Embracing The ‘Tweener’

Some say the dominance of Slingers imports has hindered the progress of Singapore basketball. Steven Khoo would beg to differ.

Mike Helms. Rod Grizzard. Michael Leblanc. Kyle Jeffers. Al Vergara. Lost in the sea of foreign faces and equally foreign names, the lofty ambitions of raising the standard of local basketball through Singapore’s first professional basketball team, the Singapore Slingers, seemed to have been all but forgotten.

The imports, when they came, were every bit as dominant as the fans had expected them to be. But behind the successes of our foreign talents stood a niggling/ nagging question: What about the locals?

The Singapore Slingers were, from the start, expected to raise the standards of local basketball. Through regular practice with and competition against significantly better players, and through the experience professional basketball confers and the commitment it demands, the locals lucky enough to make the squad were to become solid contributors to the team and the pillars of Singapore basketball, paving the way for future professionals and making their dreams of a basketball career reality.

Or so the theory went. Instead, what we saw was disheartening. Singapore’s best and brightest, unmatched within the nation, ended up warming the bench and waving towels, never really receiving the chance to get better. Michael Wong and Koh Meng Koon didn’t need professional basketball to teach them how to be good players; yet it never did seem to lift them beyond that. The problem of inadequate playing time was compounded by a serious case of the ‘tweeners’: beyond the domestic scene, the locals simply were not big enough for their position, and not suitable for the next. The high-flying swingman is asked to run the team from outside, and the bruising center becomes a perimeter guy. Hong Wei Jian managed to impress for a while in the Asean Basketball League (ABL), but an injury took him out of the roster, and it seemed unlikely that anyone else could break out of the ‘tweener’ mold.

Steven Khoo did not break out of the mold. He had no need to. Instead, the 25-year-old embraced the role, defining himself through redefining his game. Determined to contribute whatever he could to the team, he committed himself to doing the dirty work for the team. Defending, rebounding, setting picks and hustling for the ball, the 6-foot-2 forward did anything and everything he could to help the Slingers win. Making hard work the hallmark of his game, Steven worked himself into the most consistent local within the squad, averaging 1.8 ppg and 1.1 rpg last season.

This season, with Wei Jian out of the team, the Slingers looked for a local to step up his game. Steven was ready. As teammate Wong Wei Long put it, “He (Steven) has got more opportunities to shine compared to last season, and he’s really seized the opportunity and played well. Rebound, score points, assist, he does it all.”

Indeed, Steven has become one of the most trusted members of the Slingers squad, and along with his usual hustle plays and defensive contributions, has expanded his game to include an impressive offensive arsenal, making himself a more complete player in the process. Although Al Vergara has only played with Steven in the ABL, Vergara also expressed that “his (Steven’s) offense has really improved compared to last year! He used to be more of just a defensive player.” The Singapore national team member now boasts a solid outside shot, and does not hesitate to take the 3-point shot if open these days, having taken just two the whole of last season, but 14 already this year. Beginning with a 23-point outburst against the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters of the Philippine Basketball Association during a preseason tune-up game, in which he hit three 3-point shots, Steven has shown himself to be the most confident and gutsy local player in the Slingers team, something that is reflected in his much-improved play this season.

Making full use of his increased playing time this season, Steven has put on display an all-around game that fully maximises his ‘tweener’ role. Regarding the changes in Steven’s game, Slingers guard Desmond Oh had this to say, “He used to just bang in the paint in the local game, he can’t do that in the ABL as they (the opponents) are bigger sized than him, so he learnt to play outside.” Steven’s re-invention of his game is a testament to his dedication to his craft, and as Steven himself told JUMPSHOT, he has had to change his position from center or power forward in the local game to play outside for the Slingers, and as a result, he has had to “take threes and get more mobile, faster” in order to survive. Despite his successes, Steven remains humble and emphasises the need for further improvement, naming his ball-handling and shooting as areas he plans to work on next.

To the rest of the local players looking to succeed beyond the domestic front, Steven Khoo provides a shining example. Many had doubted that he could ever make it, as a no-longer-young post player needing a transition and the development of a perimeter game. But Steven’s story is one illustrating the beauty of hard work. No matter how tough the struggle, if you work hard enough, you can accomplish something. With Steven, his accomplishment is that ‘tweener’ no longer conjures up images of undersized or under-skilled players who cannot fit into any single role within a team. Instead, it brings forth the idea that a basketball player does not need to be defined by position. In Steven, the ‘tweener’ is a complete player, the ultimate do-it-all glue guy.

JUMPSHOT: In what ways have you improved ever since joining the Slingers?

Steven Khoo: My shot recognition, percentage of shooting, I think I have gotten better at those. Also the basics, fundamentals, I have been working on those as well.

JS: How or why have these improvements come about?

SK: This is all thanks to my coach and my GM Michael Johnson, I came in during the off-season to practice and they come back with me to help me work

JS: How has playing with the Slingers affected your playing in the local scene?

SK: Well, compared to last season, I am able to be more dominant, as I can now play inside and outside. If a smaller guy tries to guard me outside, I have a size advantage, so I know I can take them inside.

JS: How do you think the Singapore basketball scene can improve with the help of the Slingers?

SK: The youngsters can help out the national team, as they are mostly in the national team. They can help to raise the standard of local basketball, as they get better with exposure to better competition.

JS: How would you recommend others to prepare for such a career path?

SK: Well, if you look at the new blood (for the Slingers), they are all my height or taller, and they are already training for this position. I only started last year, at 24, and it’s pretty late. Nowadays they start training for the position younger.

JS: Any advice for the local rookies?

SK: Train hard. There is no shortcut to winning.

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