MANILA, Philippines -- Already considered one of the best big men in the collegiate ranks, Justine Baltazar of De La Salle University showed potential to excel in an entirely different position during his time with the Philippine national team last month.
The 23-year-old Baltazar for the first time joined the national team program in November, when the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) put together a young group of fresh graduates and collegiate standouts to represent the country in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers.
Baltazar, a two-time UAAP Mythical Team member, averaged seven points, 8.5 rebounds, and three assists per game for Gilas Pilipinas in their two wins against Thailand in a "bubble" held in Manama, Bahrain.
"As a basketball player, we see a lot of potential in Justine," said Tab Baldwin, the program director of Gilas Pilipinas.
While Baltazar has shown that he can dominate inside the paint at the collegiate level, Baldwin believes that they can channel the 6-foot-7 player's talent into the wings, and transform him into a perimeter threat for Gilas Pilipinas.
Even in the UAAP, Baltazar has shown he can step out of the shaded lane and do damage from the perimeter. In Season 82, he made nine of his 30 attempts from beyond the arc for a respectable 30% clip. He averaged 15.14 points and 11.79 rebounds for the Green Archers that season.
"We see a lot of perimeter skills in him, and of course, with his length, he's gonna be a big problem at the international level, if we can develop some of these perimeter skills," said Baldwin.
"He's gonna be a big problem as a defensive presence, because under his La Salle systems that he's played, defense has always been a priority, and he's been a good defender," he added. "We know that he has the offensive ability to play both on the perimeter and around the basket."
"So with some defensive skills being developed, we think that we have a guy that can really help us both inside and outside."
If he develops as Baldwin foresees, Baltazar will transform into a "typical international wing player," and he will have a role in the national team in the future. As a big man, Baltazar will have plenty of competition for spots, from stalwarts like June Mar Fajardo to up-and-coming stars like Kai Sotto, AJ Edu, and naturalization candidate Ange Kouame.
But playing on the wing will be a boost for Baltazar and Gilas as a whole, as the team will have much-needed size on the perimeter to deal with other countries' swingmen.
"(We'll have) guys like Troy Rosario and Justine Baltazar on the wing," said Baldwin. "We start to look similar to some of the top-class, even European teams in the world, at least physically."
"So it's getting the experience, getting the teaching, and this is really what our goal is over the next couple of years," he added.
Already, it appears that Baldwin is looking for Baltazar to take those steps towards developing as a basketball player. The Gilas program director reportedly met with Baltazar's patron, Pampanga governor Dennis Pineda, possibly to discuss the future of the La Salle big man.
The meeting raises the possibility of Baltazar foregoing his final season of eligibility in the UAAP to declare for the PBA Rookie Draft, where he will likely be selected in the special round for Gilas Pilipinas and thus dedicate at least a couple of years to the national team program.