Justine Baltazar definitely impressed during his first-ever game for Gilas Pilipinas last Friday.
Plugged in as a starter to match-up against reigning Thailand MVP Chanatip Jakrawan, Baltazar — who stands at 6-foot-8 — more than held his own. He tallied 12 points, six rebounds, a steal, and a block. Moreover, he was a game-high plus-32 in the 16 minutes he played.
For some, Baltazar playing for Gilas was a long time coming.
So what took so long?
Baltazar’s former high school head coach at Nazareth School of National University, Jeff Napa, shared to Tiebreaker Times why.
Back in 2012, a 16-year-old Baltazar, who already stood at 6-foot-7, moved out of Pampanga to join the Bullpups.
Despite his height and potential, he never received an invite to Jamike Jarin’s Batang Gilas during the 2013 SEABA and FIBA Under-16 Championships, nor the 2014 Under-17 World Cup.
“Nung time na ‘yun, siguro may hinahanap ‘yung ibang coaches na iba. Baka hindi siya fit doon si Justine, kaya rin siguro hindi siya nakukuha nung previous years,” wondered Napa, who has become like a second father to Baltazar.
“Wala rin siya nakukuha na imbitasyon noon eh. Hindi ko alam kung dahil sa edad niya nun… Kasi hindi pa rin siya ganun na nag-blossom noong first year niya sa amin. Pinagtrabahuan niya talaga kung ano ‘yung na-aachieve niya.”
In his two years in NU, Baltazar flat-out dominated. After leading the Bullpups to a second place finish in Season 77, he then carried his squad to the Season 78 title — after sweeping the elimination round.
Baltazar was named Finals MVP.
Still, no Gilas invite. He was not even part of Chot Reyes’ 23-for-2023 list.
But that all changed in 2020 when Tab Baldwin became program director of Gilas.
Having faced him in the UAAP, Baldwin made sure that the De La Salle big man was named to the pool for the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers’ first window.
“Siyempre, proud ako sa kanya kasi matagal na rin niyang gustong ma-experience na makasali sa Gilas. Eto, nagkaroon na siya ng chance to represent the Philippines,” recalled Napa about what he felt during that time.
“Pinagtrabahuan niya ito eh.”
However, Baltazar — who was part of the all-UAAP Season 82 team — could not join the national team back then, since he had a prior commitment with NBL club Pampanga Delta.
But come the second window, the now 23-year-old did not let another opportunity to represent the country go by.
And for Napa, he sees his former ward as a mainstay in the Gilas program for the years to come.
“Tuloy-tuloy na ‘yan. Nung nabigyan na siya ng opportunity sa La Salle to play, nakita na ‘yung value niya. Napapansin na rin talaga siya.”
Like a father, Napa always advises Baltazar to add one more thing to his already potent arsenal.
“Lagi kami nag-uusap niyan kung ano ‘yung kulang niya pa. Na-impress ako sa kanya kasi kung ano ‘yung pagkakakilala ko sa kanya, ganun pa rin siya. Nagkatira na siya sa perimeter, medium-range,” said the current NU Bulldogs head coach.
“Ang kailangan na lang siguro ay maging consistent siya sa three-points.”