If there is one positive from the Philippines’ three losses thus far in the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup, it’s that AJ Edu has come away from those contests unscathed. After all, he’s gone through quite a lot in just a handful of years.
It was a little over four years ago when Edu was slated to become one of Batang Gilas’ primary options for the 2019 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup. Things looked promising as a year before that, he racked up double-doubles in the FIBA U18 Asian Championship 2018, where the Philippines finished in fourth place.
Two minutes into Batang Gilas’ opening game against U19 World Cup hosts Greece, though, Edu suffered a hairline fracture to his right femur and tore the ACL and meniscus on his right knee. He would again tear his right meniscus in 2020 and in another cruel twist of fate, his left ACL would give way the following year.
Suffering one major injury after another can take its toll on a young player, but Edu kept pushing on and played four seasons with the US NCAA’s Toledo Rockets. When his college career ended, Edu set his sights on joining Gilas Pilipinas’ buildup for the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
Edu was a regular fixture in the practices of the Philippine national team, and while it seemed like he was on the outside looking in, his commitment and on-court production earned him a spot in the final roster. The training camp in Europe tested Edu in a lot of ways and with Kai Sotto having been absent for much of the buildup, he soaked up the minutes, reps, and the lessons from his elders in June Mar Fajardo and Japeth Aguilar.
It was evident early on that Edu was not just eager, but had a lot to prove. In fact, he didn’t waste any time in introducing himself to the world.
Through three games, Edu leads the team in rebounds (6.3 per game), blocks (1.3 per game), and is third on the team in points (8.0 per game). Of course, some of his production came thanks to the gravity Jordan Clarkson draws, but Edu’s activity on both ends of the floor is not something to take for granted.
On offense, Edu knows where to go and when to move, traits that have served him well. It’s easy to see that he can work within whatever Chot Reyes has put together on offense, and when things break down, he can help clean things up and earn his team some extra points.
Defensively, he was patient and a pest, earning the respect of NBA players Karl-Anthony Towns and Bruno Fernando. Even if some quarters of the media partly egged them on, the fact that Edu was singled out by Towns and Fernando means he must have been doing something right.
At 23, Edu may very well be the cornerstone for Gilas’ frontcourt for years to come, an opportunity that was initially afforded to his youth squad teammate Kai Sotto. If we’re being honest, he’s already done what Filipinos thought Sotto would do after his showing in the World Cup qualifiers. Sotto struggled with foul trouble and the lack of strength, things that made Reyes go with Edu during the crucial stretches of the group stage.
After the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Edu can look forward to getting his professional career started with the Japan B.League’s Toyama Grouses, where he will not only be closer to Manila, but like teammates Dwight Ramos, Kiefer Ravena, and even Carl Tamayo, can represent the Philippines in FIBA international windows. Moreover, a season in the professional ranks should do Edu some good, as it will give him access to resources that will be beneficial not just to himself, but to the national team as well.
The 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup has been everything AJ Edu has hoped for, except of course, for the losses. Given everything he has gone through, Edu is simply making up for lost time and if things work out in his and Gilas Pilipinas’ favor, he can continue to do so in the biggest stages basketball has to offer.