The allure of drawing out untapped potential from "the youngest Gilas group ever assembled" keeps the mentors at the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) going even if some growing pains are expected.
SBP program director Tab Baldwin on Monday talked about training the youthful pool of players inside the bubble at the Inspire Sports Academy in Laguna and said everybody has a shot at cracking future national team rosters both in the FIBA competitions this June and beyond.
"Not only is this the youngest Gilas group ever assembled, it's probably the youngest that could be assembled and still be called Gilas, because if we went any younger we'd be calling them Batang Gilas," Baldwin remarked on Monday's episode of The Game on ONE News.
"Everybody that we brought in here, I believe, is in some way a prospect for Gilas in the future -- if they fulfill their potential, if they work to become the player that that they are promising to be," he continued. "Obviously we're looking for a Gilas team to play in the June competitions, but we're also preparing for those situations in the future, when we call players into the Gilas camp."
Twelve new names were added to the Gilas pool last week as the federation restarted the Laguna training bubble in anticipation of the last window of the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers mid-June and Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade, Serbia from June 29 to July 4.
Leading the newcomers are Ateneo's LeBron Lopez, SJ Belangel, Gian Mamuyac, Troy Mallillin, Geo Chiu, Kyle Ong, Jason Credo and Josh Lazaro, as well as Carl Tamayo of University of the Philippines and RJ Abarrientos of Far Eastern University.
Jordan Heading and Tzaddy Rangel, drafted at No. 1 and No. 3 in the 46th PBA Season special Gilas draft on March 14, were brought in by the SBP as well.
Already in camp are this year's Gilas draftees in William Navarro and Jaydee Tungcab, De La Salle's Justine Baltazar, Ateneo's Dwight Ramos and Dave Ildefonso, naturalized player candidate Ange Kouame, and former practice player Chris Koon, while set to join are 2019 Gilas draftees Isaac Go, Rey Suerte, and twins Matt and Mike Nieto.
Having a younger group of players to work with compounds the existing challenges of teaching the international game, but Baldwin said familiarizing the prospects at an early stage in their careers would ease the difficulties of teaching in future Gilas camps for certain tournaments.
"As it is right now, so many players come in and they just don't, I guess, have an idea of the international game and the concepts and the level of skill and the level of intensity. So if we can begin the process of teaching these younger players, what that is all about, that really helps us in the future not have to deal with, sort of, elevating the level of intensity and the level of understanding of our players when they come in in the future," he commented.
"So we're trying to kill a lot of birds with just this one bubble stone, if you will. And so far so good, but it is really, really hard work for the coaches, and it's probably unlike anything most of us have really tried to wrestle with."
Baldwin also said that exposing these young players to the rigors of preparing for elite competition would give them an idea of what to expect heading into future Gilas commitments later on in their careers.
"And I don't care how experienced, say, a PBA player is even. If they haven't had international experience, it's a different animal. And it requires a different approach, it requires different coaching and requires a different level of training intensity and sustained intensity," said Baldwin.
"When you bring players in who aren't used to that, the age doesn't matter, really. It's the learning how to do that so you properly prepare yourself for the level that you're going to face. And when you're going to face a Serbia and a Dominican Republic, well, it just doesn't get a lot tougher in the world than that," he continued. "So we have to be super prepared and we have to be as tough as we can on these players, and so far we're being pretty tough on them."
It's perhaps a good thing that in the eyes of Baldwin and the SBP, everybody inside the Gilas camp already has what it takes to grow and excel in that type of demanding, high-stakes environment. The concurrent Ateneo coach said all invitees have to pass "certain criteria that we look at for international players."
"I think that, you know, a lot of people would just say we just get the best players. And certainly the elite players at whatever age we're talking about, we do want them. But beyond that, we're looking for length of players, and we're looking for intangibles. We're looking for, let's say, an advanced understanding of the game," he said.
His best examples are Abarrientos and Belangel. Baldwin admitted that "these two guys are not really the physical prototypes that we're looking for", but their IQ and feel for the game are enough to overcome any shortcomings in their physical profiles.
"They're sort of on the Kiefer Ravena model, who's a very, very clever basketball player who reads the game extremely well. Both RJ and SJ are cut from that same mold. So what they might lack in elite talent, they make up for in a basketball IQ that is very advanced," said Baldwin. "In the international game, because it is not an overly athletic game -- it is a very, very intellectual game -- a player like that can fit in even if they are physically a little bit inferior."
"Those are the things we're really looking for: elite talent, we're looking for length -- and players like Justine Baltazar are a great example of what we're looking for -- and then the guys that just have that IQ where the game comes easy to them in spite of their physical assets or deficiencies," he continued.