For a certain stretch in the 2000s, the Philippine national basketball team had a difficult time keeping up with Asia’s best wing men.
Names like Fadi El-Khatib, Samad Nikkhah Bahrami, and later on, Rasheim Wright were just some of the stars across the continent who made it tough for us each night in the Asian basketball scene.
But thanks to an influx of talented and versatile new wings, it’s safe to say that the Philippines has caught up.
In the past few years, Gabe Norwood, Marcio Lassiter, Chris Lutz, Jeff Chan, Larry Fonacier, and Matt Ganuelas-Rosser have led the fight for Gilas Pilipinas as we broke barriers and raised the bar in the international level.
Each of them had their own strengths to offer, and all proved to be vital pieces in each of Gilas’ campaigns.
But none of them are part of the Gilas squad now. Realistically speaking, we may never see most of those guys don the national colors again in the future, especially after Gilas reverted back to a young core as the entire set-up of the FIBA World Cup qualification process changed.
But don’t fret, because replacing those names is a new group of wing that will continue what those before them have started.
Matthew Wright, Allein Maliksi, and Roger Pogoy — they come from different places, and had different routes to the big league. But when their paths crossed for the national cause, they knew it was now up to them to get things done.
Let’s start with Wright. He shined the brightest on Wednesday night when Gilas dominated Vietnam, 107-52. He top-scored with 19 points, doing what he does best: swishing buckets from long distance.
Deft outside shooting has always been the Fil-Canadian’s calling card. He has even drawn comparisons already with Lassiter. On Wednesday he shot 5-of-7 from deep. Throughout the tournament, he is shooting an astounding 55.6 percent clip.
Being one of the relatively new guys to Gilas, Wright feels he needs show everyone he deserves his spot, especially when he looks at all the individuals who came before him and played the same role he now does.
“All those guys are great players in their own right. They are stars in this league and their credentials speak for themselves. You know, it definitely puts a lot of pressure on me to perform and be on the same caliber those guys were, but I am more than ready for those comparisons,” Wright said.
Outside shooting will always be valuable in international competitions; having Wright around means easy buckets almost every time. Also, with the attention paid to Jayson Castro and Andray Blatche, surrounding them with three-point snipers can only pay dividends.
Then there’s Maliksi. He came in as a replacement for Paul Lee, who opted to take some time off from national team duty to let an injury heal.
In the little time he has been in the program, Maliksi has proven he can do damage on the floor — the same way he showed recently for his mother club, the Star Hotshots.
“I am so happy and blessed to be part of this team. First ko to be part of the national team. First championship ko sa Gilas if we win the SEABA. First achievement ko internationally. Medyo nakakafulfill din sa feeling kapag nagkataon and grateful ako to be part of Gilas,” Maliksi said.
“We all know what Matthew [Wright] and Allein [Maliksi] can do. That’s their role in this team,” Gilas head coach Chot Reyes on Wednesday, even adding he is banking on his shooters’ consistency as one of the keys against Indonesia.
Maliksi intends to play their final assignment in the 2017 SEABA Championships and, if ever, the future contests for the squad, his way.
“Yung mga dating players ng Gilas, they have their own careers na. Ang focus naman namin is to play our game and our best effort kagaya ng nilalaro namin sa PBA games,” he said.
Lastly, there’s Pogoy — the youngest of the three at 24-years-old. From Far Eastern University to Talk ‘N Text to the Gilas cadet squad and now to the senior line-up, Pogoy fits so seamlessly, you have to wonder if the transition could have been any easier for him.
“One advantage he has is his size. For a guard he is big, strong, and heavy for a guard here in the Philippines and even in Asia. Yung transition niya is easier. Accompany that with a good mental approach and good work ethic, mas naging madali sa kanya yung transition,” Gilas assistant coach Josh Reyes, who has handled Pogoy at the college level, shared.
Pogoy is more than just a three-and-D guy with his current game. He can get to the basket and finish. He has good court vision. He is agile and strong. It’s like all he has absorbed the qualities of the best small forwards in the country and rolled it into one unique skill set.
“He is very impressive. From the start, I’ve seen Roger’s growth when he started understanding the game, defensive schemes, the offense, his game just grew exponentially because he has the skill set to be effective,” Reyes said.
“He is big, he is strong, he has good work ethic, yung understanding na lang ang kailangan. It started in college, it continued in the pros, and in Gilas, it’s really advantageous for him because it is the same system in college. In fact he is one of the better guys running it because of the time he spent with it. That’s why he is so consistent.”
True enough, Pogoy started the first four games of the tournament, and finished in double-digit scoring in three of those.
If you’ll take a deeper look, Pogoy’s ascension is partly due to the simple fact he plunged into hoops when basketball positions were already starting to get reinvented. That’s why his game is already modern. Call him lucky if you want, but it is still mainly due to his willingness to learn and constantly update his game.
“Makita mo, before practice, andoon na yun. Yung work ethic niya, hindi mo makekwestiyun,” Jayson Castro, his teammate both in Gilas and the PBA, said.
“He continues learning. And that is good he is always listening and absorbing things we say,” Reyes added.
It’s not easy to let go of some people. Some players may never suit up for Gilas again. And that’s just okay. We’re in the dawn of a new era of Gilas wing guys.
Wright, Maliksi, and Pogoy, they’re here to assure everyone the national team is in good hands when it comes to the position. They got next, and they’re coming for Asia and the world.