Gilas Pilipinas got a glimpse of the future when Kai Sotto and Ange Kouame debuted in the frontline for the men's national team in the third window of the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers on Wednesday.
Both were pivotal against South Korea and held the fort for a Philippines team in the comeback win against South Korea. Gilas went a long way in assuring a berth in this summer's continental tournament in Indonesia at the expense of a country it has not beaten since the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship.
Sotto posted 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting, seven rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block in 18 productive minutes off the bench.
Coach Tab Baldwin praise the 7-foot-3 talent, who only managed to practice with the national team days before Gilas faced South Korean to open the final window of the qualifiers.
"I think what we saw from Kai was we saw a very young player who wasn't really well prepared, but what a heart he has," Baldwin said.
While he initially struggled against naturalized South Korean center Ra GunA and the team's highly-physical defense, Baldwin saw how the NBL-bound Sotto responded and flashed the improvements he has made over the past two years.
"What you saw was him making an adjustment, and he started to dish back the physicality," Baldwin said. :Most importantly you just saw the determination in Kai to make an impact in the game."
Baldwin acknowledged that Sotto struggled with energy over an extended amount of time -- probably owing to the limited practice he has had with the rest of the squad. Sotto arrived in the country on May 31 and had to undergo a mandatory 10-day quarantine before being able to work out with Gilas inside the team's bubble in Calamba, Laguna.
"You can see the fatigue. He's only good for three to four minutes, he gets tired. I think it's a pretty courageous effort by Kai, but we're gonna see a lot better basketball from him as we move forward," he noted.
"He's just a very good talent. He's a great, great guy to have in the team environment. He's made himself very beloved not just to his old friends here but to everybody," he continued. "And I think now we all see the kind of competitor that he is because he really wasn't ready for significant minutes in this game, and yet he gave us some great minutes."
Kouame also showcased his growth against South Korea, posting 12 points, six boards, one assist and one block in his very first Gilas assignment since being naturalized last May. The former UAAP Rookie of the Year also had a team-high plus-10 in 22 minutes.
"For Ange, it's what he's been doing a lot of: He rebounded the ball well, he got a big block in the fourth quarter, he intimidated shots around the rim. But the game is still really quick for Ange. He's still having to think his way through things," Baldwin said.
One positive stood for Kouame was his range. Against South Korean, the 6-foot-10 big was 3-for-5 on 3-pointers.
"He will improve with experience," Baldwin said. "I think the one thing that we saw from Ange is his improved perimeter shooting. He hit three 3s in the game and he works hard on his 3-point shooting, and hopefully we're gonna see a lot more of that."
Gilas, now 4-0 in the tournament, has two more games on the calendar: A matchup against Indonesia on Friday at 6 p.m and then a rematch against South Korea on Sunday at 3 p.m.