A determined Andray Blatche is raring to don the Philippine colors once more after being called to suit up for Mighty Sports in the 2020 Dubai International Basketball Tournament.
The big man is set to star in the frontline for the import-laden club in the competition, where the country is eyeing to improve on last year's third-place finish when it opens its campaign on Jan. 23. All games of Mighty Sports will air live on One Sports with livestream on ESPN5.com.
"I'm excited. When they called me, it wasn't even a hesitation," the big man said Monday. "It's a great opportunity for me, for us. ... Definitely wanna go out there and represent the country once again and definitely try to come and win a championship."
This will be Blatche's first stint for the Philippines since the 2019 FIBA World Cup in September, where he averaged a team-high 15.8 points to go with 8.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.4 steals in Gilas Pilipinas' winless campaign in China.
Blatche was a notable omission from Gilas' 24-man pool for the first window of the Asia Cup qualifiers in February. Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) president Al Panlilio said "it's time we move on" from the 33-year-old as the federation plans for the 2023 World Cup.
Blatche said he wants to bring home a title with Mighty to somehow ease the sting of Gilas' bad showing in China.
"I don't expect to come home back to the Philippines without getting a championship in Dubai. We got the right pieces, the right players, a good situation going on," he said. "[W]hat happened in China left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths. Definitely wanna go to Dubai and definitely win."
There's a lot of optimism heading into this year's tournament as Mighty surrounded Blatche with competent pieces. Joining him are fellow former NBA player Renaldo Balkman, Filipino-American Mikey Williams, 17-year-old prodigy Kai Sotto, Rain or Shine center Beau Belga, and collegiate standouts Thirdy Ravena, Juan and Javi Gomez de Liano, Jamie Malonzo and Dave Ildefonso, among others.
"I think it's a great mix. I think they did a wonderful job putting this team together. All the guards and the bigs. It's always good playing with Beau. It's my first time playing with Renaldo. It's gonna be exciting, it's gonna be fun," Blatche commented.
Coach Charles Tiu said the roster is "very gifted" offensively.
"We have a lot of guys who can make plays, who can score, very versatile, can score inside and outside. The challenge will be to get them to play defensively," Tiu said. "I think, to be blunt, we really have to win gold. Our goal is to win the championship or it's a failed tournament, to say the least," he said. Expectations, for me personally... we tried hard to put this team. We got a big budget for these guys to get them to play out here, so hopefully we can come together in this tournament."
"Last year, we came in at third and maybe one bad quarter away from the finals -- which I felt if we made it, we could have won -- but this year, we really have a solid team," he added. "I think all imports this time around can play, plus Andray, who is a local player for us, can be really a game-changer for us."
Sotto, though, will be out of Mighty's preparations until Jan. 21, or two days until the invitational tourney is set to tip-off in the United Arab Emirates, due to prior commitments in the United States.
"[I]t looks like he'll probably go straight to Dubai. So that will affect our preparations with him because we won't have time to integrate him into our system right away. I was hoping to have him for about a week, but he's not gonna be here because he has some obligations there," said Tiu.
Blatche, however, is "very confident" that Sotto -- who is currently honing his craft with The Skills Factory in Atlanta and has attracted the attention of some US NCAA schools -- will be able to pick it up quickly even if he only has less than two days to work out with the team in Dubai.
"[H]e's got a high basketball IQ. The plays are not that difficult. It's basically off the smartness and the feel of the game, the space and the cuts and the screens. He should be good," the center said. "Kai definitely made a lot of improvements. I've been working out with him, you know, back in Atlanta. I wish he was here now so he can work and play with the team. But I'm really excited."
Tiu shared the same sentiments.
"The good thing with Kai is he's a very smart player. He has no attitude. I'm gonna be be sending him videos of what we're doing in practice so that while he's there, he can start already because again, we don't have time," he said. [W]e're gonna expect him to play because he's a big part of our team. He just has to work double time and try to catch up with what we're doing."