All-Star Analysts

What it was like facing NBA players in the FIBA OQT

Published July 14, 2021, 1:45 PMIsaac Go

All-Star Analyst Isaac Go shares his experience playing against NBA-level talents like Boban Marjanovic and Milos Teodosic in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

Boban Marjanovic of the Dallas Mavericks represented Serbia in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (Photo from FIBA.com)
The NBA is the No. 1 basketball league in the world, which means its players are the best of the best. In my recent trip to Belgrade, Serbia for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, my Gilas Pilipinas teammates and I had the opportunity to play against some NBA talents. 

We played a Serbian team with three NBA players, Boban Marjanovic of the Dallas Mavericks, Nemanja Bjelica of the Miami Heat, and Milos Tedosic, formerly with the Los Angeles Clippers. However, Bjelica did not compete because of an injury.

BFG and Serbian Point God

Big Friendly Giant – these are three words that completely describe Boban. From his hands to his shoes, everything about him is supersized. I remember shaking his hand after the game and was just in shock with how huge his hands were. His hands could literally cover anyone’s face. No wonder he uses an iPad as a cellphone. 

His personality is just as supersized as his body. He is regarded as one the nicest and friendliest people in the NBA. More often than not, if you see him, he’ll have this infectious smile on his face that just lights up the room. One of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet. 

Milos was one of those players that most of us have heard about even before he got to the NBA. Once you see a compilation of his highlights, I'm sure that you’ll be amazed. He is a passing genius. Behind the back, no look passes – you name it, he surely has done it. 

The one thing that surprised me was how tall he was. When I watched him a few times on TV, I thought he was maybe around 6’2”, but he is actually 6’5”. I was surprised because for a point guard, being that tall is considered elite size.

When they both took the court, they were quite identical. They played with confidence, intelligence, skill, and composure. Whether they were up 10 or down 10, the aura they gave off and the way they played never changed. They continued to go to their strength and exploit our schemes. 

For Boban, it meant getting position inside the paint and using his size to be a scorer and a facilitator. Watching videos of the game again, it was impressive how he took advantage, not only of his size and strength but also the defender’s body position. Any time any of our bigs were even just a few inches out of position, he would eat up that space. It basically meant if he got the ball, it was a bucket. 

On the other hand, Milos had the role of being the lead guard for his team and having the ball in stressful situations. He ran a lot of ball screen actions and made the correct read every time. 

If the big was in deep drop coverage, he took the pull up jumper. If the big defender played a show defense, he would pass it to the rolling big or to the open man. He basically put on a clinic on how to run ball screens. The coaches always told us that we would be working on mastering ball screens for years, and we just got a lesson from one of the best. 

Gilas vs. world No. 5

Going into the game, there was a sense of eagerness, belief in ourselves, and a tiny splash of  intimidation. The chance to play on the world stage comes sparingly. I would be lying if I said we were not a tad intimidated. They blew out an all-professional team in the 2019 World Cup. 

However, that intimidation was overshadowed by our eagerness. Being away from basketball made me realize how lucky I am that I get to be a basketball player as my profession. Also, as a competitor, you want to play against the best. What better opponent than the fifth best team in the world with its best players?

During the game, it was evident how large the gap was between us and them. You could see the difference in skill, experience, and fitness. The exclamation point was when Serbia had a 16-point lead against us. 

However, we believed that the game was not over and we never stopped competing. We kept fighting and slowly chipped away at the lead. Even if they had size, experience, and skill, we used our preparation, energy, effort, and attitude to keep ourselves in the ball game.

A lot of people expected that it would be a blowout. But by the fourth quarter, it was only a one-possession game and we even took the lead with 3:50 to go.  Maybe some of the Serbain players started to feel the pressure. They were the host team and the undeniable favorites so it wouldn’t be surprising if some of them felt the heat. 

However, both Boban and Milos maintained their composure all throughout. They were the two players who had the ball in their hands and made plays down the stretch to seal the win. 

Photo from FIBA.com

Elite level of play

The opportunity was so special to me, especially because I will soon enter the pros. First of all, it was my first time playing on the world stage. As they say, your first will always be special. 

Second, I got to play against a good Serbia team. Playing against them opened my eyes to a lot of things that I have to improve on. I got to experience how good NBA players truly are and the bar that I have to reach if I want to compete and beat them. 

Lastly, I was team captain. It may sound a little shallow, but to be honest, only an elite few can say that they were the team captain of the Philippine national team. It’s something that I’ll cherish forever. 

I think that a lot of us have accepted the idea that players who make it to the NBA are good, but we fail to grasp how good they truly are. 

We only see highlights that take their best clips and make them look like a superstar. This means it only represents parts of the game. In reality, when you watch them play a whole game, you’d be shocked to see how these players seem to always make the right decision. 

Even more so, it is completely different watching them and playing against them. It gave us a reality check, showing how much more we can and have to grow. 

The experience also made me realize what it really takes to make it to the NBA. Unlike players in America or Europe who had predecessors that they could imitate, the Philippines hasn’t had that homegrown Filipino player in the NBA. Not having a role model to replicate their blueprint makes it difficult to understand the process in getting there.

While we did not see the amount of work that Boban and Milos put in, we now have a tangible understanding of what the NBA level is. The elite level of dominance, basketball IQ, skill, and fitness was put on display, giving us an idea of what it takes to compete against the best of the best. 


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