In the old normal, right now we’d be in the middle of the Filoil Flying V Preseason Premier Cup. Despite it being a preseason tournament, a lot of people tune in to get an early look at their favorite college teams before they battle it out in their respective home tournaments.
One team that I’m sure would have drawn a lot of interest was the De La Salle Green Archers, who had another coaching change and brought in Manong Derrick Pumaren. They would also be parading a new foreign student-athlete (FSA) in Amadou Ndiaye.
However, with no preseason games, the only way to watch the “new-look” Archers is from the recent D-League games.
After watching the two games they played, I was intrigued by the play of their frontline. Can their bigs carry De La Salle back to the UAAP Final Four?
The first thing I noticed about La Salle’s bigs is that they are BIG. Between Ndiaye, Justine Baltazar and Brandon Bates, that’s three guys who are 6-foot-8 or taller. In a league where every team has a foreign student-athlete, being able to throw at least three bodies at them is a big advantage.
Their size in the frontline also helps make up for their relatively small backcourt. While skilled and talented, the guards relatively small for their positions. Having size behind them to protect the basket allows their guards to be more aggressive on the ball, a staple of Coach Derrick Pumaren’s teams.
The thing about their frontcourt rotation is that during the preseason games, they only rotated five players at the two spots. Aside from the players mentioned earlier, Tyrus Hill, and Ralph Cu were the only other players who saw time in the frontcourt. This is important because the offensive system that La Salle was running is heavily reliant on the bigs being used as screeners in a mover-blocker type of offense.
Remember, it was just two games. They might have more sets by the time we see them in action in the UAAP. On the flip side though, teams might not have that much prep time before jumping back into action, so they may have to stick more to what they were running before the lockdowns. Quite an interesting time for the basketball world, right?
Let’s take a look at each of these players and see how they fit in the new system.
Ndiaye is a big addition to the Green Archers lineup, both figuratively and literally. He’s about 6-foot-11 and a big body. Watching a bit, he’s a decent finisher in the paint and will give the Archers a low post option. At the very least, he will help clean up the boards and score on putbacks and drop passes.
As seen in the last clip above, he actually has a decent outside shot. If he is consistent, this could help drag out opposing big men, freeing up the paint for more penetration.
One thing that Ndiaye still needs to work on taking care of the ball. In the two games against Letran and CEU, Ndiaye had his fair share of turnovers.
Part of this comes with getting more game experience and that’s where the lockdown hurts La Salle.
Yes, everyone can’t practice right now, but La Salle is one of the few teams integrating not only a new coach but a FSA as well. Preseason games would have sped up the process for them and gave Ndiaye valuable in-game reps.
Defensively, Ndiaye’s biggest contribution will literally be that he’s big and takes up a lot of space. From time to time, he can provide weakside help, shot-blocking, and rim protection by altering shots. Most importantly, he gives La Salle a body to put on opposing bigs like Ateneo’s Angelo Kouame, UP’s Bright Akhuetie, and Adamson’s Lenda Douanga.
His weaknesses are more on foot speed and reaction time. Like most bigs, he’s slow-footed and has trouble moving laterally. He has a lot of room to improve and be more consistent in this aspect of the game.
The biggest challenge for Ndiaye will be expectations and trying to live up to them. If you’re the FSA, fair or not, you’re expected to be a game-changer.
Keep in mind that the last four MVPs have all been FSAs – Ben Mbala (twice), Bright Akhuetie, and Soulémane Chabi Yo. Not to mention, each of these guys led their teams to the Finals in their MVP seasons.
That said, fans should temper expectations. As Coach Derrick said, he’s still a work in progress. Ndiaye is still learning the game and needs time, just like all other FSAs. All those guys plus Kouame all had at least a couple of years playing and learning Philippine basketball before making an impact. These aren’t veteran professionals who come in and are expected to dominate – they’re still athletes honing their games. Give Ndiaye some time and let’s see what type of player he ends up being.
If there’s a player who may end up being an MVP frontrunner for the Archers, the case can be made for Justine Baltazar. He’s an annual Mythical 5 candidate and was a steady presence for La Salle last year, putting up averages of 15.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 1.07 blocks in just over 30 mins a game. There’s no question about it – he will be their go-to-guy this season.
