Coaches at the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) agree that there is still a significant gap that Philippine basketball needs to close in order to be more competitive against international powerhouses.
"I think that you could say na malayo pa tayo pero malapit. So it's weird, because we could actually hang with these international teams, but 'di tayo nakakapag-sabayan ng matagal," Gilas Youth head coach Sandy Arespacochaga said in a recent episode of the Coaches Unfiltered podcast. "That should be something na makita natin na we got a lot of work to do, but at the same time, that should also be a sign of encouragement for us."
"May gap pa rin between the international level of play and our level of play here in the Philippines. It's just because of exposure. But I'm sure the more exposure we have internationally, the better we will get also," added SBP Coaches Academy head Jong Uichico.
That said exposure will go a long way in giving Filipino basketball players the much-needed knowledge and experience to help the country catch up internationally. One prime example was the way coach Pat Aquino's Gilas Girls improved by leaps and bounds after competing in the 2019 FIBA 3x3 Under-18 World Cup as the second-lowest ranked team in its group.
The national team, composed of Ella Fajardo, Camille Clarin, Angela Surada and Ann Pingol, bucked odds and stunned Mongolia, Netherlands and Czech Republic in order to reach the quarterfinals, where its dream run was just cut short by world no. 1 China.
"We went for the first time, and we didn't feel that we were welcome in the tournament kasi World Cup and we're from a small country in the Philippines," he said. "When we went to that tournament, we didn't expect that we'd go to the quarterfinals. But there was some luck and the girls really worked hard for it."
That experience translated wonderfully once they played in the 2019 3x3 Asia Cup, as the trio of Clarin, Fajardo and Surada, as well as Kristine Cayabyab, exacted their revenge on the Chinese in the bronze medal match for a podium finish.
Gilas Women's 3x3 team later scored a landmark victory in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games as mainstays Janine Pontejos, Clare Castro, Jack Animam, and Afril Bernardino bagged the gold at home.
"Those experiences that they played probably is the best formula for us right now, having to play against top, world-class players around the world and in Asia. Siguro 'yung confidence level, it goes up," said Aquino. "A lot of it also is getting exposed to the international game, which is very important with regards to the youth development program."
Improving grassroots coaching
There is, however, one limitation that the national basketball program simply cannot solve: not all of its prospects can compete internationally, which means many talents will have to get by with local training.
According to the Gilas coaches, this is where the challenge of improving coaching from the grassroots level comes into play.
"Kung 'di tayo makakalaro internationally, let's learn from the international game, adopt natin 'yung natututunan natin from the international game, and let's teach the international game here sa Philippines," said Arespacochaga. "Let's raise 'yung coaching level natin sa Pilipinas so we can help train more players that will be ready for the international game of basketball."
"'Yung mga higher level coaches, we shouldn't touch them already kasi ang umpisa ng coaches' development and player development is in the grassroots. We're talking about all the provinces," Uichico added.
Streamlining the teaching process among a certain number, if not the majority, of provincial coaches buying in will not only curb "bad habits" young basketball players carry over into older age groups, but it will also supposedly help prospects conquer the learning curve faster once they suit up for national team play.
"Walang problema ang talent identification. 'Yung continuity [ang problema]. You have the talent, but they're there in the province. Alangan naman dalhin mo rito sa Maynila palagi 'di ba? So it is better to uplift the coaching level in the province so that they can teach the players that we've identified that are possible Gilas men's or women's players," explained Uichico.
"Dapat there's a synergy between what he (Sandy) teaches and what I teach so that pagdala ng player na 'yan sa Gilas, madali na ang proseso," he continued. "Onting salita lang, alam na kung papaano mag-execute. Right now... parang wala tayong streamlining. That's what we are trying to do -- we are trying to streamline everything from the coaches to the teaching process.
With the SBP Coaches Academy "already in the planning stage" of this process, according to Uichico, Arespacochaga said there's a lot of reason to be optimistic about Philippine basketball reaching -- or even surpassing -- its projected ceiling internationally.
"We won't be able to get all of these young players international experience, but with the way that we can teach the game of basketball, starting them young, pagpasok na ng mga players na 'to sa youth program, alam na nila 'yung basics," he said. "Now what are these basics? Of course, isa sa sakit natin 'yung pagsalo ng bola, dribble agad at 'di man lang tayo nagbabasa. That's so simple. But you could see a lot of these bad habits with our young players.
"We've got to look ahead and look forward, but at the same time nakaka-excite kasi ang dami pa nating kailangan i-improve pero kaya natin eh. So I think that's a challenge [not only] for us coaches in the program right now, but also for us Filipino coaches as a whole."