MANILA, Philippines – Gilas Pilipinas fans could not be blamed for being disappointed with how naturalized center Andray Blatche performed in the first window of the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers last November.
In two games against Japan and Chinese-Taipei, Blatche averaged only 9.5 points per game on 30% shooting from the field. He made up for his woeful shooting a little by averaging 13 rebounds and four blocks per game, but the center also turned the ball over 12 times over the course of the two contests.
The Philippines still managed to hack out close victories in both games, but there was no doubt that they would have gotten more comfortable wins had Blatche been in top form. Instead, the former NBA player was clearly not in shape, and it showed in how he struggled to blow by smaller, shorter defenders.
Filipinos were hard on "Kuya Dray" after his sluggish performances, even though Gilas Pilipinas coach Chot Reyes defended Blatche and revealed that the center personally apologized to the national team following their games.
Yet no one was more disappointed than Blatche himself. He knew that he was very far from his best during the first qualifying window, which is why the former Brooklyn Net took it upon himself to be in better shape for the second window.
"I just worked out twice a day the whole time in China, preparing for this," said Blatche, who showed up to Manila last week looking more fit and trim than he did back in November 2017.
"The last time I was here, the last two games, I was way out of shape," he admitted. "I couldn't perform the way I wanted to, and it bothered me."
"I was very frustrated," Blatche added bluntly. "(That's why) I dedicated myself to this next window."
Through two practices with Gilas Pilipinas, Blatche has looked to be in good condition. He easily ran the length of the floor and barely huffed and puffed after a series of scrimmages on Tuesday at the Meralco Gym. After practice was over, he stayed on the court to put up more shots along with the rest of his teammates.
Reyes has acknowledged that Blatche looks fitter this time around, and was pleased with how the big man was picking up the details of the offense. However, he also pointed out that Blatche still "has to get his game legs under him."
According to the national team coach, Blatche was not even in the active roster of his Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) team, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.
"He was continuously practicing," said Reyes. "But he's not in real game shape. We have a week before the Australia game to get him back into that."
"But the problem is we’re not able to play actual games, and the only way to get in game shape is to play actual games. That’s the dilemma that we’re facing," he added.
Still, for the Gilas players it is a relief to see Blatche come in looking fit and strong, and have no trouble with the quick pace of their game.
"He's just gradually adapted and grown as a player, grown as a teammate," said Gilas veteran Gabe Norwood. "I think everybody respects him and the time that he gives us. For him to come in early and really try to get acclimated and come in in the type of shape that he’s in is a great plus for us."
"Grabe 'yung pinayat niya," added Carl Bryan Cruz. "Tinanong ko nga kung paano siya pumayat eh."
"Sabi niya nagpakundisyon daw talaga siya. Balanced diet at saka exercise. So kumbaga malaking impact para samin na makundisyon siya," he added.
The team is now hoping that Blatche's good condition will translate into better performances in the second qualifying window, which starts on February 22 against Australia and continue on February 25 at home against Japan.
"It's a process," said Blatche. "It's getting better in Day 2."
The Philippine national team flies to Melbourne on February 19.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.)