Slowly but surely, news has begun to leak about Gilas Pilipinas’ new candidate for naturalization, Isaiah Austin. The 23-year-old will be hopping on a plane to join Gilas Pilipinas for practice on Wednesday, in preparation for the FIBA Asia Champions Cup beginning September 22.
Immediately, it triggered a lot of speculation amongst avid followers of the Gilas program, particularly why Austin was chosen in the first place. Amongst all the potential candidates out there with overwhelming talent, surely there are better candidates out there that we can all get into the fold, right?
It’s not that simple.
After Gilas’ first practice on Monday evening, a candid Coach Chot Reyes gave more insight as to the process that Gilas goes through in order to naturalize a foreigner for the Gilas Pilipinas program. Reyes talked about the challenges facing the program, and why it’s not as easy as picking a name out of a hat and putting a Pilipinas jersey on their backs.
“People have to understand our naturalization- we don’t have a ‘piso-piso’ naturalization process,” Reyes said. “We’re not like other countries when you say somebody comes in and tomorrow he’ll be naturalized. That’s not the case. You have to go through Congress, and Congress doesn’t want to naturalize players every year, or every two years.”
Reyes also brought up the case of former San Miguel import Charles Rhodes, who won a title with the Beermen in this season’s Commissioner’s Cup. In a since deleted tweet, the 32-year-old Rhodes publicly tweeted his desire to play for Gilas Pilipinas. However Coach Chot said that it wasn’t possible for Rhodes to make the team, because of several reasons.
“I tweeted my sincere appreciation for Charles Rhodes for volunteering,” Reyes recalled. “We really liked his game, unfortunately it’s not only up to us. He will have a hard time passing in Congress. Some people are saying why don’t we use Charles Rhodes for one or two years while we’re naturalizing another guy? It’s not possible, because it will just not pass through congress.
“As it is now, we’re not even sure if Isaiah will be naturalized this year or next year because Congress will tell us that Dray Blatche is still there,” Reyes continued. “So hindi naman piso-piso yung naturalization sa Pilipinas. It’s serious business, so I just want everyone to understand why it is not as simple. It’s a very difficult process.”
Which brings us to Isaiah Austin. According to Reyes, Austin is a player that the program has been eyeing for several years, and it all goes back to the scouting done for players as early as college. Austin is no exception.
“Just like everybody else, we’ve always been on the lookout for players,” Reyes said. “We’ve been watching players since they were in college. Guys like Christian [Standhardinger], Jordan Clarkson and these guys. We’ve kept tabs on Isaiah since he was in college because he has the skillset that we’re looking for in the national team.
With Blatche, Gilas has experienced tremendous milestones, which includes the team’s first win ever in the 2014 FIBA World Championship, a silver medal in the 2015 FIBA Asia Cup, and a gold medal in the 2017 SEABA Championship. But as Blatche is getting up there in age, and with several commitments and a revamped FIBA schedule, Gilas has eyed Austin as a potential replacement for Blatche. And according to Reyes, Austin fits exactly what the team needs.
“We’re looking for a tall guy who has an outside shot and can be a rim protector,” Reyes confided. “And that’s why Andray is such a special player for us. When we saw Isaiah, we thought he had the perfect skillset. You know we’ve been looking at Javale McGee for a long time. In Isaiah, we have a Javale McGee with a three-point shot. So we’ve been keeping our tabs on him.”
As Austin’s stock rose heading into the 2014 NBA Draft, there was doubt that he would ever be a serious candidate for naturalization. But things changed when Austin was declared ineligible for the draft because of a serious medical issue. However, two years later, he received medical clearance to resume basketball, paving the way for Gilas to swoop in.
“When he was cleared and we reconnected, he sent his passport and his birth certificate right away,” Reyes said. “As soon as he was cleared, we’ve already been in touch. But we kept it under wraps for obvious reasons. And now finally his commitment to China, he also played in Serbia, has ended. So perfect situation for us to bring him over.”
Coach Reyes and the rest of Gilas eagerly await the arrival of Austin Tuesday night in Manila, as well as his first practice tomorrow. The seeds that were planted last year with Austin will be put to the test for the first time in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup. But the hard part hasn’t even begun. If Austin proves worthy to be part of the program long-term, then that’s when the battle moves from the hardwood to the leaders in charge.
But Reyes is optimistic that Austin is worth the effort. After all, talented players with his skills that are actually available for the country don’t grow on trees.
“Here we have a situation where we have a 7’1 24-year-old who sincerely wants to be naturalized,” Reyes said. “That’s why we are taking this opportunity to take a look if he is going to be a good fit for us.”