The upcoming 2017-2018 ASEAN Basketball League season is already looking to be a lot more competitive with the inclusion of a record, nine teams being thrown into the mix. The defending champion Hong Kong Eastern Long Lions, now known just as Hong Kong Eastern, may have lost ex-NBA player Josh Boone, but have made considerable noise in signing Gilas Pilipinas member, Christian Standhardinger.

Filipino entry, Alab Pilipinas, have also made splashes in free agency over the course of the offseason, bringing in notable talents such as Josh Urbiztondo, Dondon Hontiveros, and Rico Maierhofer as locals to join a roster already headlined by 2016-2017 local MVP, Ray Parks Jr. Throw in Singapore Slingers and Mono Vampire rosters that are heavily forged with talented local players from their respective national teams and you’ve got a recipe for some major battles in ABL 8.

That’s not even including the other four teams participating outside of Saigon.

Vietnam’s hopeful contender hasn’t been quiet during the offseason neither following their third straight trip to the ABL postseason, which resulted in an accompanying third straight sweep out in the first round. The Saigon Heat parted ways with long-time head coach, Tony Garbelotto, subsequently replacing him with Canadian Kyle Julius at the helm of the ABL squad.

PHOTO CREDIT: ASEAN BASKETBALL LEAGUE

It didn’t take long for the new head-honcho to make a major move in trying to establish a new basketball culture in Vietnam’s most populated city. Like a pop quiz the morning after the one night you didn’t study, American import Lenny Daniel, a fan favorite and leading contributor to the Heat’s relative prior successes in the league, was released in a sudden and surprising move, especially given that he had been Saigon’s player representative at ABL’s press conference in the Philippines just less than a week prior.

The overall makeup of the team and the direction that it’s headed is a toss-up in its current state, but one thing is certainly clear: if the Saigon Heat are hoping to surpass previous successes, or failures, depending on how you look at it, they need to deepen their pool of local talent.

Last season, the lack of local talent really hurt the Heat as starters were heavily leaned on, averaging more than 30 minutes per game across the board which led to difficulties in keeping up with the pace of their opponents late in games. Opposing teams were able to utilize rotations of fresh bodies, many of whom were local players coming off the bench, providing much needed rest for their starters to close out games.

PHOTO CREDIT: ASEAN BASKETBALL LEAGUE

It wasn’t until the addition of the naturalized Vietnamese-American, Horace Nguyen, as a local player midway through the season that the Saigon Heat were able to turn their misfortunes around and squeak into the postseason. Now, to clarify things, I’m not solely attributing the team’s turnaround just to Horace, as Christien Charles was nursing an injury for the majority of last season and the late additions of Jordan Henriquez and Moses Morgan certainly helped the cause, but there is correlation here.

It’s no surprise that outside of Nguyen Van Hung, essentially Vietnam’s only local natural center, the hopes of bringing in a player that can count as a local to fulfill a frontcourt position on the floor is strictly limited. The Heat could look to naturalize current Thang Long Warriors’ forward Justin Young of the VBA, but the hill that he would have to climb following Lenny Daniel’s departure is rather steep.

Regardless of if the Saigon Heat are actually able to attain Justin Young, the team still needs to look elsewhere to help bolster their makeup of locals. It will need to come from an area which there are no shortages of potential talent.

They need to look at the guard position.

A little more than halfway past the 2017 VBA season, there have been guards that have caused quite a stir amongst the Vietnamese basketball fanbase. Rookies Henry Nguyen and Vincent Nguyen of the Ho Chi Minh City Wings and Hanoi Buffaloes, respectively, should be eligible to compete for the Heat in the ABL as locals, so long as they get the necessary paperwork and documentation to do so. They shouldn’t be the first choices though.

PHOTO CREDIT: CAN THO CATFISH

Perhaps the best suited guard to use the 2017 VBA season as a quintessential tryout for the potential to play at an even higher level of competition in the ABL is Sang Dinh of the Can Tho Catfish. The younger brother of Vietnam Men’s Basketball National Team member Tam Dinh, who has already been signed on to play for the Heat during the upcoming ABL season, should be looked at in the prospect of joining his older brother as a fellow local and doesn’t seem so far-fetched when you consider what he brings to the table.

As a Vietnamese-American, the younger Dinh brother could follow the same route that both Tam and Horace Nguyen have taken in qualifying as a local through naturalization in Vietnam. Not only does it offer a chance to play alongside a familiar face, a role in which he has relished on the Can Tho Catfish so far this VBA season, but Sang Dinh also provides length, speed, and athleticism. Assets which the aforementioned Henry Nguyen, Vincent Nguyen, and virtually any eligible local guard cannot match.

PHOTO CREDIT: CAN THO CATFISH

The likes of players such as Marcus Elliot, Ray Parks Jr., and Kannut Samerjai, just to name a few, would probably torch the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City starting guards. Scratch that. They would, without a doubt, torch them. Having Sang Dinh available would help alleviate the pressure presented by the ABL’s top guards, even if just ever so slightly. Have him come off the bench as a versatile spark plug to go combat opposing rotational locals and now we’re looking at a real difference maker.

After a VBA debut that came after the initial start of the 2016 season, the Texas native has had ample time to adjust to playing as a professional and has made major strides to get to where he is now. Through 12 games in this year’s edition of the VBA, he has improved in just about every statistical category to a scoring tune of 14.3 points per game on 46% shooting from the field, including 30% from distance while pulling in 6.2 rebounds per game and dishing out 4.0 assists per game. He also has a knack for being a defensive pest as well, averaging 2.8 steals per game.

PHOTO CREDIT: LONG ETHAN

Sang possesses a natural fluidity to his game that cannot be taught, aided by a kind of confidence that can only come through hours of on-court repetition rather than just drills during practice alone. If you catch any of his games, the way he finishes at the rim, fills in passing lanes, hounds offensive players, and shoots the three-point ball with a mindset that every shot is going to be wet is very reminiscent of a face that ABL fans should be familiar with.

Think of his skillset and style as similar to Joshua Munzon’s, albeit, a poor-man’s Joshua Munzon. Those of you who witnessed what transpired last season for the Saigon Heat during the ABL season are probably scratching your heads right now and losing faith, but hear me out. Yes, Munzon did ultimately fizzle out of the Heat roster as their ASEAN heritage import midway through the season, but it’s not like he didn’t experience success competing in the league, as he was immediately picked up by Westports Malaysia Dragons to finish out the regular season.

PHOTO CREDIT: ASEAN BASKETBALL LEAGUE

The Saigon Heat would also be getting Sang Dinh at a relative discount. I’m not talking in the monetary sense, but he could qualify as a local, leaving the all-important heritage import spot open. It’s like getting an extra patty in your cheeseburger at no additional cost, of course, without the mistakes that an employee would have to make for it to come to fruition.

Even if he is unable to make it onto the squad for the start of the upcoming ABL campaign, the Saigon Heat should still make every attempt in trying to get him on the roster as soon as possible. As with Horace Nguyen last season, we saw the kind of impact that he was able to make once he was officially cleared to compete and Sang can have a similar effect.

With the start of the 2017-2018 ABL season less than a month away, the clock is ticking on Head Coach Kyle Julius’s tall order of putting together a Saigon Heat roster that can compete against the powerhouses of the ABL and the possible addition of Sang Dinh is just one piece of a bigger puzzle. There are also other players that could count as locals who are deserving of a look as well, with many that wouldn’t have to go through the process that the younger Dinh would have to go through for their services. However, in the search for Vietnamese talent, Julius must look to the VBA and no other player that has not already been considered is better suited for ABL level competition than that of Sang Dinh.