SEABA Shootaround Day 8: Hoops on the rise in SEA region

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Indonesia pic 10 by Roy Afable

Gilas Pilipinas completed a dominant sweep of the 2017 SEABA Championships here with a decisive 97-64 over Indonesia on Thursday. They bagged another SEABA gold medal with the victory and also a spot in the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon later this year.

Aside from proving they are still the undisputed kings in the region, more importantly, Gilas will compete in the qualification process for the 2019 FIBA World Cup which starts in November this year.

Indonesia put up a decent fight in the early goings but were never able to match the talent, depth, and experience of the superior Gilas side. Indonesia happily settled for the silver while Thailand took home the bronze.

But the most exciting game of the tournament didn’t involve Gilas. It didn’t even have any of the podium finishers.

The most exciting game of the 2017 SEABA was a tussle between Malaysia and Vietnam, an exhilarating back-and-forth duel which went to overtime and had the crowd going nuts.

It was an amazing battle in every sense of the word. In that affair, both sides drew strength from players who all didn’t back down and were all determined to be heroes for their squad.

As if it was a boxing match which went the full distance, Malaysia and Vietnam exchanged punch after punch after punch. On one side were Ting Chun Hong, Heng Yee Tong, and Liaw Chee Huei. On the other were Le Ngoc Tu, Nguyen Van Hung, Trieu Han Minh, and Tran Vu Linh.

In the end, the biggest shot was made by Choo Wei Hong: a go-ahead jumper in the dying seconds which gave Malaysia a thrilling 86-85 win.

Malaysia wounded up winning three of six games in the tournament, perhaps an overachievement considering they opted to go with a younger squad for the SEABA. Their more senior players stayed at home in preparation for the SEA Games they will be hosting a few months from now.

“This tournament proves the exposure we had in PBA D-League and ABL of these young players, they are gaining more confidence. Still a long way to go but this is a good tournament,” Malaysia head coach Goh Cheng Huat said.

As an assistant coach for club team Westports Malaysia Dragons, Goh helped raise the level of play for the country as most of his wards suited up in the ASEAN Basketball League and even participated a year ago in the PBA D-League under Blu Star.

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Malaysia pic 20 by Roy Afable

Most of the players don’t see that much spotlight in the ABL especially during the 2016-17 season with the Dragons having prolific scoring guards Kiwi Gardner and Joshua Munzon. But Dragons head coach Christopher Thomas always knew his locals would be ready when given the chance.

That showed in the recently-concluded SEABA, with Malaysia wounding up fourth with a 3-3 record even without other key players like Kuek Tian Yuan, Ivan Yeo, and Ma Chee Kheun.

“Our objective is that we want to have a bigger pool of players in Malaysia. So we want to thanks the Dragons and MABA for coming up and putting me in a position to bring different players, young players in competitions like this one, so that in crucial moments they would have more composure,” Goh added.

“They want to prove something that Malaysia is good. I am trying to do my job of developing them.”

The Vietnamese themselves figured in two close games. Aside from the Malaysia match, Vietnam went toe-to-toe with Singapore in the final game day of the tournament. Singapore would eventually pull away in the end, closing the game on a 20-4 run for a 73-60 win.

But the gallant fight put up by Vietnam throughout the entire tournament, in spite of a nine-man line-up as they were unable to field scorers Tam Dinh, Stefan Nguyen, and Horace Nguyen due to scheduling problems, was testament how they are quickly learning to embrace a sport relatively new to the country more known for football.

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Vietnam pic 18 by Roy Afable

“I actually had maybe three practices before getting on board,” Vietnam head coach Donte Hill said.

Hill is the champion coach of the inaugural Vietnamese Basketball Association season wherein he led the Da Nang Dragons to the title.

“I use the morning practices as a chance to teach, instruct, and develop players to get them understanding more philosophies with the spacing, defensive principles. I am fortunate to coach these guys and lead these guys in a national tournament.”

That Vietnam was still able to adjust on the fly given the circumstances and compete against more favored teams each night speaks volumes of how they know their basketball and how organized they are as a unit on the floor.

“A lot of these guys are learning my style of consistently focusing in mentally, the plays. We have a lot of things we have to fix but those things are fixable,” Hill added.

“That’s my focus. The future of Vietnam basketball. The fact the VBA took place gave me a chance to take a look at all of these guys play. We played them multiple times throughout the season and we’ve seen growth from the start of the season. I’m sure this next season, we will see a lot more growth and these players will have more growth because of the experience. I see a lot of bright spots, things we can really work on. The future is bright.”

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Singapore pic 19 by Roy Afable

Speaking of the future, Singapore has one of them now. Lavin Raj, a hulking 16-year-old center, is arguably the most intriguing player of the tournament.

“To have someone like Lavin, his physical stature is completely different from what is the norm in Singapore,” Franco Arsego said of his young big man.

Raj barely saw action in the first few games of Singapore but towards the end, he quickly earned the respect of fans watching live. He proved he is a legitimate prospect and not just a novelty for the Singaporean side. The skills he showed all point to an encouraging future for his squad.

