Tab Baldwin warns Gilas, fans not to sell New Zealand short ahead of Olympic qualifiers
OKC Thunder center Steve Adams is expected to anchor New Zealand's national team in the Manila Olympic qualifiers set from July 5-10. AP

TAB Baldwin knows New Zealand's national team well enough not to sell it short.

Gilas Pilipinas better not, too.

Asked to comment on the road facing Gilas after drawing France and New Zealand in its group for the Manila Olympic qualifiers in July, Baldwin said the first mistake the Philippines can make is take New Zealand lightly.

"I think a lot of people are under-selling the strength of New Zealand, New Zealand is a team that last year beat China in China to win the Stankovic Cup, which was no mean feat.," said the Gilas coach.

Baldwin famously led the Tall Blacks to the semifinals of the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis and remains very much rooted in New Zealand where he was given citizenship.

Although the Kiwis have not reached the same great heights since, Baldwin said New Zealand is capable of putting up a tough lineup for the Manila qualifiers, especially if it can get NBA player Steven Adams on board.

The seven-foot Adams has blossomed into a starter in his fourth season with the Oklahoma Thunder and could anchor a New Zealand team that should also include the high-scoring Corey Webster.

With France looming as a mountain to climb for Gilas in Group B, fans have started looking at New Zealand as a 'beatable' target for the Philippines if it hopes to advance to the crossover semifinals.

That's a wrong assumption, Baldwin warned.

"If they are able to get Steven Adams to play for them this summer, then you know, they are a real darkhorse in terms of their ability to win this tournament in the Philippines," Baldwin said of the Kiwis.

[See Soon-to-be free agents Diaw, Batum doubtful for Manila qualifiers, says France official]

Baldwin admitted Gilas will have its hands full in the July qualifiers with a field that also includes Canada, Turkey and Senegal, but he insisted there is no point sweating over the so-called 'Group of Death.'

"In our pool landed some of the real strong teams, it will be a great entertainment for our fans but a difficult road for Gilas," he said. "Atleast, now we know the path we have, we know that it's a difficult path."

"There's no impression that the draw makes. It is what is. It's never gonna be something that I'll have influence over. It's wasn't anything I gave even one second of worry. Let's get to work.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

"We have to be ready for a tough road but we have to embrace the challenge and be very positive enough to create some upsets," he said. "We want to get off on a winning note."

[See Powerhouse France, Canada, Turkey drawn with Gilas]

Instead, Baldwin said he is focusing on the things that he can control, primarily the preparation of Gilas when it gathers to resume practice on February 15 shortly after the start of the PBA Commissioner's Cup.

"Hopefully we'll get a strong response, we can get all the players on the court training, hopefully they are intrigued by the draw and see a great challenge in front of them and prepare to meet that challenge," he said.

"It's going to be a dog fight for that one ticket to Rio, we're happy that we are in the middle of the fight, we're happy that we have the challenge in front of us that we do. It's just about working hard and getting this team on the same page."

Follow the writer on Twitter: @snowbadua