Where Gilas Pilipinas goes, controversy always seems to follow and their participation in the upcoming 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China has been no exception.
The team’s final roster has yet to be finalized as their motion to include players who were not on their initial list of 60 and the ensuing 37-man pool was not approved. Expectations are now at rock-bottom for the team heading into next week’s Asian Games, but a sliver of hope for a brighter future has emerged for the Philippines.
In addition to Chot Reyes’ highly anticipated resignation from Gilas Pilipinas from his fourth–and hopefully final–stint as the team’s head coach, the last player included in the 60-player Asian Games pool happened to catch the attention of the team’s supporters.
The Atlanta Hawks’ Onyeka Okongwu somehow found his way to the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas’ list as a potential naturalization target and he could be a game-changer for Gilas. The Nigerian-American Okongwu grew up in California surrounded by a community of Filipinos which is, more likely than not, what sparked this potential partnership.
While no news has been released regarding his potential naturalization, the thought of enlisting the 6’8 center already has Filipinos around the world thrilled at the thought of him manning the middle for the country’s national team.
Okongwu is a tantalizing prospect for Gilas as he is still only 22 years old and has already shown great promise over his three years in the NBA so far. Last season, he averaged 9.9 points on 63.8% field goal shooting, 7.2 rebounds, one assist, and 1.3 blocks in only 23.1 minutes per outing across 80 appearances–18 of which he started–for the Hawks.
It is likely that he usurps Clint Capela as the team’s permanent starting center this year which will only accelerate the development of this rising star. His two-way play has drawn favorable comparisons to the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo and the similarities are actually quite striking.
Similar to Adebayo, Okongwu is a mobile center who has his fair share of moves around the basket. He is gifted with a soft touch inside and, as last season progressed, has also begun expanding his range to the three-point line.
Furthermore, one of Okongwu’s biggest strengths in the NBA so far has been his ability to finish lobs. This has been accentuated by playing alongside Trae Young, one of the best young point guards in the NBA today, and would be a major asset to the Philippines if he does wind up donning the country’s colors.
Gilas is never lacking for dynamic guards who can break down international defenses, but they have generally struggled with finishing around the basket given their relative lack of size.
The presence of a lob threat such as Okongwu can ease pressure off the team’s perimeter players when they attack. This was seen in short bursts during the recently concluded FIBA World Cup with the 7’3 Kai Sotto and the thought of the much more polished Okongwu taking his place in those situations is tantalizing.
On the defensive end, Okongwu is an adept shot-blocker, strong rebounder, and disciplined interior-defender. He has also proven that he can adequately switch onto guards when put in those situations. The Philippines has never had a center with the defensive abilities that Okongwu possesses and his skill set should help, at least to some extent, make up for the team’s overall lack of height.
However, one major hurdle standing in the way of Okongwu immediately joining Gilas is Jordan Clarkson’s status as a naturalized player. If FIBA’s rules are not relaxed, the Filipino-American guard will have to continue suiting up as a naturalized player since he did not acquire his Philippine passport before turning 16 years old.
If given a choice, it is likely that the SBP will continue to go with Clarkson as he is a true Filipino, despite what FIBA says, and is already acquainted with the national team program. Clarkson will already be 35 years old once the next FIBA World Cup rolls around, but he has already made it known that he would like to continue playing for Gilas.
Okongwu will only be 26 in 2027 though which still gives him more than enough time to suit up for the Philippines. He could potentially take Clarkson’s place as the team’s naturalized player after the 2027 FIBA World Cup, suiting up for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics or whatever part of the qualifying process the country will take part of and, eventually, the 2031 FIBA World Cup.
Regardless of the potential conflict with Clarkson, the SBP must prioritize securing Okongwu’s commitment given that he has already indicated his interest. His presence would be a major boost to the team, not only in terms of international competition, but also in the development of the other big men who will have to compete with him on a daily basis.
The Philippines has long been searching for a resident naturalized big man and the opportunity to bring in a player that is as talented as Okongwu must not go to waste.