“It’s a great opportunity. For many years back in Australia I had the opportunity to coach some of the best young [big men],” Arsego said.

“He loves his basketball. He is spending a lot of time on that and I admire the support he gets from his teammates. He gets the opportunities to do things and he showed some of the things we worked on in recent times, he was able to bring it to the game. He has some of the skills and he is a long-term project with them. I hope after this he says ‘I want to do more of this.’ That’s what we we are trying to achieve with him this week.”

Arsego enjoyed his time in the Philippines. He respects the passion for basketball the country has that he is even planning to take his team back to get them well-prepared for the SEA Games too.

“We are inspired by these opportunities. We are blessed to have this sort of competition in the region. To be honest, I am looking to bring the team back in July in preparation for the SEA Games. The guys will have a tune-up or two for their build-up. Because that’s the kind of competition we need,” he said.

Aung Wana Myanmar pic 1 by Roy Afable

Myanmar, the weakest team on paper coming into this tournament, didn’t win a single game. They opened the SEABA by getting walloped by 107 points by Gilas.

And yet they were still happy after that. After all, just being here when your country isn’t really expected to play hoops and go up against the best of the best in the region is already an achievement. The 2017 SEABA was Myanmar’s inaugural participation. They have been in the SEA Games just three times.

What was more awe-inspiring for them was desire to get better each day. They played more organized as days progressed. They communicated actively. They ran offensive sets, executed, and even went on full-court traps. On the final day, Myanmar dropped 71 points on Malaysia. It was their closest setback, losing by just 25.

“We don’t have the ability, the talent, so we use this as exposure. We have no choice. You see, we are the smallest team, no experience. Totally no experience,” Myanmar head coach Ten Kok Heng, a Malaysian national, said.

The player age range for Myanmar in the competition is 18 to 23. They even managed to steal the spotlight for some good stretches of the week-long joust, thanks to flamboyant wing man Wana Aung.

The 22-year-old Aung dazzled with his acrobatics, which never failed to put a smile on the faces of the crowd watching live. His signature move, a drive to his right before leaping, putting the ball back down to his waist level before finishing with a reverse lay-up became a staple moment to watch. He was also able to whip difficult no-look passes to his teammates which also made fans surprised and at the same time impressed.

“He is good. He is learning,” Ten said. “I really want to thank the crowd for supporting us. I really appreciate it.”

And of course, there were Indonesia and Thailand, two of the best teams entering the competition which were both expected to give Gilas a tough fight. They did accomplish the goal of making Gilas work.

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Thailand pic 16 by Roy Afable

Thailand pushed Gilas to the limit during their meeting, trailing by only four after a quarter. The Philippines flipped the switch, but it cannot be denied Thailand gave them trouble early on.

Indonesia played modern basketball. Their system banked on space and three-point shooting, the essentials of international competition. They have shooters and slashers like Abraham Grahita, Prastawa Dhyaksa, Diftha Pratama, and Sandy Kurniawan. Their main four guy, Christian Sitepu is a conteporary stretch forward.

Indonesia entered the Gilas game unbeaten, shooting the same rate as the Philippines from deep, and making even more conversions from long-range than their final day foes.

Still, Gilas remained on a different level. They lorded over the competition. In Joe Lacob’s terms, they are still light years ahead.

But after the tournament, we all witnessed the rest of Southeast Asia is on the right track.

“I know the level of basketball here. I was here in October watching the PBA stuff. It’s a religion here. People live and breathe and eat it. There is a long way for Southeast Asian countries to go, but given time, the right resources, the right people, the right coaches, they will close the margin. So we will see,” Thailand head coach Timothy Charles Lewis said.

It will still take Gilas’ neighbors a lot to catch-up, but remember: the Philippines being at the same level as Iran, China, and even some European and American countries was nothing but a pipedream years ago. Nowadays, whoever is pitted in front of us — from Tony Parker to Giannis Antetokoumpo to Bojan Bogdanovic to Gorgui Dieng, to even James Harden, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant — we don’t care because we can battle them.

The rest of Southeast Asia feels the same way towards us. It’s fitting for them to be in the Philippines to pick up valuable lessons, learn from the region’s best, and eventually gain more confidence and belief in themselves.

As Gilas embarks on a journey to make the next World Cup and Olympics, their counterparts are preparing to put on a show in the SEA Games.

“We don’t have any preparation coming in. We are focused on the SEA Games. We know Gilas us focusing on the FIBA and international championships. Our focus in the SEA games. We just want to compete and improve,” Indonesia veteran guard Mario Wuysang said.

Gilas’ neighbors may not be able to catch up just yet given the obvious disparity in basketball cultures, but raising the bar, setting new goals to achieve, and realizing they are even capable of doing bigger things in basketball can be worked on in the years to come.

From Myanmar’s Wana to Singapore’s Lavin, to the peninsula and across the archipelagos, the 2017 SEABA highlighted the region’s collective growth in basketball. With the proper mindset for the future, together, SEABA teams will rise.

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