NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum: 'Only a matter of time' before a Filipino plays in NBA

Philippines prospect Kai Sotto got a taste of NBA action with the Adelaide 36ers when they took on the Phoenix Suns back in October, having failed to get picked up after nominating for last year's draft earlier in June. Chris Coduto/Getty Images

NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said "it's only a matter of time" before a homegrown Filipino player makes it to the NBA.

The key, he said, is identifying the correct pathway and tapping the right talent early on.

Speaking to a group of local media at the league's Manila headquarters, Tatum -- who is in town for the FIBA World Cup draw on Saturday -- said programs like Jr. NBA and Basketball Without Borders are in place to make it happen.

"We've had success with Jr. NBA alums going off to play professionally, just not in the NBA," said Tatum.

"Remember, the NBA is 450 people, basketball players in the world. So it is probably one of the most competitive leagues in the world because there's only 450 places (available to) the billions of people around the world who play basketball.

"But I do think the talent is here, the passion for the game is here, the infrastructure is here.

"I think it's probably just a matter of identifying that talent early and then putting them in competitive situations, maybe outside of the Philippines, quite frankly, early so that they can develop and play against the best competition in the world."

Highlighting Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam as current NBA stars who were discovered in the league's Basketball Without Borders program, Tatum continued: "I think the pathway that we think about is definitely starting early. We've had 10 Jr. NBA alums that are now playing professional basketball throughout Asia.

"We have a Basketball Without Borders camp, where we actually identify some of the best talent in a particular region or continent, bring them in, we have NBA coaches come in, we have NBA players come in, and we really do this intensive training of them.

"We have a global academy in Australia, where we take some of the best kids from around the world and bring them into this academy system, where they are getting the best development, the best thinking around how to develop an elite basketball player."

"But I think that next level will be how do you identify that talent that has potential and put them in situations where they're playing the best in the world. And I think that's what we're focused on. And I think through that, inevitably, there will be a homegrown Filipino player that plays in the NBA."

On the FIBA World Cup, Tatum believes the fact that three Asian countries are co-hosting the event will give basketball an additional boost in the region.

With the NBA already experiencing a huge upswing post-pandemic, he believes the World Cup will fuel even more growth.

"Having the World Cup here and in Indonesia and Japan, I think is going to create this spark and this additional momentum for basketball in the region," added Tatum.

"So the World Cup draw is going to be a great event. It's going to be where many of the teams figure out where they're going to play, who their competition is.

"And I think that's going to create a whole other level of excitement when we see who the home team -- the Philippines -- plays, and who the USA plays, and who France, and Canada, and Spain, and all these great teams that are going to be participating, the 32 great teams of the World Cup.

"So I think it's never been a better time to be a fan of the NBA. I think the momentum here in the Philippines and throughout Southeast Asia is picking up."

NBA Asia Managing Director Ramez Sheikh highlighted that the Philippines remains a very important market for the league.

"We've got over 15 million followers from the Philippines in all of our social media handles. We've got content that caters specifically to our Filipino fans," he said.

"We've got over approximately 50 partners across merchandise, sponsorship, and media. In fact, today, Mark and I had the pleasure of visiting our second store in Mall of Asia, and spent some time with our partner Titan in that wonderful space -- 500 square meters.

"The FIBA World Cup is obviously here, together with Japan and Indonesia. There will be a lot of NBA players. They're going to have a chance to experience this wonderful city. And we can't wait to shine a spotlight on them when they're here in the region in August and September."

Sheikh added that more Filipinos continue to watch NBA content, with TV viewership up 15% and NBA League Pass visits up 169%.

"When you look at the average viewership of people that are watching games here in the Philippines, it's second only to China," Sheikh stated.

"The Philippines is the number one market for us in terms of Facebook fans outside the United States."

That being said, the two NBA officials were candid enough to admit that ten years after the first NBA pre-season game was held in Manila, there are still no immediate plans to come back.

"There is an extraordinary fan base here in the Philippines," Sheikh said. "And while we don't have any current plans to play any preseason games in the Philippines, we're always open to the conversation."

Tatum pointed out that even though a pre-season game likely won't be happening soon, there will still be dozens of NBA players descending upon the country in August as he added: "Our teams are heavily in demand to play across the world before our season typically kicks off in October.

"But what I'm really excited about is we're going to see so many NBA players here in Manila in the next few months who will bring their NBA caliber talent. Fans here are going to be able to see so many NBA players together with international players.

"So we're excited about that. Yeah, I think 20 of the 32 teams will have NBA players on them. There will be probably a record number of NBA players participating in this World Cup."