No pressure for Gilas newcomer Paul Lee

MANILA, Philippines – The 'Angas ng Tondo' has a mighty opportunity of becoming 'Angas ng Spain.'

Paul Lee, who hails from Tondo, Manila, is a newcomer to Gilas Pilipinas, the national men's basketball squad set to compete in this year's FIBA World Cup in Spain, which takes place from August 30 to September 14. 

But that doesn't mean he is intimidated by the enormous task ahead of him on his first rendezvous with the international basketball stage.

"Wala namang pressure. Nararamdaman ko nae-excite ako eh," Lee said after the national team's first practice on Monday, March 3 at the PhilSports Arena (ULTRA) in Pasig. (There's no pressure. I feel excited.)

Instead of caving in to expectations and the weight of a responsibility to bring pride to the nation, the 25-year old is cultivating positive and encouraging emotions.

"Nae-excite ako makalaro sila (teammates), maka-practice sila, makatrabaho," said the former University of the East star. (I am excited to play with them, to practice with them, to work with them.)

The 6-foot-1 combo guard for the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, who watched with the nation as Gilas thwarted an old enemy in South Korea last year, was among the 4 new additions to the Gilas pool as they gear up for the World Cup. 

He is joined by Jared Dillinger (Meralco Bolts), Marcio Lassiter (San Miguel Beermen) and Greg Slaughter (Barangay Ginebra San Miguel). His Rain or Shine teammate Beau Belga was also called to action once again. 

Lee admitted making the national team has long been on his mind.

"Lahat naman ng players pinangarap naman makalaro sa ganitong klase ng liga," shared the second overall draft pick of the 2011 Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) draft. "Nakakabigla lang dahil hindi ko naman aakalain na makukuha ko eh." (All players dream of playing in this kind of league. It's just surprising to me because I did not expect to get picked.)

Photo by Jane Bracher

He seemed to attract that specific opportunity to play for flag and country as it knocked twice for Lee.

"It's my second time to get invited," he revealed. "Yung una nakapag-book na ako papuntang States. Nung nalaman ko paalis na ako." (The first time I was already booked for the States. When I found out I was already leaving.)

He added: "Medyo malungkot din kasi natanggihan ko yung Team Pilipinas. Ngayon masaya ko na hindi naman nasara yung bintana sa akin na ma-invite ako dito." (I was a little sad that I passed up on Team Pilipinas. Now I'm happy the window for me to get invited again did not close.) 

He missed the first knock, but now Lee is eager to make his second chance count.

"Kaya ako kinuha dito, may nakita si coach Chot na something na pwede ko maidagdag sa team." (I was picked because coach Chot saw something in me that I can contribute to the team.)

A former PBA Rookie of the Year, the explosive guard who averaged 12.92 points, 2.62 assists, and 1 steal, per, in the recently concluded Philippine Cup appears to be a perfect fit for Gilas head coach Chot Reyes' dribble-drive system.

Lee is a bigger guard compared to LA Tenorio or Jimmy Alapag. He may be a tad slower, but his ability to get creative and attack the basket, drive and kick out to the open man, or hit from long range makes him a valuable asset for the Gilas backcourt. 

"Knowing coach Chot naman na drive-and-kick, yung play niya sinasabi ng ibang teammates ko swak na swak sa akin," Lee said, adding that he looks forward to learning and perfecting Reyes' system to add to his own arsenal. 

"Siguro sa umpisa magbabago pero once na nakasanayan ko na pwede ko siguro mabalik yung game ko talaga. Okay din kasi yung training ni coach Chot, bagay din talaga sa style ng laro ko so sa tingin ko di rin ako masyado mahihirapan." 

(Knowing coach Chot with his drive-and-kick, my teammates keep telling me his style of play is a perfect fit for me. At first my game might change but once I get used to it I can get my game back. Coach Chot's training is good, it suits my style of play so I think I won't have much of a hard time.)

As Gilas ran initial drills during its first practice, Lee appeared to be in his element, learning the Gilas ropes alongside Rain or Shine teammates Gabe Norwood and Belga. Jeff Chan, also Lee's Rain or Shine teammate, was not present at practice as he was still in Bacolod with his family. 

Lee also ran drills with Alapag, Tenorio and Jayson Castro.

The only thing Lee is somewhat wary about is being away from home for a long period of time – a likely circumstance he'll have to deal with when the tournament draws nearer. 

Though he said living independently from his family will make the adjustment somewhat easier.

Having teammates who are his friends and who are also the same people he looks up to, Lee believes the Gilas grind is something he can willingly take on and finish until the end.

"Wala naman akong nakikitang hindi mahirap. Pero nagawa nga ng ibang players. So kung ano yung gagawin nila, gagawin ko rin." (I don't see anything that isn't hard. But the others could do it. So whatever they do, that's what I'll do too.) –