The atmosphere at the HCMC National Sports Training Center has been incredibly lively for the last couple of weeks as the whole basketball arena has been filled with the sounds of balls bouncing and shoes clacking against the hardwood floor. 12 players of Vietnam’s national basketball team are practicing intensely to prepare for the upcoming 29th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) this August in Malaysia. Without all the spotlights, camera flashes and thousands of cheering fans in the crowd, it is hard to tell that this group of guys are arguably the golden generation of Vietnam basketball.

The term “golden generation” instinctively reminds sports fans in Vietnam about the national football team back in the mid-90s that included legends like striker Le Huynh Duc, ‘iron’ defender Tran Cong Minh and midfielder Nguyen Hong Son. However, its record of match-fixing, bent referees and violent incidents in the later years have seriously dragged down Vietnamese football’s reputation in the eyes of many locals.

The downfall of football has left more room for other sports to develop and reach out to more Vietnamese fans over recent years. One of them has been shining brighter than others and currently on its mission to become the No.2 sport in the country. That sport is basketball.

Back in 2010, Vietnam basketball was at a rock bottom. Unlike its neighboring country, the Philippines, where basketball is considered a religion, here in Vietnam, it was still struggling way behind volleyball, tennis, badminton and even road bicycle racing. Information about the local tournaments could only be found in brief sports news categories and fans could hardly find any game footage on the internet.

It wasn’t until the establishment of the Saigon Heat in 2011 and the country’s first ever professional basketball league, the Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA) in 2016 when things dramatically turned basketball into the fastest growing sport among the youth of Vietnam.

The presence of a professional domestic league like the VBA has allowed top-notch local players in the nation like Trieu Han Minh, Le Ngoc Tu, and Nguyen Van Hung to train and compete in basketball on a regular basis, hence, giving them more opportunities to substantially improve their skills, experience, as well as mentality.

The development of Vietnam basketball has been convincingly demonstrated by the team’s performance in the 2017 SEABA Championship. Although Vietnam finished in 6th place amongst the seven-team field with a record of one win and five losses, it did not fully reflect their true ability and potential.

The team only fell short against Malaysia by one point in a hard-fought OT thriller and put up a close fight against Singapore, only losing by 13 points due to a sloppy 4th quarter. Compared to the blowout 56 – 98 loss despite a team full of legends like Chong Paul, Trinh Nhan Duc and Tiep Ri Da Ni against Malaysia back in the 22nd SEA Games, or the embarrassing 35-point defeat to Singapore in the 28th SEA Games, Vietnam basketball has clearly taken a major step forward and is expected to make noise during the upcoming SEA Games in August.

The final roster of 12 players has been announced just a few days ago. For the first time in history, top Vietnamese heritage players like Horace Nguyen Tam Phuc and Stefan Nguyen Tuan Tu of the Danang Dragons, along with Tam Dinh of the Cantho Catfish will have the opportunity to play for the national team. This will undoubtedly add major firepower to the already well-established line-up in the previous SEABA tournament just few months prior.

The team will be led by Hanoi Buffaloes head coach Todd Purves, who previously won the 2012 ABL Championship with the Indonesia Warriors and has accrued extensive experience in coaching and scouting in the NBA before coming to Asia. However, this will be his first time leading a national team as head coach.

“I’m putting in a whole offensive and defensive scheme in just a couple of weeks so it is challenging for the guys,” Purves shared regarding his difficulties in coaching the team. “Right now we are still thinking a lot because they are new to the players. But once we get done with that thinking process, it will just be reactionary. Then it will be my job to put them into position to succeed.”

Vietnam is drawn into Group B alongside Indonesia, Singapore and Cambodia, all of whom had defeated them in the previous SEA Games. Laos will also be competing in this group but is ranked bottom among Southeast Asian teams.

   2017 SEA GAMES ROSTER

Head Coach, Todd Purves

#10 Center, Nguyen Van Hung (193 cm, 90 kg)

#92 Center, Le Phuoc Thang (190 cm, 92 kg)

#7 Shooting Guard, Nguyen Tien Duong (177 cm, 67 kg)

#12 Small Forward, Dinh Tien Cong (185 cm, 70 kg)

#14 Small Forward, Le Ngoc Tu (179 cm, 68 kg)

#9 Shooting Guard, Trieu Han Minh (177 cm, 67 kg)

#5 Shooting Guard, To Quang Trung (180 cm, 78 kg)

#0 Shooting Guard, Nguyen Horace Phuc Tam (177 cm, 72 kg)

#23 Power Forward, Dinh Thanh Tam (190 cm, 82 kg)

#1 Point Guard, Nguyen Tuan Tu Stefan (190 cm, 80 kg)

#91 Power Forward, Nguyen Thanh Nhan (190 cm, 89 kg)

#4 Point Guard, Nguyen Phu Hoang (177 cm, 64 kg)

   PROJECTED STARTERS

As the team’s average height is roughly 184cm with Nguyen Van Hung being the tallest player at 193cm, Vietnam will likely adopt a small-ball, pace-and-space offensive system under Coach Todd Purves.

In theory, the small-ball line up would fit Vietnam well as the squad is stacked with decent three-point shooters such as Trieu Han Minh, Horace Nguyen Tam Phuc and Nguyen Tien Duong, all of whom are able to spread the floor and use their speed as well as shooting to compensate for the lack of rebounding strength compared to other national teams.

