Heading into the Clark window of the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifers, a cloud of doubt and uncertainty loomed over the guard position of Gilas Pilipinas.
With the absence of the injury-stricken Matt Nieto, the Philippines, which relied on seasoned court generals to handle the keys to its offense in the past, was left no choice but to put its trust on two youngs guards in SJ Belangel and RJ Abarrientos, both of whom were coming into their debuts in the seniors team.
It seemed like a gamble from the outside looking in, but it turned out to be a promising investment in the future of Gilas. After all, the two 21-year-olds held their own against experienced opponents, coming through match after match en route to the team's three-game sweep of the Clark window.
Safe to say, a resounding statement was sent by both Belangel and Abarrientos, and even Gilas great Jimmy Alapag could not help but tip his hat to the two young guns.
"Great start for SJ and RJ Abarrientos. I think the point guard position is in good hands," Alapag, who has had his fair share of point guard duties with Gilas Pilipinas in the past, beamed in an episode of SMART Sports' Hoops Life.
"They played with a lot of poise and that is important for a point guard. This is just a qualifier and the competition will get better."
Belangel, who casted the hero role upon himself and knocked down the game-winner in the storied encounter between the Philippines and South Korea in the opening day of the Clark window, emerged as a reliable starter for the Tab Baldwin-mentored squad, posting averages of 7.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists during the qualifiers.
Abarrientos, on the other hand, proved to be a spark plug that Gilas can rely on when in need of instant scoring punch. Despite coming off the bench, he normed 8.3 points, 3.7 assists, and 1.3 rebounds per game.
The composure of the two 5-foot-10 guards can also be seen through their efficiency on the court. In a span of three games, the two only committed a total of six turnovers.
As stellar as their performances were, Alapag reminded the Gilas duo to make a point of strengthening their resolve in preparation for tougher and taller competition overseas.
"When these other countries see a smaller guard, they will just try to beat you up. You got to be able to take those bumps," said Alapag.
"I just hope that these guys continue to grow and improve. The biggest thing is just to get better together."
Ohmer Bautista is a sports journalist who has covered local and international sporting events in the Philippines. The views expressed are his own.
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