JUSTINE Baltazar proved why he is considered the best big man in college with his impressive play in his Gilas Pilipinas debut.
Showing no fear against the all-pro Thailand team in the 2021 Fiba Asia Cup qualifiers in Manama, the 6-8 center from La Salle averaged 7.0 points on 40-percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 2.0 steals in 22.3 minutes per game.
Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) program director Tab Baldwin is among those impressed, but wants to move Baltazar away from his comfort zone in the paint.
"Honestly, the plan is to develop him more as a perimeter player," he told Coaches Unfiltered. "I think he can become a very good wing and he will be a real problem for the teams posting up wings and defending on the wing."
It's an unusual proposition, but one Baltazar is willing to take head on.
"I talked to him about it and he's excited about it," shared Baldwin.
The commitment just shows how much Baltazar has bought into Baldwin's vision for the national team, one that started with a good old Ateneo-La Salle ribbing.
"I'm very close with the Ateneo players, and Matt (Nieto) came to me and said, 'Balti's just the coolest guy you'll ever meet.' As soon as Matt told me that, of course I was going to target Balti because of the La Salle-Ateneo thing," said the concurrent Blue Eagles mentor.
"I walked into the next video session and I said something that goes, 'Since we're in Filipino colors, Balti, the more I see you in blue, the more I like you.' Of course, he had a big grin on his face and that broke the ice."
As short of a time as they've had, the bond between the two has just grown leaps and bounds, loyalties be damned.
"None of us knew he's hilarious, he's funny, and the guy that I saw is a shy guy who didn't answer any questions in the video sessions. I'm tough on the players and I don't care who they are and where they're from. I'm confrontational and I have fun doing that and I like to make them feel uncomfortable. But what a great guy to work with. We're only scratching the surface with how good this player is going to be," said Baldwin.
And that includes this planned shift, with Baltazar expected to cash in more on his perimeter game in his next stints for Gilas.
"It's a long-term prospect and it won't happen in the February window. But he's just a lot of fun to work with and La Salle has a gem and I know they love him as they should, and he loves them as he should," he said.