TAIPEI - Less than three weeks to go, yet there are more questions than answers as Gilas Pilipinas prepares for the 2015 Fiba Asia championship in a six-week buildup which Tab Baldwin candidly admitted presents 'unique challenges' both for him and the team.
That, of course, is an understatement.
There are so many unsettled issues this late in Gilas' preparations - from Jordan Clarkson's availability to holes in the current lineup - that Baldwin himself admits that if his job was a jigsaw puzzle, he is far from figuring it out and, worse, does not even know how the picture should look like.
"The box cover is blank," Baldwin smiled. "It doesn’t give me any clues."
Here now are five questions begging to be answered as the Gilas buildup hits its final stretch.
1) How good - or bad - a shape will Andray Blatche be for Fiba Asia
The answer to this one, we all probably won't like. It was bad enough that the Gilas naturalized player reported for training camp out of shape. Worse he had to skip the Jones Cup - and a week of games where he could have shed a couple more pounds - to attend the funeral of an uncle. Asked about what shape he expects Blatche to be in when he reports back for practice in a few days, Baldwin said, "Who knows?" By now, we all know the former Brooklyn Net won't be the same player he was for Gilas in the 2014 Fiba World Cup. But the good thing is, a 50-percent Blatche is better than any other option for a Gilas team left wanting in the frontline.
2) Will Jordan Clarkson play or not?
This question is a little more tricky. If the Fil-Am guard is cleared by Fiba to play for Gilas, chances are he will play the first few games in the Fiba Asia, at the very least. But for him to play for the duration of the tournament, specially in the knockout rounds where he is really needed, requires a big sacrifice which the Los Angeles Lakers - or most NBA teams for that matter - do not usually make. So while the Clarkson suspense drama is playing out, the Gilas staff has another thing to factor in while laying down the final lineup and game plan for the Fiba Asia. Not an ideal situation, really.
3) Can Jimmy Alapag win his fitness race?
The recurrence of Alapag's quad injury hurts more because of the timing. Remember, the former PBA MVP sat out an entire PBA season and only came out of retirement to join Gilas in this campaign. So even if he is declared fit to play, Alapag, after skipping all but a few minutes of the Jones Cup, will go to the Fiba Asia with hardly any match practice in over a year. But if Baldwin leaves him out, which is likely, Gilas will be left without the only true point guard in its pool - not to mention the best three-point shooter in this team.
4) Can Gilas boys Abueva and Romeo turn into men?
By now, we all know that this dynamic duo will be the motor that will keep this Gilas batch humming. The Jones Cup campaign has shown that they are the two players that can change a game's complexion, by merely being themselves on the floor. That's how good they are. Unfortunately, Terrence Romeo and Calvin Abueva are untested in international competition. It also happens that they both have wild streaks in games which, if uncontrolled, hurt the team more than it could help it. For Gilas to do well in Changsha, China, these two bright boys will have to turn into men, overnight.
5) Can we stop Haddadi and Yi Jianlian without a Fajardo?
Because of circumstances beyond the coaching staff's control, Gilas will be going to the Fiba Asia with a few holes in its lineup, primarily in the frontline. Asi Taulava, Sonny Thoss and Marc Pingris have done an admirable job manning the middle in the Jones Cup, but the Iran game has shown that it will take more than the three to stop 7-2 giant Hamed Haddadi or someone like China's Yi Jianlian. Gilas can count on an extra body in the middle in Blatche come the Fiba Asia, but counting on the former NBA player to stop these giants in the middle may not be a good idea considering the shape he is in. That's the reason June Mar Fajardo's absence from this Gilas team hurts more than he'll ever know.