 4-5. Dave Ildefonso has the skill to play the 1-2-3, while he could even parade as a 4 for small ball lineups. Miguel Oczon has continued to grow, and he’ll help out Dalph Panopio in playing the 1-2. There are so much possibilities, the kind of flexibility any coach would dream of having.
Batang Gilas has plenty of size down low, but they face an age-old weakness: not having enough length along the wings.
Dave Ildefonso is the only player you can qualify as someone who has size fit for the international level. Miguel Oczon, Joshua Ramirez and Xyrus Torres can all shoot from the outside, which kind of circumvents whatever lack of length they have. It could be better, but Batang Gilas can make do with the skills they have.
Where it gets particularly difficult is on the defensive end. This was magnified during the tune-ups Batang Gilas had with FEU, when the team had to defend players like Arvin Tolentino or Kenneth Tuffin along the perimeter. Since the wings don’t have enough length to recover on their own, the defense got jumbled up during certain plays. Which then brings us to their next problem: defensive balance.
Coach Josh Reyes already alluded to this after the game: despite having monsters down low in Sotto and Edu, both of them are rim protectors. They aren’t used to defending shooters from the outside yet, and when both of them play together, one player has to go out and make sure the forward doesn’t get an open look. It’s simply a reality this generation has to face. More often than not, at least four players in a team will be capable of making buckets from the outside.
That’s not to say Edu and Sotto don’t have the tools to be able to defend the perimeter. As a matter of fact, they do. For someone his size, Sotto is ridiculously nimble and relatively light on his feet. Edu, as we all know, is an athlete we’re not used to seeing in Philippine Basketball. It’s just a matter of getting used to defending shooters like that from the outside.
This entire Batang Gilas team, as it is, needs work. They haven’t played together enough for us to be convinced that they’re one cohesive unit. The players acknowledge it, as well as the coaching staff. But it’s something they’ll have to work with, just like what the U16 team did in Foshan a few months back.
Edu and Sotto are going to be the cornerstones of this version of Batang Gilas. Their two-way brilliance is unmatched, with the potential of the two absolutely off the roof. We’re likely going to be witness to something special.
As talented as those two players are, they aren’t even the primary engineers of their offense. That title goes to Ildefonso, Panopio and Gerry Abadiano, the kind of guards fit for the dribble drive system of Coach Reyes. As much as the team has sprinkled in principles of low post play, Philippine Basketball is still a dribble drive country at its very core. Especially in a situation where practice where few and far in between, a team will have to go with its instincts. For the case of this tournament, they’ll be running off their three headed monster of a backcourt to try and make things work.
Then there’s the X-Factors of the team, the players who could potentially be sparks when everything else is failing. Cortez and Torres are the kinds of players fit in that mold, and a large part of that is because of how they play. Cortez will serve as the primary reliever of both Sotto and Edu. He has the skill to do that job particularly well. His length is well-documented, but what makes him special are his unique instincts on both ends of the floor. He’s the kind of guy who’ll score 12 points, all on well-timed cuts to the rim, or simple offensive rebounds. Don’t sleep on Cortez, he’s quite the talent.
Then there’s Torres, shooting extraordinaire out of the FEU Baby Tamaraws program. That’s going to be his primary job: shoot the ball. This was something Batang Gilas U17 and U16 had trouble with. They didn’t have someone to just kick out the ball to make buckets on a consistent basis. That’s where Torres comes in. He’s the peak floor spacer, and when hot, he could go for 20 points. It’s a simple, but very important job for a team that hopes to make it to the World Cup.
We’re back in familiar territory once more. The Batang Gilas U16 team that played in Foshan last April was a boom or bust team. This team has a higher ceiling, but the dynamic is generally the same. The potential of this team is outstanding. It’s simply a matter of putting all the pieces together towards a slot in the World Cup.
This is arguably the most talented team we’ve ever seen in the youth level. Sotto and Edu are the cornerstones, but it’s players like Ildefonso, Panopio and Abadiano that puts this team in a completely other level. Their positional versatility is a coach’s team, while the potential of the team making it all work is exciting to think about.
But that’s all there is to it right now. Potential. A mere thought. It’s up to this team to turn that thought into reality. If everything works out and the team fulfills its potential? We’re not just looking at a World Cup bound team. We may be looking at the FIBA Asia U18 champions.
Photos from FIBA.com