When SJ Belangel and RJ Abarrientos were invited to the Philippines men's national basketball team training camp months ago, their inclusion was considered an afterthought given the bigger, more experienced playmakers they had to leapfrog to even crack the rotation.
But after Gilas Pilipinas' dramatic victory over Asian powerhouse South Korea on Wednesday, Belangel and Abarrientos's performance validated coach Tab Baldwin's decision to get them to be part of the squad.
The 6-foot-2 Abarrientos scored 6 points and dished out 3 assists playing nearly 14 minutes, while the 5-foot-10 Belangel finished with 13 points and 5 rebounds in 23 minutes, including the buzzer-beating 3-pointer to ice the game.
"Well, they did really well. They're making a case for small ball to still be alive," Baldwin said.
"Both of those guys, they really controlled aspects of the game, certain phases of the game with their ball screen play.
"I thought RJ did a great job when we put them in there, and SJ was tough throughout the game. And that just goes to show you that, you know, small bodies but big hearts still have a place in the game of basketball. And you know, we owe both of them a lot.
"They made big plays today."
Baldwin's high opinion of Belangel, whom he coaches on the Ateneo Blue Eagles, and Abarrientos, who plays for Far Eastern University, was why they were both invited to the Gilas camp in the first place.
The coach considered the two to have "basketball IQ that is very advanced."
"In the international game, because it's not an overly athletic game, it is a very, very intellectual game, a player like that can fit in, even if they are physically a little bit inferior," Baldwin said in an online interview.
"So those are the things we're really looking for . . . The guys that have that, just that IQ, where the game comes easy to them, in spite of their physical assets or deficiencies."
Whether Belangel and Abarrientos will be part of the Gilas program long term, however, remains to be seen.
Baldwin acknowledged that at some point when the Philippines faces bigger countries size is going to count.
"We would like to continue to groom Dwight (Ramos) as a point guard knowing that the matchups, when you get to the big stage and against the big European teams, they're gonna have big point guards," Baldwin said.
"And it's OK when you have a 2 or 3-inch deficit, but when that starts to be 7 or 8 or 9 inches, that's pretty tough on your point guards."
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