Rajko Toroman on Gilas Pilipinas’ Progress

‘They Are Improving A Lot’: OG Gilas Pilipinas Coach Rajko Toroman Gets Real on Program’s Growth

Gilas Pilipinas’ original head coach Rajko Toroman weighs in on the Riga OQT squad, as well as the key differences from his time as national team coach. 

To Filipino fans, Serbian mentor Rajko Toroman is best remembered as the first-ever Gilas Pilipinas coach, or “Smart Gilas” in its earlier years. After bringing Iran to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Toroman was recruited to lead the newly formed Smart Gilas, with the goal of making the London Olympics in 2012. 

Unfortunately, Toroman’s Gilas 1.0 fell short of the Olympic dream, finishing fourth in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, where an outright Olympic slot awaited the winner, alongside OQT slots for the silver and bronze finishers. Toroman has since left the Gilas program, while countless iterations and a rollercoaster ride followed over the years.

A decade since his departure, though, Toroman would witness the Gilas program come close to the Olympic dream, with Tim Cone steering the Nationals to a semifinal appearance in the Riga Olympic Qualifying Tournament against eventual champions Brazil. Despite falling short, that 11-man squad only needed two more wins to book an elusive Paris Olympics ticket and end their 52-year absence.

‘Totally different situation’ 

Ahead of that semis clash, The GAME asked the Serbian mentor what made this batch special from past Gilas teams, his 1.0 squad included. 

Rajko Toroman cited two “most important” differences: the first was size, as he noted the OQT squad’s frontline in 7’3 Kai Sotto, 6’10 June Mar Fajardo, and 6’9 Japeth Aguilar.

Second, was increased international exposure, compared to when “it was collegiate players” being tapped for Gilas 1.0 according to the Serbian coach.

“Now it’s a totally different situation. Last five years, Gilas has had size. Gilas has some players who are playing internationally. Like Dwight Ramos, like Kai Sotto,” Toroman said in an exclusive interview during Strong Group’s Jones Cup practice last Friday. 

“It’s very important…not just to play in PBA. Just to [get] [used to a] different system, different way of playing.” 

Rajko Toroman on Gilas
(Photo Credit: FIBA)

Toroman also observed this team’s chemistry, on top of “having a system” in Tim Cone’s triangle offense. In particular, he lauded Cone’s belief in his triangle, which was aided by having Ginebra stalwarts in Aguilar and Justin Brownlee. 

It’s safe to say that Cone and his Ginebra vets got the rest of their brothers to respect the triangle, which gained international attention after their opening day upset over Latvia.

“It doesn’t matter if I understand the triangle, that it’s good or not that good. But believe in the system, that’s the most important thing. And Tim Cone convinced the players to believe in the system. They are respecting and you saw the result at the end of the day,” said Toroman.

Culmination of growth

All in all, Rajko Toroman believes that this is a culmination of progress for Gilas Pilipinas, including their close tune-ups against Poland and Turkey. “I think they are improving a lot. These last two [tune-ups] show that they are very close to European teams.” 

“Before, you remember, they played against Serbia. It was a blowout game, [59] points. Even some of the games on the [2023] World Cup, they are not that blowout. They were closer from the World Cup before, and now it’s coming very, very close,” Toroman recalled. 

With Tim Cone’s Gilas done with their part, it’s now up to Toroman and Strong Group to continue the momentum for the Jones Cup in Taipei. Decades removed from Gilas, Toroman now carries the Philippine flag as one of Charles Tiu’s consultants for Strong Group. 

And as their team enters Taipei, rest assured that they’ll be inspired by Gilas’ OQT run. 

“Everybody is happy, everybody is motivated. Because Gilas made great things for the country, I think it’s a momentum that all the Philippine players have to use.” 

Banner Image courtesy of Strong Group Athletics on Facebook

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