ASEAN Sports recently caught up with the head coach of Westports Malaysia Dragons, Christopher Thomas, who will be returning for his second ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) season in charge of the team.

AS: What are your overall thoughts on the Dragon’s disappointing 2016/2017 season where the team missed out on the playoffs for the first time in their history?

CT: I wouldn’t think of last year as a disappointment because we accomplished what we set out to do, which was to get our local players better. At the end of the season, we could see clearly that they were better in terms of overall mentality and skill level. There were some of them whom other coaches were questioning whether or not they were good enough for the Dragons, but I think it’s clear to see that our guys like Ivan Yeo, Ting Chun Hong, Wong Yi Hou, Kuek Tian Yuan and Teo Kok Hou have showed tremendous improvement, almost a 180 degree change.

I’m proud of how they took ownership and initiative to personally improve their game. I’m especially pleased with how we ended the season on a four game winning streak and how our local guys played a huge part in contributing to that streak. You could say that last season was a springboard for us to achieve even greater things for this coming season. We’re gonna take the positives from last season and hopefully this coming season will be a really special one for us with our new blend of players coming in

AS: What are the team’s immediate goals for this season?

CT: I feel anyone that tells you that their goal isn’t to win the championship isn’t in it for the right reasons. We want to play well enough to lift the championship in what we believe will be the most competitive season so far, with the most number of teams playing and with the highest quality of players we’ve ever seen. Having said that, we want this season to be different from the season which we won because we don’t want our imports playing 80% of the minutes.

Our name is the Westports Malaysia Dragons. We are a Malaysian based team and we want our locals to be the face and pride of the team, hence we want every member of the team to take ownership and pride in what we’re doing. We don’t want to be in a situation where only a few guys are doing the heavy lifting. Another personal goal we have is to do our best to win every home game this year. This will be our return to our permanent home court, MABA Stadium, after the renovation and we want our fans to enjoy our performances, defending our home court with pride.

AS: What is your response to the fans who are asking why the team is going back to four imports for the season?

CT: We hear them, but we want to assure our fans that we’re adopting a philosophy where we’re bringing in imports who amplify what our locals can do, and not send them to the bench. We made the decision to bring in four experienced guys, Solomon Jones, Marcus Marshall, Reil Cervantes and Patrick Cabahug, whom all have competed at a high level in their career, achieving much success along the way. We want these guys to be examples and mentors to our locals, not just for this season, but even in the long run.

We want them to help instill a winning professional mentality, not just on the court, but off it as well. Bringing in a fourth import will help make our practices even more competitive, and everyone needs to fight for their minutes anyway. To me, if our local guys outwork the imports in practice, they’ve got the minutes. In summary, we believe bringing in our fourth import will only bring benefits this season and help us put on the best product possible on the court for our fans to take pride in being our fans.

AS: Which one of your players do you think will have a breakout season?

CT: I believe Kuek Tian Yuan is going to win Local Player Of The Year this season. I truly believe he’s ready to take a huge step forward. He has such an immense energy and love for the game and does everything with a smile on his face. We’re ready to use him in more ways this season and I believe that if he performs in the way we believe he can, it’s going to make us championship contenders for sure. I believe he’s ready, mentally and physically, to make a huge jump this year, and we’re gonna do our best to get him into great positions. I know he’s gonna take advantage of that

AS: Which team do you think is going to be your strongest opponent?

CT: It’s obviously the champions, Hong Kong Eastern. They’ve brought back their incredibly talented imports, Marcus Elliot and Tyler Lamb, and made a great addition in Christian Standhardinger. They’re a well coached and managed organization and they’re definitely the favorites coming in again. I’m sure all eight of the other teams will be working hard to knock them off their pedestal.

AS: Which off season signings by the other team’s stood out to you?

CT: I think Saigon Heat has made some really eye opening moves by signing Kyle Julius as their new head coach. They’ve made many smart moves and signings as an organization and Kyle is an extremely gifted coach, especially in the area of player development. He’s got a great past record and he really knows how to bring out the best in his guys. He made a great choice in signing Akeem Scott, a proven winner who’s had experience playing for Kyle.

AS: In closing, could you give us your thoughts on the overall situation of Malaysian basketball at the moment?

CT: We’re at a stage where we’re trying to compete against the giants of the region, the Philippines who have huge resources, amazing gyms and a huge fanbase. I’ve seen much change ever since I arrived here last year and we’re starting to see a change in the mindsets of our players on how important it is to be professional in our conduct in the little things like punctuality and what they eat for example. We’re starting to see more players understand the importance of taking care of their body and staying ready for a game.

We’ve definitely climbed up the ladders a few rungs, although there are still many more rungs to climb. I really see a great future and hope here with the players getting hungrier, dedicated and even focused on making basketball a professional career, that will help them in their financial security as well. Under the leadership of Dato Lua Choon Hann, Malaysian basketball is becoming a more united front now and we’ll keep reaching out, coaching and developing the players. We believe as long as we keep coaching them the right way, the basketball scene will only grow bigger and brighter here.

I look at the recent Malaysia Pro League as a success. There’s so much potential in the league and it’s a great avenue for more talent to show the whole country what they can do now. I’m especially impressed with Jayson Lee from the Penang Stallions with his outstanding shooting and his heart and willingness to take the big shots for his team as well. He’s definitely got a bright future in Malaysian basketball.

We at ASEAN Sports would like to thank coach Christopher Thomas for taking time off his busy schedule to share his thoughts with us. We wish him and Westports Malaysia Dragons the best for the the upcoming ABL season.

The Dragons kick off their ABL campaign on the road against Thailand’s Mono Vampire on the 25th of November.