DM Film Room: Mike Nieto is Much Better at Basketball Than You Think

Why does Coach Tab Baldwin keep on calling Mike Nieto’s number for Gilas Pilipinas, even now in international play? In this video breakdown, we’ll analyze Nieto’s value, an impact that goes beyond the stat sheet.

Mike Nieto was the unlucky recipient of the ire of Filipino fans when Gilas Pilipinas suffered back-to-back losses against Serbia and Dominican Republic during the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Fans said that he was undersized for his position, and that Gilas needs more length at the wing.

It’s interesting to think that back when Mike was still playing the big man role before his Seniors’ stint with Ateneo in the UAAP, people also criticized the glaring size disadvantage he gave up to taller frontcourt players. Now that he has cut down on his weight, improved his skill set, and transitioned to the wing position, he’s still deemed as undersized.

But honestly, it’s not that mind-boggling. After all, Mike stands at only 6-foot-2. So why does Coach Tab Baldwin stand firm in giving him a roster spot in Gilas? 

Through this video breakdown, let’s take a look at what Mike can do on the basketball court, and why he has been indispensable for Gilas. 

So far.

Plays Sound Defense

Say all you want about him, but Mike will teach you everything you need to know about the fundamentals of defense. Look at this video clip taken from the first game between Gilas and South Korea during the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers.

One thing that I like about Mike’s work on defense is that he constantly fights through screens. With the strength that he built up as a big man during his high school days, Mike is able to combine that with the mobility that he gained now that he has cut down on his weight. By combining those two physical attributes, Mike will not be easily thrown off by hard picks.

In this play, Mike fights through the screen set by Seounghyun Lee (#33), gets back to his man, and forces Nakhyeon Kim (#4) to think twice about launching what he thought was already an open three-pointer. It results in the Korean picking up his dribble. Mike then was able to slap the ball, but his work doesn’t stop there. 

This is where Mike displays his fundamentally sound defensive stance. With his knees lowered for quicker change in direction, Mike’s feet slide in perfect timing, not letting Kim blow past him. You can also see his other hand raised upward to either deflect a pass or contest a lay-up from the Korean guard. 

Through his hard work and sound defensive stance, Mike succeeded in forcing Kim to pass the rock.

Never Gives Up on a Defensive Play

Mike is relentless on defense. I mean, look at this photo below. You would think that there is no way that the hulking 7-foot-5 Boban Marjanovic will not score in this instance, right?

Well, Mike is about to prove you wrong. Here’s what he did in that specific play during the game between Gilas and Serbia.

First of all, this was an inexcusable defense from Gilas. They weren’t able to match up on defense, forcing Ange Kouame to scramble when Milos Teodosic (#4) threw a bullet pass to Ognjen Dobric (#31) inside the paint. 

Then as puzzling as it may be, the Gilas’ defense seemed to momentarily forget about the towering Boban, who trailed the play, made it all the way to the lane without hindrance, and caught the pass from Dobric. Fortunately for Gilas, Boban fumbled the lay-up. But even though he mistimed his jump on the offensive rebound, he still had the advantage to reclaim the ball and go up for the putback.  

But Mike did not give up on the play. 

He taps the ball away from Boban’s reach, saves the ball from going out of bounds, and bails out the Gilas’ defense. 

Again, this defensive sequence starts on the wrong foot. Mike and Will Navarro mistakenly close out on the same man in the corner, leaving Daesung Lee (#43) wide open at the top of the key. Isaac Go rotates to Lee, but by doing so, he left Nakhyeon Kim (#4) open at the right wing. 

Luckily, Lee made the wrong decision of not immediately swinging the ball to Kim. It’s a case of overdoing things. Instead, Lee put the ball on the floor, thinking that he could draw the defense towards him even more and then eventually kick it out to his wide-open teammate on the right wing. 

This gives Mike the chance to work his magic. 

With his quick hands, Mike swiped the ball away from Lee before the latter can dish out the rock to Kim. Mike then dives for the ball in signature Mike Nieto fashion, and finally forces the turnover for the Koreans. He brings the ball down in transition and makes the right pass to the trailing Kai Sotto, who was then fouled on his way up.

