A silver medal in the recently concluded Southeast Asian Games will be the first and foremost motivation as Gilas Pilipinas reconvenes, this time in preparation for the 2023 FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers from June 30 to July 3.
Unlike the PBA star-laden squad that shockingly lost to Indonesia in the regional meet, however, this Philippine national team will be comprised of, mostly, collegiate standouts. Their mission? To bring back confidence in the program that had just lost the SEA Games gold for the first time since 1989.
The great expectations will primarily fall on the shoulders on Nenad Vucinic, who was named head coach for the third window of the qualifiers. This is a golden opportunity for the straightforward and detail-oriented tactician, as assistant Jong Uichico described him, to prove former Gilas program director and coach Tab Baldwin correct in recommending him.
National team stalwarts -- which is weird to say because of how young they are -- Thirdy Ravena of San-En NeoPhoenix and Dwight Ramos of Levanga Hokkaido then banner the 18-player pool bared by the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas. Redonning the blue, red, and white alongside them are Ateneo Blue Eagles Ange Kouame, SJ Belangel, and Geo Chiu; UAAP champion and UP Fighting Maroon Carl Tamayo; FEU Tamaraw RJ Abarrientos; and William Navarro and Lebron Lopez.
Seven new names were included in the pool, one of whom is coming off a statement showing in UAAP 84 3x3. UST's Sherwin Concepcion was hailed as MVP in the two-day Men's Tournament last Thursday to Friday after shooting the Growling Tigers to the championship. The 6-foot-3 wing made good on three-game winners, the biggest of which coming in the finals, when his lift-off from way beyond the arc over La Salle Green Archer Ralph Cu put the exclamation point in the black and gold's comeback from nine points down.
Throughout the tournament, Concepcion (10.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game) showcased the very skill that led to his Gilas call-up: a shooter's mentality to keep taking threes, and hopefully, keep making them too. While his overall percentage in the 5-on-5 tournament stood at 29.7%, that was because defenses keyed in on him, being the top gun in a UST arsenal that was lacking legitimate weapons. Back in the first round, when scouting reports weren't that fully realized yet, he actually converted 36.7 of his triple tries.
And despite the percentages, the 25-year-old still hit 33 treys in total, third-best in all the league. That sharpshooting will be very much welcome for a national team which had been looking for a deep-range threat who can fill in the shoes or flank the likes of Matthew Wright and RR Pogoy.
Obviously, shooting also paved the path for many of the other new call-ups to Gilas:
UAAP 84 averages: 4.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists
Spencer had long been known as a near-knockdown shooter, even when he was suiting up for Gilas Youth (then-Batang Gilas). That remained true in the most recent UAAP season, as he converted on 30.8% of his attempts. Even better, however, the Filipino-Australian also turned himself into a near-lockdown defender, and therefore, a true-blue 3-and-D player. How he bothered La Salle's Schonny Winston in the semifinals and then Ateneo's Ildefonso in the finals will, without a doubt, provide a big boost for a Gilas side that will have to face off with the backcourts of New Zealand and India. One catch, however, is that he's presently recovering from plantar fasciitis back in Australia and his return to the Philippines is up in the air.
NCAA 97 averages: 15.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.4 blocks
Make no mistake, Abando's the third newcomer mentioned in this piece, but that's just because of how this story is structured. When all is said and done, the NCAA Rookie of the Year-and-MVP can be the most impactful addition to this pool. A 6-foot-2, long-limbed wing, he's the prototype 2 or 3 for the modern international game. In terms of the shooting we've been highlighting, he's a threat from distance with 11 threes to his name in 12 games played. More than that, he's a fearless slasher who can slice and dice his way right to the rim, or pull-up from midrange. His offensive game is pretty much complete, and he's no slouch at the other end either, as his quick feet allow him to stay in front of his foe. And if somebody gets past him? Then those long arms can do damage. Don't forget, his chasedown blocks are just as much of a highlight as his big-time buckets.
Harris is a 6-foot-7, Filipino-American wing who had once compared his game to Jayson Tatum, the Boston Celtics' First Team All-NBA forward. It's yet to be determined if he can, indeed, live up to the billing, and if his play will mesh well with the Philippine brand of basketball, but odds are that the 16-year-old who traces his roots to Cebu province can contribute right away.
UAAP 82 Juniors averages: 12.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1.0 steals
Tamayo, Harold Alarcon, Gerry Abadiano, Terrence Fortea, and coach Goldwin Monteverde are now UAAP Juniors and Seniors champions. There's another key piece in that National U Bullpup high school dynasty, however, and though Quiambao decided on a different direction by committing to La Salle, he remains a promising prospect. He formed a twin towers frontline with Tamayo and the two were, more or less, interchangeable -- dominant down low with the capability and confidence to hit shots from outside as well, while also being imposing interior defenders. The 6-foot-7 future Green Archer is not as polished as Tamayo, but is still a high-ceiling talent who's just scratching the surface of his potential. A Gilas stint may just be what he needs to shine even brighter, and then dominate right out of the gates as a rookie next UAAP season, just like Tamayo did.
NCAA 97 averages: 9.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks
Not much is known about Liwag -- for casual fans, that is. A 6-foot-6 big for also-ran Emilio Aguinaldo College in the NCAA, his inclusion into the pool entailed questions of "Who?!" and/or "What?!" For those in the know, however, they see a diamond in the rough who has potential to be a solid, at least, modern big. The Generals are yet to produce a national team player in basketball, but Liwag has as good a chance as any to change all that.
UAAP 84 averages: 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals
Technically, Rivero isn't a new call-up, as he was already part of a Gilas pool back in 2019. He didn't suit up in any international matches, however, and is, indeed, a newcomer in this new-age for the national team. We all already know what we're going to get from the 6-foot-1 guard - a near-unstoppable slasher who has a penchant for nifty finishes right at the ring. What he also showed in his last year for UP, though, was much-improved playmaking. If he can just take less ill-advised threes (91 attempts, just 27 makes) and channel his energies into weaponizing his skill in making his way into the paint to make plays for himself or his teammates, then he can be a big part of Vucinic's backcourt rotation.