JAKARTA -- For all the concerns about the lack of preparation by Team Philippines heading into the 2018 Asian Games, there was no doubting the squad’s talent, particularly when it came to the backcourt.
Coach Yeng Guiao made the obvious choice of selecting former Rain Or Shine and now Magnolia star Paul Lee to join the trifecta of Gabe Norwood, Maverick Ahanmisi, and Chris Tiu -- all Elasto Painter mainstays. He then put his guard rotation over the top by adding NorthPort’s Stanley Pringle -- who was recently named by former Gilas Pilipinas coach Tab Baldwin as the “best guard in Asia.”
Guiao’s guards showed out in their first game of the Asiad, trouncing Kazakhstan, 96-59, to virtually secure passage to the quarterfinals. Pringle had 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting, Lee added 10 points, and Norwood had a typically well-rounded game with seven points, four assists, four steals, and three rebounds.
Ahanmisi did not shoot well, making only 2-of-8 attempts, but he was active on defense and finished with three steals. Tiu had nine points, and another Rain Or Shine guard, James Yap, scored 12 in his return to international play.
That already explosive backcourt is about to get a boost of NBA talent as the team welcomes Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jordan Clarkson, who arrived at the Basket Hall in Gelora Bung Karno in this city during the third quarter of their game on Thursday morning.
“He’s here now,” Pringle said. “It’s about to be the Jordan show.”
Clarkson’s arrival caused a bit of commotion at the Basket Hall, as the small but loud group of Filipino fans gave him an ovation when he sat on the Philippine bench.
Among those who welcomed Clarkson was Barangay Ginebra team governor Alfrancis Chua, who watched the game together with the PBA board of governors and commissioner Willie Marcial.
For Chua, Clarkson’s mere presence on the bench will already provide inspiration for the team. What more when he finally suits up for the Philippines?
“It’s not about the way he plays -- it’s about the energy that he’s gonna bring,” Chua told reporters during the halftime break, which saw the Philippines build a comfortable 41-20 advantage.
“Lahat ng mga Pinoy, gaganahan. Kahit sino naman, kung may teammate ka na NBA player, mag-iiba morale mo eh,” he said. “Hawa-hawa ‘yan, ika nga. So malaking bagay.”
“Umupo lang siya sa bench, gaganahan na ang mga player eh. Malaking bagay sa Pilipinas; malaking bagay sa national team.”
That Clarkson went straight to the Philippines’ game upon landing in Jakarta did not go unnoticed by his teammates or his coaches. He left Los Angeles on Wednesday, after finally getting clearance to play in the Asian Games from the NBA.
“We appreciate that. We know he's tired coming off the plane, but he made an effort to see us play and that inspired the players a lot more. That's a great gesture from Jordan Clarkson,” said head coach Yeng Guiao.
Long time coming
Clarkson’s debut for the Philippines is a long time coming. He first got involved in the national team program in 2015, even watching Gilas Pilipinas compete in the William Jones Cup that year. One of the most memorable scenes from that year’s tournament was Clarkson’s response to Terrence Romeo’s crossover against Chinese-Taipei, which got the Fil-Am guard on his feet.
It would take three more years and a nerve-wracking back-and-forth with the NBA before he will get to wear the PILIPINAS jersey, but one player who was in the 2015 Jones Cup team never doubted that the time will come.
“I saw him walk through the door, he saw me. He came in and oh, ‘the old man’s still here’,” said the 45-year-old Asi Taulava after their game on Thursday. It was Taulava whom Clarkson sat beside on the team bench, as one of two members of the team that he personally knows -- Gabe Norwood being the other.
“He was asking, where’s the rest of the guys? I was like, ‘Oh that? They’re suspended’,” Taulava said, referring to the sanctions that FIBA handed out to Gilas Pilipinas players in the wake of their brawl against Australia last month.
Now that Clarkson is finally here, Taulava has no doubt that the Cavaliers guard will prove that the wait was worth it.
“Jordan’s gonna be Jordan,” said the NLEX center. “We all have dreams of getting to the NBA, and Jordan is there.”
“I told him earlier on the bench that he’s gonna like coach Yeng’s style. Coach Yeng’s style is more pick-and-roll, guard-oriented. The bigs just pick and choose their spots, just get to the open spot and spread the floor. Let the young guys, let the guards do all the work,” he added.
Taulava is certain that their already-talented backcourt will benefit from Clarkson’s presence, and predicts that no team will be ready for the tandem of Clarkson and Pringle.
“Everybody’s seen the secret weapon, Stanley Pringle. Not too many people can stay in front of him,” said Taulava. “So China, get ready. The Pringle show is on his way.”
“No, no -- the JC and Pringle show is on the way,” he amended. “And it’s not just those two. We still got Mav (Ahanmisi), we still have Gabe, and we still got Paul Lee. And you know, Paul Lee is so smart.”
Warm Filipino welcome
Taulava was not the only player to welcome Clarkson with open arms. The entire team was clearly thrilled to see the NBA player, who has averaged 14.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game in a career spent with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cavaliers.
“I’m pretty sure coach Yeng is going to put him on the open floor, keep it simple for him, run, let us space it all out,” Pringle said.
Lee said: “We’re very happy din na makakalaro siya. “It’s a big help for our national team.”
Norwood added: “He’s an NBA talent, and an NBA starting talent for a lot of his career. So to have that here… we’re just happy to have him here.”
There was perhaps one player who could have had a grudge against Clarkson -- the man whose roster spot he took, Don Trollano. The guard had long dreamt of playing for flag and country, and believed his dream came true when TNT was initially tasked to represent the Philippines in the Asiad. Like Clarkson, he endured a roller-coaster ride to the Asian Games, but unlike the Fil-Am guard, Trollano’s journey ended with him missing the final cut.
But the easygoing guard from TNT was unbothered by the whole affair, and took his teammates’ "Jor-Don Clarkson" jokes in stride.
"’Yun naman ang magandang gawin eh,” Trollano said of his "sacrifice" for Clarkson.
There are no hard feelings, he insisted, and indeed Trollano was delighted to have Clarkson on board.
“Na-starstruck nga ako eh,” he admitted. “Actually first time ko kasing makakita ng NBA player, tapos dumunk pa. Ang galing, worth it. Worth it ba.”
Compete and win
The hoopla over Clarkson’s arrival is unlikely to die down over the next few days. Some members of international media were inquiring about his presence ahead of the Philippines’ game against Kazakhstan, and they later found their way to his brief media availability together with Philippine media.
Expectations are unlikely to diminish, either. Gilas Pilipinas assistant coach Jong Uichico, who watched the game against Kazakhstan, said Clarkson will present an additional problem for China. Marcial said he expects Clarkson to be an intimidating presence, being an NBA player.
And Guiao himself made it clear that he is hopeful Clarkson can lead the Philippines "deep into the medal rounds" of the competition.
The man of the hour himself is staying focused on what needs to be done -- and on his inspiration for doing this in the first place.
“I’m very excited to know that I’m finally getting to do this, being able to play with my team for my country,” said Clarkson. “It’s definitely something that I’ve been looking forward to.”
“It’s great -- I feel the support and love all the time. My grandma, I know she’s really proud that I’m able to do this right now. I just want to say hi to my mom, my grandma, everybody back home,” he added.
“We try to come out here, and compete, and win,” he said.