Communicates Well on Defense

On defense, Mike analyzes the opposing teams’ offensive schemes really well. When he is on the floor, you could always see him blurting out instructions on what his teammates should do on defense. Take a look at this clip from the Gilas-Serbia match.

There’s not much going on at the start of the play here for Serbia. Milos Teodosic first tried to run a simple pick-and-roll with Filip Petrusev (#3) at the top of the key. As you have probably noticed in the games that they played, Gilas doesn’t do a lot of switching on their defense. Here, Kai employs a drop coverage to avoid Teodosic from easily driving down the lane while still having the ability to cover Petrusev if he rolls to the rim.  

As Teodosic sees no daylight in their initial motion, he then swings the ball to a teammate at the right wing, causing Kai to defend another PnR.  However, the Serbian wing rejects the Petrusev screen, forcing Kai to switch right away. The reason why Gilas doesn’t switch as much as possible is that Kai still doesn’t have the lateral speed to keep up with quicker perimeter players. 

But Mike knows this very well. When he saw Teodosic pass the ball to the right wing, he knew that the paint would be unmanned, especially if Kai was forced to a switch. Right after Teodosic passed the ball, you can already see Mike instructing Justine Baltazar to cover the corner. Mike then moved to the paint, not allowing an easy lay-up for the Serbian wing when he blew past Kai.

The play resulted in an open three-pointer from Danilo Andjusic (#33) at the left wing, but that was not Mike’s fault. The defense should have ended with Carl Tamayo rotating to Andjusic, and Mike scrambling to cover Teodosic at the top of the key. But Tamayo fails to make the rotation, and Gilas was just fortunate that the Serbian forward missed the shot.

Still, this is a good example of how Mike sees the floor and how he communicates with his teammates. Gilas is still a very young squad, and Coach Tab has always said time and time again that he loves Mike’s natural knack for leadership. Mike’s vocal leadership and defensive attributes are really what make him valuable to this Gilas program.

Mike’s weaknesses

Mike has great defensive instincts but there’s no denying that he’s still undersized. Yes, he can body up to perimeter players taller than him because he knows how to be physical without fouling. However, it’s switching onto a bigger post-up player and staying in front of a guard with an explosive first-step that could be a problem. 

On offense, Mike is still a long way from creating his own shots. He is a dependable three-point gunner, but not exactly the flamethrower type who could change the course of the game with his shooting. His ball-handling has improved in the past couple of years, but it’s still below-average for a perimeter player. The important thing for Mike right now is that he doesn’t force his moves, and he rarely turns the ball over as a result.

But hey, there’s still room for improvement for Mike. At one point during that Gilas’ loss to the Dominican Republic in Belgrade, I was surprised that he actually had this move in his bag.

Even while being double-teamed, Mike didn’t get rattled. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially that he was hounded by both Victor Liz (#5) and Gelvis Solano (#4), two of the most athletic guards in the Dominican Republic squad. Mike did a good job of staying away from the baseline, which is always the right thing to do when trapped by two defenders.

I think Liz also didn’t expect Mike to go all the way to the rim. Mike perfectly executes a slight hesitation move, and that was all he needed to keep Liz from catching up to him. But it’s how he made the shot that surprised me. Facing the much bigger Jhonatan Araujo (#30) from the Dominican Republic, Mike went up on the wrong foot, spoiling the timing of the defender. This is a move that many scorers now use to catch rim protectors off guard. Mike then used the glass, scoring two more points for Gilas.

Still, I doubt that Mike can ever be a great shot-creator in his career. That’s just not his game. I won’t be surprised if more offensively-skilled perimeter guys like Thirdy Ravena or Kobe Paras (if he’s available) comes in to take his spot in a 12-man roster. Don’t forget that Rey Suerte, Dave Ildefonso, and Allyn Bulanadi are coming off injuries as well.

But Mike is a smart basketball player who knows how to position himself effectively on both ends of the floor. You just can’t count that out. He is a great addition and a vital piece to what Coach Tab is brewing in the Gilas program.

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