The Other 39 Minutes and 57 Seconds: Kai’s Aggression and What Gilas Did to Win the Game

Along with the game-winning buzzer-beater that reverberated throughout the country, Gilas Pilipinas put up a smart, composed, collective effort to hack out the win against South Korea. 

And it’s not just because of a “lucky shot”.

SJ Belangel’s incredible buzzer-beater has dominated the public discourse of the game between South Korea and the Philippines. 

I understand it. It was an incredible shot. 

But, that shot isn’t really what won us the game. Three points at the buzzer would have meant nothing without the 78 points prior. We have to give credit where credit is due, and actually talk about the rest of that freaking game. 

The game was won by the collective effort of a whole squad of players and the coaching staff that supported them. We have to talk about all of it, but well, I don’t really have all the time in the world and you probably don’t want me to break the whole game down to you play by play, possession by possession. 

But if you do, my DMs (@_alba_ on Twitter) are open. To simplify things for lack of time, I want to talk about a few things I enjoyed the most while watching the game: Kai Sotto’s aggressiveness, Ange Kouame slinging the ball from long range, Will Navarro’s existence, and SJ Belangel’s composure.

Kai Sotto is a Big Boy Now

One of Kai’s known weaknesses prior to the game was how well (or unwell) he handles physicality. Kai is 7’2 (or 7’3 or 7’4) with a slight frame. He has a high center of gravity that makes it easier for shorter and more “compact” players to bump him and knock him off course.

These are clips from his The Skills Factory (TSF) days. Here, a Hall of Fame Brick Wall he is not. In the first clip, we can see bad positioning on the screen where he has to extend his posterior to make contact with his teammate’s defender. Beyond where he set the screen, we have to point out that he didn’t really create much separation for his teammate. In the second clip from the video above, Kai did not take to physicality from a smaller guard who just shoves him aside.

Now, let’s look at how Kai approached physicality in the South Korea game. 

In a clear contrast from the TSF clips, Kai set a legit screen that ends up being a screen assist. The second clip was probably Kai’s best play the whole game. He sets a really good screen that displaces a defender and then scores on Ra Gun-A, who is probably in the top 1% of players that Kai has played against in terms of raw strength.

Beyond setting a screen, Kai doesn’t really “go through” the defense too often. As you can see in the video above, he gets knocked back or he can’t continue moving forward for a layup. This was a wrinkle in his face-up game as he couldn’t really get in for shots at the rim with a defender in his face.

It’s obvious that Kai has bulked up a bit. But on top of that, he also learned a few tricks. The commonality in these three plays is that Kai is going downhill and doesn’t stop going forward despite a huge 6’8 250-pound roadblock. 

From a standstill, Kai might not still have enough power to forge on ahead and will himself through a defense. But, the common theme here is Kai going downhill with Newton’s 2nd Law, that is force being mass times acceleration, which is enough to not only handle contact but also to move forward and finish through it.

Ange Kouame: Stretch 5?

I know Ange could shoot before the game. He shot 36.8% from deep on 1.2 attempts per game in his last UAAP Season. He could, by the definition of the word, shoot the ball. But, I (and South Korea) did not know he could shoot quite like that.

This, to me, is why I love player development. These are the minute changes that make all the difference in the world. 

This is Ange Kouame taking the same shot from roughly the same distance at two different points in time. One was in 2019 when the world still made sense and the other was in the recent game against Korea. The skeleton of the shot (the base, the hand positions, the release point) is still the same, but the change can be seen as he loads up the shot and as he sets it prior to shooting. 

The slight pause at the release point is less pronounced and the speed at which he brings the ball up is faster. The faster shot is a testament to how much Ange worked on his shot to smoothen it out to this point. 

Aesthetically, Ange’s shot actually looks good. There is no clear and obvious flaw in the shot. It’s a 1.5 motion shot (honestly looks really close to a 1 motion) with a good solid base. His legs are a good distance apart and there really isn’t any extraneous motion that could bother the shot. His landing isn’t exactly ideal, but he was on balance and that is very important.

Here is a good look at the form. Wide base, fluid motion, and he releases at the peak or slightly before the peak of his jump. The landing is picture perfect. He lands on both feet perfectly balanced. The shot doesn’t look like it will lend well to anything more adventurous than a spot up or a pick and pop attempt, but it looks good enough to buy that Ange will be effective in those types of situations.

This is probably a bad shot. Do I care that it is a bad shot? No, not in this situation. Kouame is confident in the work he put on his jumper. He’s confident enough to shoot off the dribble with around 8 seconds left on the clock against South Korea. That’s very important for his development. As to the form, there is a bit of a breakdown as his legs move towards different locations as he shoots, but that’s pretty normal and not too problematic. 

All in all, Ange was 3/5 from distance and each of those shots mattered in the game. Without them, we wouldn’t be in the position to win it at the buzzer. South Korea tended to sag off him and dare him to take the long ball, but it’s probably a matter of time until Ange can regularly and consistently make them pay for doing so.

