Isaiah Austin slipped into town recently to join Gilas Pilipinas’ preparations for the coming 2017 FIBA Asia Champions Cup in Chenzou, China. The former Baylor University standout is being eyed as a potential naturalized player for the National Men’s squad. Current Gilas import Andray Blatche is likely to suit up in the same tournament in China but for the defending champion Xinjiang Flying Tigers of China, where he has a contract with until March 2018. Although Gilas and Xinjiang are on different brackets in the tournament, a possible playoffs meeting could pit Blatche against his Gilas teammates.
Xinjiang plays in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and its season could run smack with the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers in November this year. So it’s possible Blatche won’t be joining Gilas in the important tournament. He also skipped the FIBA Asia Cup last month in Lebanon. This prompted the Gilas management and the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) to consider looking for Blatche’ successor for future games. Blatche, who turned 31 last month, could have his game start diminishing in a couple of years.
Austin is just 23 years old and at 7’1” is an ideal reinforcement for Gilas. After playing two years for the Baylor Bears, where he averaged 11.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in his sophomore season, the Fresno, California native joined the 2014 National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft. But four days before the draft, he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that could be risky for athletes. The unfortunate news resulted in Austin declaring he won’t be able to play the sport anymore. NBA commissioner Adam Silver invited Austin as a guest in the draft, where he was made a ceremonial pick between the 15th and 16th slots to fulfill his dream of getting drafted in the first round. He was given the standing ovation.
Two years later, Austin surprisingly got the green light from his doctors to play and in a few months, joined a Serbian club. Last July, he signed with the Guangxi Rhinos in the Chinese’ NBL.
National coach Chot Reyes likes what he sees in Austin so far. Isaiah poured in just 13 markers in a tune-up game versus NLEX-SCTEX but he scored Gilas’ last six points to secure the 95-83 win. Reyes’ likens him to Blatche, who is versatile and can play both the big forward and center positions. With Austin, Reyes has the luxury of playing multiple combinations in Gilas’ frontline. He could play alongside June Mar Fajardo or Japeth Aguilar. Aside from his imposing height and length, and athleticism, he is also a skillful shooter even from long distance. A nephew of NBA nine-year campaigner Isaac Austin, Isaiah seems to fit perfectly with Gilas’ system. At a young age, he could serve the National Team for at least seven years.
It’s never easy finding a naturalized player. I remember when I was with Gilas 1, under Serbian mentor Rajko Toroman, it took us almost two years to acquire an ideal candidate. We invited several prospects to work out with the young national team and found interesting prospects. But none of them was tailor-made to represent this hoops-crazy nation. Among the early candidates were CJ Giles, Jamal Sampson, and Milan Vucicevik. Giles was highly athletic and skilled in the post. But too much of a good time in late nights did not please Toroman. Sampson was a beast inside the paint with his striking heft and height, and would’ve been exactly what Gilas 1 needed. But his behavior proved even worse than Giles, often faking injuries to escape the training grind. In a Dubai invitational tournament, Sampson just played a couple of games before complaining of an aching knee even when the team’s physical therapist found nothing wrong. It left the all-Filipino squad, with Greg Slaughter and Jason Ballesteros alternating at center, to battle the import-laden top pro teams from West Asia. Gilas settled for third place. Vucicevik had the right attitude, hardworking and all, but at only barely 6’8”, lacked the necessary traits to help the undersized Nationals. Gilas eventually settled with Marcus Douthit, the 6’11” former Providence star, who provided the team with perimeter and inside scoring.