Basketball: Fit slingers to push for ABL title, says Neo

Singapore Slingers' Leon Kwek dribbling past fellow forward Kelvin Lim during team training at OCBC Arena. Besides their stamina, tight defence is also expected to help them go far in the competition.
Singapore Slingers' Leon Kwek dribbling past fellow forward Kelvin Lim during team training at OCBC Arena. Besides their stamina, tight defence is also expected to help them go far in the competition.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

After tough pre-season, head coach sees 'running team' going one better this time

Over five captivating Asean Basketball League (ABL) Finals games in March, the Singapore Slingers battled the Westports Malaysia Dragons tooth and nail before succumbing in the best-of-five series.

Their unexpected title assault saw them win the hearts of hundreds of new fans, as they played their Finals home games before some 2,000 supporters who rocked the OCBC Arena.

It comes as no surprise that, when asked about their aspirations for the new ABL season which starts today - at home against none other than the Dragons - long-time head coach Neo Beng Siang did not mince his words.

"We want to win the championship," he said. "Yes, even though everything starts all over again and the teams are stronger, we think we are capable.

"We're a small-sized team, but our style is that we're a running team - that's our strength, that's the part we can control.

  • SINGAPORE SLINGERS 2016-17

  • ROSTER

    GUARDS

    • Alexander-Stanley Austria

    • Desmond Oh • Wong Wei Long

    • Larry Liew

    • Mitchell Folkoff

    FORWARDS

    • Wu Qingde • Leon Kwek

    • Xavier Alexander

    • Tay Ding Loon

    • Ng Han Bin

    • Kelvin Lim

    CENTRES

    • Delvin Goh

    • Justin Howard

    HOME GAMES (OCBC ARENA)

    Tonight, 8pm: Malaysia Dragons

    Dec 18, 4pm: Alab Pilipinas

    Jan 8, 4pm: Malaysia Dragons

    Jan 15, 4pm: Hong Kong Eastern

    Feb 5, 4pm: Hong Kong Eastern

    Feb 12, 4pm: Alab Pilipinas

    Feb 26, 4pm: Kaohsiung Truth

    March 5, 4pm: Saigon Heat

    March 12, 4pm: Kaohsiung Truth

    March 19, 4pm: Saigon Heat

    Full schedule available on www.singaporeslingers.com

"We're not going to just think that we'll aim only to be back in the ABL Finals again. No, I want everyone to think that we want to win the title."

The Slingers have identified fitness as a major factor in a successful title challenge, and have prepared for the upcoming 20-game ABL season with some gruelling physical training at the hilly Bukit Batok Nature Reserve.

"The players had to climb the 200 steps up and do repetition sprints up the slopes," said Neo. "Some of them threw up, but all pushed themselves hard because they know that such pre-season training will help them be the fittest team.

"We also need to keep building up our team defence. Last year, our defence was what took us to the Finals."

For that, he wants the role players to contribute defensively, and has re-signed former Slinger Mitchell Folkoff - a defensive-minded guard who last played in 2013.

"The biggest difference now as compared to the last time I played is that everyone is a lot more composed," said the 27-year-old Singaporean. "Though I'm older and more experienced, I'm going to be rusty at the start, so my goal is to improve as the season goes on. As long as I play hard, I can live with myself, no matter how I play."

Another former Slinger, Larry Liew, also returns to the fray, while forward Tay Ding Loon, 22, will be making his debut.

However, the Slingers will be without captain Desmond Oh, 29, and key forward Wu Qingde, 23, for at least the opening two weeks of the season, as the duo have yet to recover from injuries.

Said forward Leon Kwek, 19, who played 10 games last season before being taken ill with dengue fever: "It's a huge loss to the team at the start, but I think it's a good opportunity for younger guys like me to step up and do what the older guys have been doing."

The Slingers will be facing different opponents compared to last season. Besides the Dragons, only the Saigon Heat have stayed on, as Hi-Tech Bangkok City, Mono Vampire Basketball Club and Pilipinas MX3 Kings have declined to take part this season.

In place are a trio of debutants - Hong Kong's Eastern Long Lions, Taiwan's Kaohsiung Truth and the Philippines' Alab Pilipinas.

While little is known about the three new teams, the Slingers' American import Justin Howard believes his side will also be different from last year.

A SCORE TO SETTLE

All of us still remember how the Dragons celebrated right in front of us after they beat us in the final. We still have the painful feeling. It's like we have unfinished business.

'' LEON KWEK, on the disappointment of losing 2-3 to the Dragons in last season's Asean Basketball League Finals series.

"We're a different team this year, smaller than last year, but we pride ourselves in defence," the 35-year-old said. "I think you'll see better three-point shooting coming from the team this year. Some of the young guys have matured, people like Leon and Kelvin (Lim)."

He and compatriot Xavier Alexander have returned for another season with the Slingers, while new Filipino guard Alexander-Stanley Austria replaces Kris Rosales as the final foreign import.

Said the 25-year-old newcomer: "I'll bring a lot of energy to this team. We worked really hard in the off-season. We've built up a lot of stamina, and we're in great shape."

The overriding aim among the Slingers is to get back to the ABL Finals - and then ensure that last season's bitter finale does not happen again.

"All of us still remember how the Dragons celebrated right in front of us after they beat us in the final. We still have the painful feeling," said Kwek. "It's like we have unfinished business. We want to (use that memory) to show how we don't give up and how much we have improved."

And they can do that, starting with the same opponents tonight.

SLINGERS V DRAGONS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2016, with the headline 'Fit slingers to push for ABL title, says Neo'. Print Edition | Subscribe