It was announced earlier this week that 2021 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson will reinforce Gilas Pilipinas at the upcoming fourth window of the 2023 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers.
Clarkson, though he suits up for the Philippines as a naturalized player since he was unable to obtain his Filipino passport before the age of 16, is arguably the most talented player currently suiting up for any Asian national team. The 30-year-old guard is a dynamic scorer who owns career averages of 15.4 points, 1.8 three-pointers, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.5 assists over his eight NBA seasons.
A player of his stature is expected to dominate on the Asian level and this is exactly what he did in his first stint with Gilas back in the 2018 Asian Games. The 6’4 guard averaged 26 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and a steal even with opposing defenses focused on slowing him down.
While Clarkson’s presence as an active NBA player with an important role on the Utah Jazz draws attention and droves of media coverage, it has not necessarily translated into results for the Philippines. In those Asian Games four years ago, the team only finished fifth despite having the most talented man on the court in literally every game that they played in.
This is not by any means a knock on Clarkson. It is a symptom of the problems that have perennially held back the Philippine national team.
That group that Clarkson made his Gilas debut with was hastily assembled – as usual – a few weeks before the Asian Games. This makes it difficult to develop meaningful chemistry among players or establish a system with a competitive amount of nuance or intricacy. This was not a one-off, as it has been the case in the decades prior and, unfortunately, has persisted in the years since.
This is the dark side of the country’s obsession with basketball as the sport is often politicized and the national team is left to suffer for the sake of local leagues such as the PBA, UAAP, and NCAA. These groups rarely amend their schedule to give way to FIBA tournaments, let alone preparation.
Inevitably, this leads to a mimicking of Team USA’s model where the pool is assembled just a few weeks before the tournament. This is hardly applicable to the Philippines given the obvious disparity in talent, physique, and athleticism. A thorough and patient build up is the only way to go for a team like Gilas if it is serious about competing on the international stage. Remember, even Team USA had to do a complete remodel of their program after a disastrous finish in the 2004 Olympics. That tournament was when the mighty Americans realized that fielding the best talent was not enough to beat other top international teams that had strong continuity in both their rosters and coaching staff.
Gilas’ most recent disappointment in the 2022 FIBA Asia Cup was the latest example of this where they looked like a streetball team next to mid-level Asian rivals. Adding Clarkson to even the most elite team of locals will not cure any of these ills as proven in his Asian Games run. This is especially frustrating given how skillful local players are compared to their regional peers as proven by the recent demand for Filipino imports in Japan and South Korea.
The true potential of the Philippine Men’s National Basketball Team was teased during Tab Baldwin’s brief time with the program where he brought a level of competence that was quite novel. Continuity is key and this is something that Gilas has never truly had. Fortunately, their upcoming games with Clarkson will be against Lebanon and Saudi Arabia which should be winnable with him onboard.
However, a positive result in these upcoming games should not be mistaken for progress until structural reforms have been made.
“Puso” will no longer cut it for Filipino basketball fans who hold this team to the highest of standards. Next year’s hosting of the FIBA World Cup is a golden opportunity to put the country back on the map of international basketball, but there is still a long way for this team to go if it wants to be anything more than a scrappy underdog.
They have a rare chance to make noise with Clarkson reportedly set to suit up for next year’s festivities and cannot let it go to waste with the usual cocktail of hurried preparations coupled with a mediocre playbook. The status quo is clearly not working and it is high time for the powers that be to heed the people’s call for competence.