Will Navarro is the Little Thing King

To talk about Will’s role in the game is to talk about Hyunjung Lee (#1). Lee is one of the best shooters not just in Asia, but in Division I of the NCAA where he plays for the Davidson Wildcats. 

Navarro was instrumental in holding him to a 33.3% shooting from deep (3/9). Now, 33.3% is pretty decent at this level, but Lee shot 39.3% on 9.3 attempts per game back in the 2018 FIBA Asia U18 and 44.2% on 5.5 attempts with Davidson. That’s a huge win for the team. 

Navarro doesn’t tend to be super flashy. He isn’t a big-time scorer nor is he a knockdown shooter. His defense, generally, isn’t loud, but it’s very effective. His offense isn’t built on spamming dribble moves in isolation, but he consistently makes the right plays. 

Navarro has to help in the middle AND prevent a player, who could very well be the best shooter on the continent, from raining hellfire and brimstone on his team. He did an especially good job at fulfilling the task assigned to him and he was absolutely instrumental to the team’s victory. 

According to Enzo Flojo (@hoopnut on Twitter), Navarro led the team in closeouts. His hustle and length were key ingredients in preventing the vaunted Korean offense from getting on a roll. It’s no wonder that he was a +9 in the game (Gilas outscored Korea by 9 when he was on the floor).

His defense isn’t usually loud, but he is prone to sending shots back with his above-average wingspan. In this play, Seonghyun Lee (#33) gets open. One would even say that he got wide open. Seonghyun Lee is a stretch forward who you wouldn’t want shooting a shot that open. 

Navarro and his Lastikman-esque arms manage to reach out and send the shot back. I think it’s also pretty important to note that he’s right-handed and made this block with his left hand and did so pretty much on instinct. It’s a huge boon for a player to be equally adept on defense with either hand. If you can only block shots with one hand, then attacking your left-hand side is a readily exploitable weakness.

Now, it’s not all about defense for Navarro. He isn’t just a good player on one end of the floor. Will is a quality play connector. He makes the right reads and doesn’t force a lot of shots. Basically, he’s what every coach would love on a team with a ton of other good players. 

SJ Belangel hit the defender with a great fake and made a nice floater, but what about that pass from Navarro. He made a pretty accurate skip pass to the corner. There aren’t many players with both the vision and the off-the-bounce passing ability who could have made that play and put his teammate in a good position to score.

SJ Belangel is a Budding Point God

It’s easy to see the amount of poise and confidence in SJ’s game just by looking at “the shot”. But, it was evident the whole game. Before this game, SJ was already that guy. He was always this good. It’s just that most people weren’t paying attention.

His patience and ability to read progressions in the pick and roll really stand out. He’s 21 but plays like a savvy veteran in the two-man game. In the first clip, he slows his tempo down, attracts both defenders, and creates an easy look for Kouame. 

In the second clip, there’s a ton of savvy involved. He changes speeds and puts his man in jail (puts the defender on his back). This forces the defender to fight through to stay in front, which leads to a shooting foul for SJ. This is the type of play you’d expect from a wily vet, not a prospect playing in his first international game.

For me, the first clip is probably his most impressive play of the game. Kouame sets a screen on him and Ra temporarily switches until SJ’s original defender can get back. He changes direction as soon as his original defender gets back, then hits the gas pedal for the layup. 

I cannot stress how good of a play this is. He shows a terrific ability to read and react to what the defense gives him and that’s not something you see everyday from a Filipino his age. 

The second clip shows that he’s been watching a ton of Suns film. He attacked the drop coverage the same way Chris Paul did against Jokic and the Nuggets. He snaked the pick and roll, that is he moves laterally away from his original direction, drew two defenders, and hit Ange for the open shot. 

It’s really important that you notice his eyes on this one. He looks at everyone on the floor and pries for openings. When openings didn’t materialize inside, he gave it to his safety valve, which is Kouame.

Beyond his pick and roll savvy, he plays like he already has kids. In other words, magulang siya. In both these clips, he shows great adeptness at foul baiting. In the first clip, he uses his body to shield the ball on the missed shot. He gets the ball back, hits his defender with a smart fake, and then hands mid-air in a fishing expedition for the foul. 

In the second clip, he initiates contact and falls to draw a foul. My favorite part of the clip is how he tries to reach out for Lee Dae-sung’s (#43) hand in an act of sportsmanship and then smiles knowingly after about how he rooked the Korean vet.

And well, not even I can resist talking about those last three seconds. There isn’t a better encapsulation of the poise and confidence of Belangel than that shot. On a broken play not meant for him, SJ rose to the occasion and hit one of the toughest possible shots you can take in that situation. He had the presence of mind to not heave it as soon as he caught the ball and instead, he adjusted himself for a better look over a much taller defender. He made the shot and to this day claims that he called bank. 

SJ Belangel has enough confidence for every person in this country of 7,107 islands. I mean, just watch him ball out.

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