December 02, 2023

GUTS AND GLORY | AJ Edu erasing worries of Gilas Pilipinas fans

GUTS AND GLORY | AJ Edu erasing worries of Gilas Pilipinas fans

AJ Edu flew to the Philippines from Australia with a severely swollen ankle. Before joining Gilas Pilipinas in their preparations for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, the young big man wanted to push himself to the best condition possible but it backfired when he suffered a sprain during one of his workouts.

Edu could have waited it out but he willingly took on the discomfort of traveling on a gimpy leg because he knew how important those 18 days in Europe were going to be.

“I just need to be patient,” Edu said over and over again in Estonia and Lithuania. There were times when this patience was tested and almost pushed to the limit. After feeling he was closer to being game-ready, Edu woke up one day with discomfort once again, which pushed him back a bit more.

He still attended every practice and did every drill but Gilas head coach Chot Reyes could not play him in any of their tune-up games. Edu, however, still went through the same preparation as everyone else. Even if he knew he wasn’t playing, he still dressed up and warmed up. He engaged in huddles and cheered on his teammates.

Mentally, these were important moments for the young Edu. He needed to feel he belonged to the team even if he could not play alongside them yet.

He finally got his chances to play tune-up games when their preparations shifted back to Manila but as these were closed-door sessions, Filipino fans did not catch a glimpse of his game.

Everything changed in the Heyuan WUS International Basketball Tournament in China. Playing four games against Senegal and Iran, Edu turned from a “maybe too young for the World Cup” to arguably one of the shoo-ins because of his size and what he brings.

In China, Reyes sometimes had to play Jamie Malonzo and even Dwight Ramos at the power forward spot so having Edu on the floor alongside June Mar Fajardo or Japeth Aguilar felt like a luxury. He did well even if switched to guards in ball screen situations, he was tenacious as a weak-side shot blocker, and he was tireless in fighting for rebounds even against bigger opponents.

During the camp in Europe, there was some worry from the coaching staff as his form in shooting mid-range jumpers looked a bit different from his three-point attempts. He was making the short jumpers consistently while his shots from beyond the arc were more erratic.

It was not a deal-breaker but the coaches knew having a four or a five stepping out to the three-point area would open up the floor for their offense.

In China, Edu erased all these worries.

“I guess I was not getting enough lift because of my sprain so I was overcompensating with my arms,” Edu explained his struggles. “But our shooting drills and the confidence my teammates give me really helped.”

In the rematch against Senegal, Edu finished with 13 points, including a key triple that helped preserve the win. Gilas was +19 when he was on the floor.

As he entered the dugout after the game, he was met by cheers from his older teammates who were happy that all the hard work he did alongside them throughout their camp was now translating into game-changing output.

With Kai Sotto’s World Cup status still unclear, Edu’s performance has somehow eased fans’ worries as he looks ready to contribute. And the best thing about him is his humility and willingness to answer the call whenever he’s needed.

People would have understood if he stayed away from playing for the national team after he suffered an ACL injury wearing the country’s colors in the FIBA U19 World Cup 2019. He could have opted to just focus on his upcoming professional debut in Japan. He could have played it safe.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone drowning in nervous energy whenever Edu jumps for a block or dives for a loose ball but he’s not the type to hold back. He’s putting in his best effort in the game because he trusts the hard work that he’s done to bounce back from injuries.

There is no doubt that Edu will be a huge part of the Gilas Pilipinas program in the years to come. If he makes it to the Final 12, he will debut at about the same age as Fajardo did back in 2014. This means three World Cup stints could be a possibility for him. But better than this perhaps is the belief that Edu is the type of player who will make himself available for every Qualifiers window to try and help the Philippines stay on the world stage.

Gilas found a gem in Edu and it might have taken him a bit of time but now he’s more than ready to shine.