He’s a big-time threat down low (who said posting up is dead?). He’s got a nice hook shot/floater and is very patient in the post, taking his time before getting to his sweet spot.
He’s even thrown some nice passes out of the post in the preseason.
What’s great about Baltazar is that he and Ndiaye complement each other very well. Partnered with a center causes matchup problems for their opponents since they’ll almost assuredly put their center on Ndiaye, leaving a four-man to guard the 6-foot-8 Baltazar. Not many teams have the size to match-up with him at that spot.
Baltazar has also worked on his outside game and we same glimpses of that last season, when he took 30 threes in 14 games, hitting 30-percent. This should help give Ndiaye some space to operate down low when he has a favorable matchup.
On the other end of the floor, Baltazar gives them some leeway, as he’s quick, mobile and has great length. He can defend the ball screen and also provides La Salle with even more rim protection.
One big question is what happens if the next PBA draft happens before the next UAAP season. Baltazar would have been a top-three pick last year and will remain one whenever he enters the draft. Hopefully, we get to see him play one more season before he takes his talents to the pro level.
Bates has unfairly been the target of a lot of criticism in the past, with some comments being particularly harsh. Part of the criticism stems from a limited offensive game, as he’s not the best finisher around the basket and not an outside shooter.
What he does provide though is another big body to bang with opposing bigs (primarily FSAs) and someone who’s consistently battling on the boards. Don’t forget that he also finished in the top five last year in shot-blocking and alters a lot of other shots.
One thing he needs to work on still is guarding the ball screen. In the D-League games, he got burned a couple of times on splits and fouled on another possession trying to hedge.
Right now, defense is what will keep him on the floor but if he keeps making mistakes or gets in foul trouble, it will already limit the amount of playing time he could receive.
Speaking of playing time, it’ll be interesting to see how the minutes will be divided. Baltazar is a lock to get 30 minutes a game, while Ndiaye is probably looking at 25, depending on his conditioning. That leaves about 25 minutes between the remaining bigs.
Can Bates effectively hold the fort down for 10 to 15 minutes a game?
One thing that goes into Bates’ favor is that he communicates with his teammates. Check out this clip of him calling over his teammates for a huddle.
These are the small things that coaches and teammates appreciate. He’s definitely far from useless and will be a big asset for the Archers going forward.
Despite his athleticism, Hill’s collegiate career has remained grounded. Most of it has been due to injuries, which has kept him off the floor and hampered his development. So far with La Salle, it seems that Manong is giving him ample opportunity to show what he can do.
Like many developing players, he has his strengths and weaknesses.
His obvious strengths are that he’s athletic, quick, and has a long wingspan. This fits into the pressure defense that Manong likes to implement with his teams, as he can use his physical gifts to his advantage.
Hill won’t be asked to be a hub on offense and that’s fine – his role will be more to provide energy and hustle for the team. Any offense that’s comes from open court play, put backs and drop passes are a bonus.
One thing about Hill is that he’s actually a decent screener within La Salle’s half-court offense. Here are some clips of him setting solid screens that free up his teammates. This won’t show up on most stat sheets but helps the team.
The problem is that sometimes, the physicality of his opponents gets to his head.
Offensive fouls from over the backs are accepted as he does crash the glass often, but picking up fouls away from the ball that results in turnovers hurt his case for more playing time.
Cu only got on the floor against Letran, playing around five minutes. He’s a streak shooter who will most likely see similar playing time to last season (appeared in seven games, less than 58 total minutes) unless he can improve his consistency.
Last season, he shot 1-of-11 from the field — including 0-of-9 from three. As a player coming off the bench, its hard to get a rhythm but that comes with the job – if you’re a shooter, you’re expected to hit open shots. If he can prove to consistently hit the outside shot when the bright lights are on, it’ll give La Salle another option in the frontcourt.
This was just a quick look at La Salle’s front line based on the D-League games that they played. For all I know, someone was injured and couldn’t play in those two games. Also, given the long time before the UAAP will start, who knows if La Salle will be able to weave its magic and add some new recruits.
That said, I’m looking forward to seeing the Green Archers’ campaign to get back into the Final Four. The UAAP is STACKED from top to bottom, so it’s gonna be a challenge, and the key to overcoming it will be the play of the frontcourt.