Experience is an area the Gilas Pilipinas pool is short on, especially on the international stage. This rings even truer now that Matt Nieto has been knocked out for both the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers and the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament due to a hand injury.
Without a doubt, the floor leader will be difficult to replace, but in the eyes of Gilas Men Program Director Tab Baldwin, the silver lining is that they have had enough time to recover and enough players to take on bigger roles.
The national team has a pair of primary playmakers in RJ Abarrientos and SJ Belangel while off-guards Dwight Ramos and Jordan Heading may also see some time at the point.
"Matt's injury is a big problem for us. Matt is our 'kuya.' He's a very vocal leader and the other guards draw strength from him," said Abarrientos. "He was a great example for us when he was here because he was always communicating. Seeing that gave us younger guards something we could follow."
"We need to step up as a group. SJ, Jordan, Dwight, and I will have to try our best to fill the void," he added.
According to Abarrientos, Nieto made the team better because he demanded perfect execution from his teammates. Whenever the 6-foot-1 court general notices that the coaches' instructions are not being followed, he'd be the first to call it out.
"It will be difficult because we'll be missing his presence," furthered the incoming FEU Tamaraw. "He's always there to tell us what we're doing wrong or commend us when we're executing."
Belangel could only agree with his fellow point guard as he also felt bad upon finding out the extent of the injury.
"At first, when we found out that his injury was severe, we were down, but we also used it as motivation, especially for me and RJ as the point guards," said the Ateneo Blue Eagle. "Matt was constantly mentoring us when he was here because he has more experience with the system and with the international game. It will be big shoes to fill, but we're ready for the challenge."
For his part, coach Jong Uichico said the only way to offset Nieto's loss is to do it by committee - and the first hurdle lies in front of their young playmakers.
"SJ is primarily a scoring point guard so what we need to do is transform him a little bit to a passing point guard. When he learns that, he'll be an even better player," he explained. "With two facets in his game, with his ability to score and pass, the defense will have a harder time guessing what he wants to do with the ball and then he'll be a perfect fit for the team."
On the other hand, Uichico shared that he's just excited to see what Abarrientos is capable of, having been witness to the earlier generation of Abarrientoses and their exploits in Philippine basketball.
"I'm very familiar with his family going back to Billy Abarrientos with Crispa during the MICAA days, and then Johnny of course. Their family has been involved with Philippine basketball for decades now," he said. "Even if he's still young, I can already see a little bit of Johnny in RJ because he has the instinct that cannot be taught. He has the vision. He makes passes that make you wonder how he even saw it."
"What RJ will really give to Gilas is his being a court general because he'll always find a way to set up his teammates for good shots. RJ is the kind of point guard who wants to pass, but if he needs to score, he can," he continued.
The Gilas mentor was quick to point out, though, that the burden could not be shouldered by Belangel and Abarrientos alone.
"Jordan can play as a one or a two while Dwight can even play as a three or even a four sometimes," he shared. "Sometimes, we'll need the flexibility and the versatility of guys who can play multiple positions because you never know what can happen in a game."