 

1. Horace Nguyen Tam Phuc (PG) – 177 cm

2016 VBA Stats: 12.5 PPG (36.0 FG%, 38.0 3PT%), 2.4 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.9 SPG, 3.1 TO

Point guard play is an incredibly crucial role in fast-paced, small-ball offenses and Horace might be the best candidate on the Vietnam team for this position. The 24-year-old provided everything the Danang Dragons needed during the 2016 VBA season as a true point guard with a pass-first mentality and impressive ball handling skills. Horace is also a scoring threat behind the arc as he averaged 2.33 three-pointers per game, the highest in the VBA last season. This will be his first time playing for the national team, where he will compete with elite guards in the region like Mario Wuysang of Indonesia and Wong Wei Long of Singapore in the upcoming SEA Games.

 

2. Trieu Han Minh (SG) – 177 cm

2016 VBA Stats: 10.9 PPG (37.0 FG%, 32.0 3PT%), 3.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 0.7 SPG, 2.9 TO

Unlike Horace, this will be Minh’s third time representing the “red flag with a gold star” in SEA Games competitions. He was the top scorer for the national team, averaging the highest PPG of 11.3 during the 2011 SEA Games and 20.6 in 2015. Not only is he arguably the best sharp shooter in Vietnam right now (well, even Coach Anthony Garbelotto said it before), but Minh also has that “mamba mentality” which allows him to hit clutch shots when needed. With a veteran who can score from anywhere on the court with “icy veins” as the starting SG, who would say no to that?

 

3. Nguyen Tien Duong (SF) – 177 cm

2016 VBA Stats: 9.7 PPG (41.0 FG%, 32.0 3PT%), 1.8 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.9 SPG, 2.1 TO

Picking Tien Duong over the 2016 VBA Local MVP Le Ngoc Tu as the starting small forward may raise some eyebrows. However, there is one thing this team shares in common among the most successful small-ball lineups in basketball: they all have at least three sharpshooters on their team. Well, not only can Tien Duong shoot better and more consistently from beyond the arc than Ngoc Tu; he is also considered one of the top perimeter defenders in the VBA right now. Tien Duong along with Horace and Han Minh would form a dynamic and versatile trio for Vietnam’s national team.

 

4. Tam Dinh (PF) –  190 cm

2016 VBA Stats: 19.5 PPG (50.0 FG%, 34.0 3PT%), 5.8 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 3.4 TO

Now this seems like an interesting choice. Tam Dinh is famously known as the starting small forward when playing for the Cantho Catfish. However, given that undersized bigs is a glaring issue for the Vietnamese team right now, Coach Purves may need to shift Tam to play as a versatile stretch-four. Fortunately, this will not be his first time playing at the PF position as Tam has fulfilled this role before in high school. Standing at 190 cm tall (roughly 6’3), the Houston product possesses a full package in his game style, being able to shoot, drive, get rebounds and possessing ridiculous bounce that helps him catch alley-oops from passes thrown behind the 3-point line.

 

5. Nguyen Van Hung (C) – 193 cm

2016 VBA Stats: 8.7 PPG (49.0 FG%, 30.0 FT%), 6.6 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.5 BPG, 3.8 TO

What do Nguyen Van Hung and a bottle of wine share in common? They both get better with age.

The 37-year-old martial arts master is among the most admired athletes in Vietnam right now. Van Hung has been addressed as “The Loner Who Seeks Defeat” in Taekwondo thanks to his incredible record of winning five consecutive SEA Games gold medals. Hung started his basketball career on the Joton team in the domestic National Tournament before playing professionally for the Saigon Heat and then the Thang Long Warriors. He is a traditional big man who focuses on patrolling the paint on defense and having the ball in the post on offense. His well-built, solid body also allows him to effectively guard centers taller and bigger than him in the low post.

   2017 SEA GAMES SCHEDULE

07:00 Sunday, August 20 vs Indonesia @ MABA Stadium

08:00 Monday, August 21 vs Cambodia @ MABA Stadium

08:00 Wednesday, August 23 vs Laos @ MABA Stadium

17:00 Thursday, August 24 vs Singapore @ MABA Stadium

   NOTABLE MATCHUPS

Sunday, August 20th vs Indonesia

Vietnam will face the strongest team in Group B, Indonesia in their game opener. Indonesia, without a doubt, is among the best basketball teams in the region right now. Vietnam will need to watch out for the Indonesian-American deadeye sharpshooter Mario Wuysang, who can still make it rain from the three-point line at the age of 38. In the previous SEA Games, “Super Mario” led the Indonesian team to the championship match, only losing to the Philippines’ Gilas Cadets by a single-digit margin.

Thursday, August 24th vs Singapore

This maybe the most crucial match in the tournament for Vietnam. Not only is it the final game of the preliminary round, but also could be a win-or-go-home match that determines who will advance to the knockout rounds. In their last matchup at SEABA 2017, Vietnam pushed the higher ranked Singaporean team to the limit but eventually fell 60 – 73 to their opponents. However, with reinforcements from the Viet Kieu players, Vietnam is ready to bounce back from the upsetting finish.

   TOURNAMENT PROJECTION

Basketball in Vietnam is certainly on the rise and fans of Vietnam’s Mens Basketball team should have all the reason to be proud of the progression made just within this past year. With the competitiveness they displayed at the 2017 SEABA Championships in Manila and with the addition of recruited Viet Kieu talents, Vietnam should have enough fire power to make it out of group play.

Once the bracket is set, Vietnam could potentially be pitted against a heavily favored Gilas Cadets squad or in a showdown against a talent-ridden Thailand team. Despite a good run through the tournament with many first-time participants, Vietnam will fall just short of medaling at this years’ SEA Games, however, it should be nothing to hang their heads on.