Imagine it’s the 2023 FIBA World Cup. The Philippine Arena, with a crowd overflowing through the rafters, explodes in thunderous applause as the Team Pilipinas starters are introduced by the stadium announcer. Now imagine that the team’s starting line-up was made up mostly of NBA players.
The chances of this happening is not at all remote. Who can potentially make up the Gilas starting 5 when we host the FIBA World Cup?
We will probably see the Batang Gilas Twin Tower combination of Kai Sotto and AJ Edu finally making their senior debut on the world stage. Sotto has been touted by the reputable scouting site thestepien.com as one of the top 5 international prospects worldwide for the 2021 NBA draft. He was described as someone who has “impressive coordination and mobility for his size”. Sotto has proven himself to be more than just hype when he emerged as the best player of the FIBA Asia Under-16. Against stronger competition in the FIBA U17 World Cup, Sotto held his own, averaging 16.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks. Sotto was pitted against older boys in the FIBA Asia U18 last August and once again, the 16 year-old delivered by norming 12.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks.
Real Madrid seems to be the next step for Sotto when he finishes this school year. This will do him a world of good not only in terms of training and exposure, but also in the level of competition he will be facing. He will be trekking a path similar to the one taken by Dallas Mavericks rookie sensation Luka Doncic who started with the Real Madrid youth program before turning pro at the age of 16 in the Spanish Liga ACB. At 19, Doncic was named the EuroLeague MVP and the Liga ACB MVP after leading his team to title wins in both competitions. Sotto can probably stay at least a year in the youth level before turning pro. A year or two in the EuroLeague and Sotto just might be ripe for the NBA draft by 2021 the earliest or 2022 when he will be 20 years old.
Edu’s partnership with Sotto began in the FIBA Asia U18 where Edu emerged as the best player of Batang Gilas by scoring 14.2 points, grabbing 11.5 boards, and blocking 2.8 shots per outing. He is currently a back-up center-forward for the University of Toledo Rockets in the US NCAA where he logs 14 minutes per outing and contributes 5.2 points and 4.4 rebounds. These are decent numbers for a rookie who came from overseas. For comparison purposes, Japanese prospect Rui Hachimura, currently one of the best college players in the US NCAA, registered 2.6 points and 1.4 rebounds in his rookie year with Gonzaga. Now a junior, Hachimura is norming 22.3 points and 6.2 rebounds which have made NBA scouts tab him as a potential top 10 pick in next year’s draft.
Edu played his best game for Toledo last Saturday when he scored 11 points and collared 6 boards in the Rockets’s 75-74 overtime win versus Marshall. He will eventually see his minutes go up as he gets more accustomed to the US brand of play. When that happens, pro scouts will definitely start taking notice. Do not be surprised if Edu eventually gets drafted in the NBA either in 2021 or 2022. It is not everyday a college prospect who stands 6’10 with a 7-foot wingspan can run like a gazelle in the open court and pop threes and midrange jumpers.
Edu and Sotto will form a young but imposing frontline that will make the opposing team think twice about attacking the basket. These two have displayed the agility to also defend the pick and roll, something current bigs like Junemar Fajardo and Greg Slaughter have been shown to be deficient at. But Edu will only be 23 in 2023. Sotto will be even younger at 21. They will need a veteran voice to guide them.
Jordan Clarkson fits that bill. Clarkson will only be 31 years old in 2023, but he would already be a nine-year NBA veteran. There is still a possibility Clarkson can play as a local for Team Pilipinas as the appeal of the Samahang Basketball ng Pilipinas (SBP) to FIBA for Clarkson’s recognition as a local is still up for deliberation. FIBA will need a face to represent the World Cup that the Philippines will be hosting, and Clarkson would be the best person in the coming years to market the event, the same way China is using retired NBA star Yao Ming as the face of the 2019 FIBA World Cup which they are hosting. Clarkson is said to have already submitted a Filipino passport he secured before he turned 16 in compliance with FIBA citizenship eligibility rules. What he has not been able to provide are other supporting documents which FIBA surprisingly requested.
Regardless whether he is recognized as a local or as a naturalized player, Clarkson can be the go-to offensive player for the national team. He has proven himself to be a capable scorer in all his years in the NBA. His lowest scoring average is 11.9 points a game which happened in his rookie year in 2014-15. Clarkson is one of the few bright spots this season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. As the team’s 6th man, Clarkson is leading the Cavs in scoring with averages of 16.3 points in only 25 minutes of action per game. Barring any serious injury, Clarkson will be an automatic double digit guy for any NBA team he will play for in the coming years. This is something he will also be bringing to the Gilas fold.
There is one more potential NBA player who could be directing the plays for Gilas Pilipinas in 2023. Remy Martin is the sophomore starting point guard of the Arizona State Sun Devils, the same school that produced James Harden and Byron Scott. Martin was born to a Filipina mother and is eligible to play for Gilas as a local. He was named the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year in his rookie year when he averaged 9.6 points, 3.3 assists, and 1.1 steals. Martin has been vocal about his Filipono heritage and his desire to play for Gilas. He said: “Every time I look at it, all I want to do is help the culture, let people know that there are Filipino basketball players that can play at this level and potentially do more”.
The 6-foot Martin has been compared to Russel Westbrook because of his athleticism, speed, and explosiveness. In just his second year with the Sun Devils, Martin has improved his numbers to 10.5 points, 4 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. He has been projected as the next product of Arizona State to be picked in the first round of the NBA draft since Harden was selected 3rd overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009. Martin will probably declare for the draft as early as 2019 or by 2020. That would give him a few years of NBA experience tucked under his belt by the time the country plays host to the World Cup.
With Clarkson, Sotto, Edu, and Martin in the line-up, Gilas will just need another wing player or a shooter to complete the starting 5. There will not be a dearth of options, as there are the likes of Thirdy Ravena, CJ Perez, Ricci Rivero, Kobe Paras, Bobby Ray Parks, and Robert Bolick who will be available. Current Gilas players like Matthew Wright and Roger Pogoy will only be in their early 30’s by 2023. The key would be not only to secure the services of all these players, but also to design a solid long-term program that will prepare the team for 2023. That subject that will be discussed in part two of this article.