MANILA, Philippines -- Ange Kouame is a departure from the usual player that the Philippines selects for naturalization.
Previously, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) chose Marcus Douthit and Andray Blatche as the reinforcements for the national team. Douthit didn't play in the NBA but was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004. Blatche, of course, played several seasons in the NBA, notably for Washington and Brooklyn.
The 23-year-old Kouame is different: for one, he is much younger than either Blatche or Douthit when he was naturalized. Moreover, he made his name not in the NBA or in foreign leagues, but in the UAAP with Ateneo de Manila University.
Yet for Tab Baldwin, the program director of Gilas Pilipinas, Kouame is a perfect fit for the national team that they are trying to build for the future.
"Who do most coaches, when they look at assembling their national team, who do they select? Say, we can take any PBA player we wanted," Baldwin said during a recent appearance on "Power and Play" with former PBA commissioner Noli Eala.
If allowed to take his pick from the PBA All-Stars, Baldwin said he will immediately go for players like June Mar Fajardo, CJ Perez, and Roger Pogoy.
"All of them are very, very crafty offensive players," he pointed out. "Now, they may be good defensive players in their own right, but all of them are sort of the stars of the offensive game, and they are the best players."
As there are several Filipino players who can take charge offensively -- even in the international game -- Blatche and the Gilas brain trust decided to go a different direction in selecting their new candidate for naturalization.
Rather than take a player who will dominate the ball, they opted for a defensive anchor for the national team.
Kouame, who has been the backbone of Ateneo's defense for the past two UAAP seasons, fits the profile that they are looking for.
"Why would we bring in a player who we need to put the ball in his hands all the time, if you understand my point? Why wouldn't we bring in a guy who's a great rebounder, a great rim protector, and becomes a defensive stalwart to play behind these excellent offensive players?" Baldwin pointed out.
"Some of them can become very good, but they're really out there because they're good with the ball in their hand. They're good at executing offense. Why would we bring another guy who needs to dominate the basketball?" he added.
"I didn't see any sense in that."
In Kouame, Gilas has a player who can rebound, protect the rim, and switch on smaller players if necessary. The Ivory Coast-born center averaged 12.5 points, 11.79 rebounds, and a league-leading 3.86 blocks per game for the Blue Eagles in 2019, when Ateneo went a perfect 16-0 in the season.
He has already trained with the national team pool during its camps at the Inspire Sports Academy in January and March. The bill seeking his naturalization recently passed in the Senate and is now awaiting the signature of President Rodrigo Duterte.
If everything falls into place, Kouame should be able to play for Gilas Pilipinas in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers this June, and the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Serbia from June 29 to July 4.
"My assembly of potential naturalized players includes guys that we believe in as great rebounders, great locker room players, great rim protectors, and guys that will play with a lot of energy, and be great teammates," said Baldwin.
"I think Ange Kouame fits all that, especially in the future."
Roberto V. Puno, the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and the principal author of the bill that sought Kouame's naturalization, said they expect the center to play for "a good eight to 10 years" with the national team.
Thus, he is expected to anchor the Gilas defense not just in the upcoming qualifiers, but hopefully in the 2023 and 2027 editions of the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
"Just as he has done for the Ateneo, I believe that Ange can lend his talent and expertise to Gilas Pilipinas, and help it win future competitions," said Puno, who is also the vice-chairman of the SBP.
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