Slingers banking on raw grit

The 2.1m-tall American centre Justin Howard (with ball) will be an integral part of the Singapore Slingers, both in offence and in defence, ahead of the new ABL season.
The 2.1m-tall American centre Justin Howard (with ball) will be an integral part of the Singapore Slingers, both in offence and in defence, ahead of the new ABL season.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

Shorn of veterans and top scorer, coach Neo puts faith in youngsters ahead of opening game of new ABL season

It was Friday night at the Tanglin Trust School, and the Singapore Slingers are in the midst of practice.

Rookie forward Leon Kwek cut his hand on a play, and it started to bleed profusely. Instead of sitting out the session, he cleaned the wound himself, wrapped his hand gingerly in a bandage and returned to action after 10 minutes.

For coach Neo Beng Siang, that is exactly the spirit and commitment he demands of his team, ahead of a challenging Asean Basketball League (ABL) season.

The team will tip off their season today with an away clash against defending champions Hi-Tech Bangkok City in the Thai capital before travelling to Ho Chi Minh City to play the Saigon Heat on Saturday.

Their first game at their OCBC Arena home is on Nov 8 against the Mono Vampires of Thailand.

Neo, who also coaches the Singapore men's national team, said: "Individually, we might be behind other teams, so we need everyone to play hard, hustle, and scramble for every loose ball.

"That is what makes a good team. It's the Slingers culture."

His words are especially resonant ahead of the new season, which will see the Slingers miss Russel Low, Larry Liew, and Lim Shengyu - three national team stalwarts - for various reasons. Also missing is last season's top scorer Dior Lowhorn, an American forward who averaged 26.3 points per game.

In their place are a clutch of youngsters, including Kwek, 19, Toh Qing Huang, 20, John Ng, 21 and Kelvin Lim, 19.

Neo, however, is choosing to take this positively, and said the objective is the same as seasons past - challenge for the title, and blood youngsters for the national team.

Hi-Tech are favourites to win the championship again, having retained most of last season's title-winning squad.

Pacquiao Powervit Pilipinas Aguilas, a team co-owned by boxer Manny Pacquiao that hails from regional powerhouses the Philippines, are also seen as strong contenders.

But Neo, who guided the Slingers to the semi-finals last season, said: "We always aim higher, so we're looking to make the final this time.

"It's tough to juggle both (objectives), but we must try whatever we can. It's important that the locals do get more court time so they can improve, which helps the national team."

Indeed, many have credited the national players' involvement with the Slingers for providing the competitive experience to end the Singapore men's 34-year medal drought at the SEA Games.

The Republic's cagers have won two straight bronzes at the last two editions of the biennial meet.

There are nine national players on the Slingers' 12-man roster, with each team allowed a maximum of four foreign players.

Grooming locals aside, Neo will also be counting on 2.1m-tall American centre Justin Howard to help out on both ends of the court.

The 34-year-old, who joined the Slingers midway through last season, said: "The chemistry is really good, we fit together well. That's one of the main reasons I came back.

"I don't feel any added pressure. We just need to go out and do our best as a team."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Slingers banking on raw grit'. Print Edition | Subscribe