Watching Gilas from afar, Angelo Kouame can't wait to get naturalized

Gilas Pilipinas tops Thailand in FIBA Asia Cup qualifier (1:51)

Gilas Pilipinas crushed Thailand, 93-61, to open the second window of the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers. (1:51)

The only member of the 16-man pool for Gilas Pilipinas Men's Team who did not travel to Bahrain for this FIBA Asia Cup Qualifier window was sitting on pins and needles as he watched his teammates battle Thailand for the first time.

Angelo Kouame, who is waiting for his naturalization process to move forward, could only watch and cheer, watching the game on television.

"I was a little nervous in the first quarter. We found it hard to close out on the reverse situations but they were able to adjust immediately so at the end of the second quarter I was relaxed already," Kouame said.

Thailand heated up from downtown early in the game as they stayed within striking distance after the first 10 minutes with Gilas leading 21-19. However, the young Filipino squad broke the game wide open with a 32-10 second quarter and it was smooth sailing from that point on with Gilas eventually winning 93-61.

"In the beginning of the game, I saw them execute everything we trained for but after that they adjusted because of the pace of the game. It was all about fast breaks but they won the game so it's all good," Kouame added. "I loved the defense. They shifted pretty quickly. They were able to close out against the ball rotation of Thailand."

Even during their training in Calamba, Kouame knew that the possibility of being able to join the team in Bahrain was slim to none with Congress not in session. However, he also knew that he could help his teammates out by being there to help them prepare.

"We worked on Thailand's tendencies," said the 22-year-old student-athlete. "We know they played a fake zone defense that turned man-to-man in the end. But coach Jong (Uichico) and coach Tab (Baldwin) did a great job in preparing us and we can say that the system really works."

Together with his other Ateneo teammates, Kouame was crucial in helping the rest of the team understand the concepts that the coaching staff was running under Baldwin, who is the Program Director of the Gilas Pilipinas Men's Team but is also hoping to be of help on the floor in the near future.

Back in 2018, as part of the Ateneo Blue Eagles, Kouame had the opportunity to feel what it's like to compete for the Philippines in the Jones Cup. Right after that competition, he was already being asked about his openness to being a naturalized Filipino. However, at that point, he was not ready to commit yet.

"I had to ask the approval of my mom," Kouame said. "In the beginning she was afraid that I'm going to lose my Ivorian national citizenship. That's why I asked permission from my mom. I wanted to see her reaction before making my decision."

But now the 6-foot-10 center is all in.

"Who would have thought that I'll become a Filipino naturalized player? I'm not Filipino from the blood but I already committed myself 100% to it. I really want to do it. I really want to be a part of it," he said. "Coming from an African country, we don't really get opportunities. I really appreciate people welcoming me."

Kouame also raved about the performance of his Ateneo teammate Dwight Ramos who was spectacular in the game with 20 points (7 of 7 from the field), seven rebounds, three assists, and three steals.

"I'm not surprised. He practiced with us last year. That's the way he introduced himself to us. He gets offensive rebounds, he can pull up for jumpers, he can shoot from the outside. He's a really good player," he said. "He sees the floor well. He has great ball handling. He can push the ball really quickly and he can play from 1 to 2 to 3. You can see how he impacted the game. He's a great leader, too. It's a great opportunity for me to play like him."

Although he's happy with his team's performance, Kouame knows that they cannot be satisfied heading into their second game this Monday.

"Like coach Jong said, we just need to trust the process and the system," Kouame close. "The second game will be tougher than this one because they already saw each other play but we need to keep the same mentality."