The International Basketball Federation (Fiba) has approved the naturalization of Ange Kouame, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) announced on Saturday.
The approval of the global cage body means Kouame can now suit up for Gilas Pilipinas, and the Fiba green light came at the right time, just four days before the third window of the Fiba Asia Cup qualifiers (ACQ) at Clark Freeport.
But national team program director Tab Baldwin views the Fiba decision with an eye for something farther down the road.
“This decision is consistent with the whole program because it’s a vision to the future,” said program director Tab Baldwin.
Indeed, Kouame’s naturalization is an asset that the national program can build on, with the 6-foot-10 center forming part of a young and tall front line—the likes of which the country hasn’t been able to field in the past.
“It is a bit of a gamble because instead of buying the real thing, we believe that we can develop it over time and, given the other talent we have available in the youth ranks right now, we think Ange fits well with them and we think that the chemistry they will develop over the years will pay dividends down the road. Although it may also lead to some difficult periods in the short term,” Baldwin said.
Kouame will join 7-foot-3 Kai Sotto and 6-foot-11 AJ Edu as the centerpiece front line around which the Philippines can build plans around for the 2023 Fiba World Cup, which the country will cohost with Japan and Indonesia.
“You can’t go wrong with height. We (other coaches) have been saying that for years,” Norman Black, who coached the national team in the 1994 Asian Games and the 2011 Southeast Asian Games, told the Inquirer in an earlier interview.
“With Kouame, Kai and AJ, we’re not only big, but we’re also huge now,” Black said. “We have the shooters we can surround our big guys with. We also have the playmakers for them.”
More importantly, the three young stars are eager to bolster the national program. Edu, for one, understands the buzz among national coaches about the potential of the trio.
“I think they all have a right to be excited,” Edu told Inquirer’s SportsIQ. “I mean, all the fans I know are definitely excited. Us players are excited as well to see what the future holds.”
“Height, in basketball, makes a huge difference. It’s been a kind of an issue in previous Philippine teams,” added the 21-year-old Edu. “It’s not gonna be an issue going forward with this team and that’s what people are excited about the most. But it’s not just height. Like Ange and Kai, I’d like to believe that we’re not just tall players, but we have skills to go with it. I think that’s what really excites the coaches the most—that skillful and tall players are going into [the World Cup].”
The 19-year-old Sotto, who in April signed with Aussie pro club Adelaide 36ers, earlier said, “We all know when we say Kai Sotto, this is the kid who always plays for the country, and that’s always been my goal.”
Meanwhile, Kouame, 23, said he is pushing himself hard to be in competitive shape for the World Cup.
“Every player … wants to be [in the World Cup]. So if I’m able to be present in World Cup 2023, it’s gonna be a [blessing] to me. I pray to God that it’s gonna happen. And I’ll be prepared for it. All of the days [that] I’m practicing, [I’m] thinking about it,” Kouame said also in an interview with SportsIQ.
For now, Kouame will be beefing up the Gilas Pilipinas team in the ACQ, which Edu would have loved to play in too, had it not been for an injury he is recuperating from.
“I feel like, for sure, if I was free in the summer … I mean, I’d definitely been down [with the idea], theoretically, if I weren’t injured,” Edu said.
Sotto, meanwhile, is still in quarantine and is unlikely to join the team in the ACQ, leaving Kouame to battle with fellow naturalized players Ricardo Ratliffe of Korea and Lester Prosper of Indonesia.
The Philippines will play Korea twice and Indonesia once, needing just one win to advance to the qualifiers.The country is also set to participate in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Serbia as it continues to trek the path toward the World Cup, where it hopes to flaunt its newfound ceiling. INQ
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.