New Saigon Heat head coach Kevin Yurkus admits the Mono Vampire are “an extremely tough opening opponent,” but believes his team can be as good as anybody.

Fresh off two bronze medals with the Vietnamese Men’s National Basketball Team (3×3 and 5×5) at the 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, Yurkus made sure that he and the national team players joining him in the upcoming ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) campaign would not over-celebrate their achievement.

Gathering in Ho Chi Minh City since early December and In Yurkus’ absence, the Saigon Heat’s trio of import signings and three local players not participating at the 2019 SEA Games in Manila have been preparing for its eighth consecutive ABL season under the guidance of new assistant coach Matthew Van Pelt.

While Yurkus previously opened up about the return of former ABL World Import MVP Chris Charles and his importance to the Heat for the upcoming season, the first-year ABL coach is excited for what newcomers Sam Thompson and Gary Forbes have to bring to the team in what should be the Vietnam-based team’s best roster to date.

“Sam [Thompson] is an athletic, versatile wing player who can knock down shots and make plays around the basket,”  Yurkus shared. “He is also an excellent defender capable of defending one to five, while Gary [Forbes] is a floor general, leader, and capable of scoring from all over the floor.  He is tough, physical, and have a very high basketball IQ.”

The 49-year-old continued his praise, stating: “Both players are tough, highly competitive, extremely professional, and coachable. I expect both players to fit in beautifully and have excellent seasons.”

Additionally, Yurkus believes the choice of his imports will perfectly compliment the strengths and weakness of his local players in the team’s desire to build a balanced roster.

However, with all three imports being primarily known as frontcourt players, as expected, there have been growing concerns amongst fans regarding the notion that this iteration of the Heat will be without an import point guard. In the team’s previous two seasons, imports Akeem Scott (2017-18) and Trevon Hughes (2018-19) were arguably the focal points on both versions of Kyle Julius’ Heat teams, while the majority of the league’s other teams are equipped with elite, proven players at the same position.

Akeem Scott (left) and Trevon Hughes (right) were the cornerstones of the Heat’s play style the previous two seasons.

“The league is loaded with talented point guards, and it’s definitely a concern for us, especially defensively,” Yurkus acknowledged. “We will [have to] utilize good team defense to try and neutralize opposing teams. Offensively, we’ve deployed a system that puts our players in the best position to perform.”

“At the end of the day, We are less concerned about what other team are doing, but more concerned about us. We focus less on specific positions and more on playing solid team basketball.”

Adding reigning Vietnam Basketball  Association (VBA) Heritage Player of the Year Vincent Nguyen and bringing back Tran Dang Khoa should help with ball handling and distribution duties. For those who might not be familiar with the VBA, the two aforementioned players have combined to make four All-VBA team selections, three assists titles, and two Guard of the Year awards.

But even with two award-winning guards from Vietnam’s domestic league on the roster, Yurkus has reiterated that his team will not solely depend on the production of just a few VBA standouts.

“Vincent and Khoa are certainly competent at handling the ball and commanding our team, but just like the rest of our [local] players, they are good basketball players capable of doing so many things to help out team,” the 2-time VBA Coach of the Year said.

Khoa Tran (left) and Vincent Nguyen (right) are two of the best point guards to grace the VBA hardwood.

For Vietnam basketball, Kevin Yurkus’s name will perhaps forever stay etched in its relatively young history after his string of successes at both the domestic level and with the national teams. But Thailand also holds a special place in the heart of the Arizona native as it is the country which helped make him a household name within the region after having spent years coaching at different levels before moving to neighboring Vietnam.

And so it seems like destiny has had a hand in the next chapter of Yurkus’ coaching career, setting him up for his first coaching experience in Asia’s only regional basketball league to be against a familiar foe: Mono Vampire Basketball Club, a team that is currently sitting atop the league’s standings.

Ahead of his ABL coaching debut and team’s season opener, Yurkus expressed praise toward Andrej Urlep and the Mono Vampire, but also placed confidence in the Heat’s ability to match up with any team in the league.

“I have great respect for what Mono has built in Thailand and in the ABL,” Yurkus said. “They are very experienced with a deep roster and several guys capable making big plays.”

“But we got better too. Don’t count out our depth. Our local players are good and getting stronger, especially after all of us being together for the SEA Games. Our imports are among the most competitive in the league.”

Yurkus’ conclusion was short, but delivers a message to both fans and opponents that the Heat should not be taken lightly this season.

“I feel like we can be as good as anybody.”

Across seven campaigns with hundreds of games played in the ABL, the Heat have yet to win a playoff series, a fact that many fans may rather opt to forget.

Nevertheless, following a successful 2019 in which the Heat won their first-ever ABL playoff game and first-ever championship in the VBA, and Vietnam basketball medaled for the first time at the SEA Games,  there is plenty of reason to believe in yet another “first-ever” in the making.

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