Skepticism gives way to hope as Cone-era Gilas makes a giant leap

Skepticism gives way to hope as Cone-era Gilas makes a giant leap

GILAS Pilipinas’ impressive run in the 2024 FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournamentmight have ended in heartbreak, but there are plenty of things to cheer about and a lot more to look forward to.

The boys of coach Tim Cone lit the fire in the hearts of Gilas hopefuls as it shocked world No. 6 Latvia, then continued with strong performances against global powerhouses Georgia and Brazil, proving that this team – young as it is – is now world class.

With the exhilarating run of Gilasin the recent OQTstill buzzing in our heads, let’s take a look at some of the biggest takeaways from our national team in this tournament.

PHOTO: fiba.basketball

We’re not a small team anymore

For years, there has been a belief that Filipinos aren’t big enough and tall enough to compete against some of the world’s best. While that might have rang true in the 90s, and even in the first iteration of the ‘Gilas’ national team in the late 2000s, that can’t be said now.

The fact that the two naturalized players in Justin Brownlee and Jordan Clarkson both stand at 6 '5 and play in the perimeter is a telling sign that we’re growing, literally and figuratively.

During the FIBA OQT, that size was pretty much evident, especially in the times where the 7-foot-3Kai Sotto was available playing the four spot alongside the burly 6’10 June Mar Fajardo.

Are we a big team compared to the world’s best? Not by a long shot. But gone are the days where we say we aren’t big enough to compete against them.

PHOTO: fiba.basketball

Justin Brownlee aging like fine wine

Justin Brownlee didn’t come to the Philippines as a young man. He was 27 when he first suited up for Ginebra, and was nearly 35 in his national team debut for Gilas Pilipinas.

But after towing the Philippines to the Asian Games gold medal in 2023 that ended 61 years of futility, and putting up a spectacular performance in the FIBA OQT which earned him an All-Star Five selection in the tournament – it’s quiet evident there’s no slowing down JB32 in the years ahead.

Brownlee averaged a team-high 23 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in three games, that saw the Philippines fall two wins short of making the Paris Olympics.

Until when will Brownlee carry on his magic? Only time will tell. But for now, let’s enjoy greatness as it unfolds before our very eyes.

PHOTO: fiba.basketball

Captain New-New has a nice ring to it

For years, there’s always been the undisputed leader of successful Gilas squads.

Jimmy Alapag was the heart and soul of the Chot Reyes-led Gilas squad which turned heads in the 2013 FIBA Asia and 2014 World Cup. That baton was passed to Gabe Norwood as the squad’s leader following the retirement, and the ultimate transition to coaching, of Alapag.

Over the past few tournaments, that leadership role left a void that needed to be filled – enterChris Newsome.

Fresh off the best stretch of his career after winning an Asian Games gold medal and his first ever PBA championship – his success carried over to the OQT where he was among the most welcome surprises for the Gilas squad.

Newsome gladly took over the squad as its vocal leader while being the team’s primary ball handler and premier perimeter defender, proving his versatility as he mainly plays the two for most of his career.

Off the court, his relationship with his teammates – in particular, the younger ones – stood out. As his teammates started posting their thank yous on their respective social media pages, Newsome thanked each and every player on the comment section, showing that he’s the kuyathat his team badly needs.

In Newsome, we now see the inspiration of this Tim Cone-led Gilas squad. Not bad for being the final cut in the 2023 World Cup, right?

PHOTO: FIBA

Those big guards could be the trend

The absence of traditional point guards in the line-up of coach Tim Cone raised some eyebrows, but after a solid showing for Gilas Pilipinas in the OQT, one can no longer question Cone’s decision to use natural twos as his main playmakers.

Newsome andDwight Ramos did a great job as they shared orchestrating responsibilities with CJ Perez for Gilas Pilipinas. The return of former PBA MVP Scottie Thompson to the mix pretty much sealed Cone’s rotation in the guard spot.

The importance of having bigger guards couldn’t be more evident in the OQT, especially against European squads like Latvia and Georgia which play very physical when it comes to on-ball defense, often putting pressure on the ball handlers full court.

This isn’t to say that we don’t want to see the brilliant smaller guards like RJ Abarrientos and SJ Belangel don the blue and white once again, but it pays to have options.

PHOTO: fiba.basketball

Kai Sotto is coming into his own

Kai Sotto isn’t a young prospect anymore. He’s one of the pillars of this team, and in the little time that he played in the FIBA OQT, he showed it.

In his only full game in the tournament, Sotto battled it out with the big men of Latvia and more than held his own as he finished with 18 points and eight rebounds in the 89-80 shocker.

His versatile skill set that includes taking threes, putting the ball on the floor and hitting open teammates allows him to pair well with June Mar Fajardo, and AJ Edu.

It would’ve been nice to see how he would’ve handled the likes of Goga Bitadze of Georgia and Bruno Caboclo of Brazil, but a rib injury kept him out of commission for the rest of the tournament.

His absence was certainly felt.

The good thing is there’s still plenty of time for Kai to strut his wares for Gilas Pilipinas.

PHOTO: fiba.basketball

Kraken may not be the MVP here, but he remains valuable nonetheless

The criticism to seven-time PBA MVP and 10-time champion June Mar Fajardo has always been how his game in the local league which is so superior has failed to translate itself in international games.

That isn’t the case anymore.

While he isn’t posting 20-10s on a regular basis with Gilas Pilipinas which is his norm with San Miguel, Fajardo has emerged as a solid man in the middle for Gilas.

READ No denying June Mar an eighth MVP award, Holt the ROY honor

Fajardo averaged 9 points and 7.3 rebounds as the starting center for the national team. The position calls for banging bodies with European and South American giants.

Asking him to chase players in the perimeter might be too much, but his ability to finish in the paint, hit mid-range jumpers and clog the interior is more than enough for Gilas Pilipinas.

PHOTO: Jerome Ascano

The best is yet to come

We’re still early into the Tim Cone era and things are moving fast for the nationals.

Less than a year since he was tasked to handle the squad in the Asian Games, Cone has steered Philippine basketball to new heights. This improvements, strongly evident against Latvia and Georgia, and even in the loss against Brazil, have given basketball-crazy Filipinos a new belief and appreciation of the Philippine team.

Oftentimes broken-hearted, many times dejected and infuriated, these have now given way to moments of joy.

The good news? This team hasn't reached its full potential. Yet.

PHOTO: Jerome Ascano

Here's why.

The 6’10 AJ Edu is still to play. He's been sidelined by an ACL injury and still recovering. But once healthy, Edu, who shone in the 2023 WOrld Cup, will be there to man the center alongside Sotto and Fajardo.

Former PBA MVP Scottie Thompson is another player waiting to be incorporated to the team. Many know he's a tough ball handler who knows Cone’s system by heart. There, too, is Jamie Malonzo - 6-7 and athletic - waiting to be fit again.

These are just three examples and knowing Cone, he is likely to find more gems in the country's vast arsenal of basketball players. With the team’s core continuing to jell, this Gilas Pilipinas squad appears bound to go places.

Let's wish them luck.

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