By Chuck Araneta
It’s safe to say that was how people reacted upon hearing that former Brooklyn Nets forward and current NBA free agent Andray Blatche had agreed to reinforce Gilas Pilipinas in the upcoming FIBA World Cup. It was awesome that the Philippines recruited an NBA-caliber player.
But… Andray Blatche?
In a candid YouTube interview, Blatche opened up about his eagerness to prove himself to his new teammates and new organization. “All I can do is take full advantage of this,” he said. “I know this is gonna be my home for a while… I came in and the fans took care of me. I wanted to give them my loyalty. All of it is about loyalty. I’ll work my butt off, continue to set goals and reach them. That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Did Blatche say those words to describe his upcoming stint with Gilas? Nope. He was describing the opportunity to play for the Brooklyn Nets. When the Washington Wizards amnestied him during the 2012 offseason, Blatche had seemingly hit rock bottom. The Nets, thereafter, swooped him up on a minuscule contract, raring to see if he could contribute as a bench player for Brooklyn.
I was able to study Blatche up close during the 2013 NBA Playoffs when the Nets faced the Chicago Bulls. Those were stressful times. I was planning for a little event known as my wedding day and I was hoping Chicago could win over Brooklyn even without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.
Unexpectedly, Blatche became an additional anxiety. He couldn’t be stopped. He scored from the post. He scored on isolation plays. My fear was that PJ Carlesimo would eventually wisen up and proceed to insert Blatche in their starting lineup.
Even for Chicago, a team that plays hard-nosed defense, trying to defend Blatche was a nightmare. In that seven-game series, Blatche, in 19 minutes per game, averaged 10 points on 50 percent shooting and five rebounds. Those numbers seemed ho-hum.
His advanced stats, however, revealed something else. His per-36 minutes averages, which basically calculates stats if a basketball played roughly the minutes of a starter, were 18.8 PPG, 8.9 RPG with a PER of 21.7. Let me put it this way: if Kevin Garnett had reached those numbers as a starter in their series against the Heat this past season, they probably would have had a chance to beat the Heat.
I was impressed. Blatche moved with the grace of James Yap but with the size of June Mar Fajardo. Seriously, watch the games on YouTube.
On one crucial possession in game five, Blatche was isolated against rugged defender Taj Gibson on the right block. He sized up Gibson and drove towards the paint. Oh, lest I forget: Blatche, the right-handed 6’11 big fella, drove to the middle with his left hand. As soon as he reached his sweet spot, he rose for a jumper over Gibson’s out-stretched arms. He was fading away. Crazy!
At the time, I wondered why Blatche didn’t fit with Washington, and why he seemed to fit in perfectly with Brooklyn. It was like listening to a record of Up Dharma Down for the first time. Everything just fit together nicely.
Will Blatche fit perfectly with Gilas?
In an interview with ESPN after the Nets re-signed him in 2013, he said “[The Nets] took me in last year, gave me the opportunity to come back, and I wanted to show the love back. I was on my way out of the league, and they had to take a chance on me, and they did. They showed a lot of confidence in me, they gave me a chance to come back and I made the choice [to stay].”
Blatche’s ultimate goal has always been to win. “We’re trying to get a ring,” Blatche said in an interview before the start of the 2013-14 NBA Season. “That’s our main goal, and we’re going to work hard and fight hard in practices and games so we can get to that ring.” The Nets gave him the chance to play again. Gilas is giving him the chance to compete in biggest international basketball tournament of the year. Why wouldn’t he want to show even more love back?
The issues with Blatche have never been about his skill. For Gilas Pilipinas, he should provide stability and massive interior presence. These were sorely missing from previous iterations of the squad. He will also be the funnel through which the offense is run.
In an interview posted on GMA News Online, Blatche was upfront with the challenge: “[Coach Chot Reyes and I] talked a little bit about how the offense works and I met a couple of players,” he said. “I can tell from our conversations that we’re all on the same page, we’ve all got the same thing in mind, which is to work together and win.”
His skill set? Now that’s where it’s going to be fun.
Blatche initiated a phenomenon during his second season with the Nets. It happened every time Blatche unveiled one of his patented herky-jerky finesse plays. One such example was against the Memphis Grizzlies. Blatche led a fastbreak possession, and dribbled up the court. Grizzlies Rookie Nick Calathes tried to impede his progress. Calathes clearly had no idea what was coming. Blatche juked him out with a spin move that froze Calathes, leaving the next defender, James Johnson trying to slow him down. Johnson held his ground to take a charge, but Blatche lost him with a side step to avoid the contact, and executed a picture-perfect finger roll that fell into the hoop. It was beautiful. Nets fans affectionately call it Blatchness.
Trust me: we might fall in love with Blatchness when Blatche starts doing it again.
Think back to the final game of the epic FIBA Asia tournament against Iran. Without Douthit patrolling the lane, Gilas was helpless against mighty Hamed Haddadi. We had to bomb away from the perimeter to avoid getting our shots swatted in the lane. With Blatche, that could all change.
Can you imagine it? I can. Gilas Pilipinas versus Argentina. With Manu Ginobilli not participating in the tournament, our squad will have an even better chance. The game goes down to the final play. Gilas is down by just one point. Jayson Castro brings the ball down. Shooters are on the wings. Marc Pingris sets a bone-crushing screen on Castro’s defender, freeing Castro to drive-in.
Jayson dishes the ball to Blatche, who’s isolated on the wing against Luis Scola. In one smooth motion, Blatche goes left using his left-hand. Then, Blatche dribbles behind the back and leaves Scola dazed and confused. To finish the move, Blatche takes a step-back, fade away jumper over Scola. Basket. Buzzer. Philippines wins over Argentina. Blatchness prevails.
Why not Andray Blatche?
In an interview for NBA Philippines, Blatche said, “I am excited; this is something new. It is a blessing for this opportunity. Hopefully, I can share my talent in helping the Philippines.”
Andray Blatche needs the Philippines. The Philippines needs Andray Blatche. When he started playing alongside solid veterans, his averages and efficiency went up, he played loose and free, and rediscovered the joy stepping on the court. That will be Andray’s situation with Gilas. Pingris will have his back. He will be amazed by the speed of Castro. And when that Jimmy Alapag ending-the-curse-of-Korea moment in Spain happens, Blatche – Andray Blatche? you best believe it – will have the best seat in the house.