The Meralco Bolts’ Learning Curve
by rick olivares
After the Meralco Bolts’ successful Commissioner’s and Governors’ Cup campaigns from the previous year, I keenly followed the draft and the off-season leading to the ongoing Philippine Cup.
These were questions I had regarding the new campaign (that is Year Three under head coach Norman Black):
How can the Bolts build on the success of the last two conferences as they went from one win in the Philippine Cup to making the semis of the Commissioner’s Cup and were minutes away from winning it all in the Governors’ Cup?
The American reinforcements were the big difference, so can the Bolts win without them?
While Ginebra’s guards mostly outplayed their Meralco counterparts, will Meralco add a post presence or guards?
Who will replace the retired Jimmy Alapag whose leadership and game heroics will be tough to follow?
The answers to the first question remain to be seen. However, in this first conference, they are currently at 2-5. Although the Philippine Cup isn’t over, Meralco is in danger of not advancing despite having one more win than the same tournament one year ago.
Yet the win-loss slate does not begin to tell the whole story. How many games have the Bolts lost in the last two minutes?
Four of their five losses have been by an average of 3.5 points. The one big loss was to nemesis San Miguel Beer that romped away to a double digit win. Incidentally, their two wins were blowouts too.
As for the second question and third, it cannot be answered until conference’s end but from the looks of things... not exactly. Yet that is somewhat apples and oranges as the team has brought in a pair of young guns who have garnered a lot of playing time. And anytime you introduce new players who get a lot of playing time and shots into the mix that takes a lot of adjustment. That means some guys’ playing time and shot attempts have decreased.
The Bolts of course tabbed Ed Daquioag from the special draft then selected Jonathan Grey in the second round. Jessie Saitanan, the one came in the third round after Meralco obtained the pick from Mahindra.
The other more ballyhooed centers in the draft – Russel Escoto and Arnold Van Opstal were taken in the special draft. Alfonso Gotladera and Jericho De Guzman, the two other centers selected ahead are considered projects.
I thought that Daquioag and Grey would add nice scoring touch for Meralco as they get younger. Imagine how good they would be years from now with Cliff Hodge, Chris Newsome, Baser Amer, and the two newcomers.
But you do not really win with a youth movement. Not until they’ve pocketed loads of experience and smarts that they become veterans themselves. And there’s veteran Joseph Yeo who I thought was a nice addition to the team. But he too has struggled.
Now while the guard scoring has picked up, I thought that no one has approximated the contributions of formers imports Arinze Onuaku and Allen Durham.
However, hold that thought for a moment – the center spot. I’ll back track to the guards. I know basketball has changed to the point where you have forwards bringing up the ball. Players playing a variety of positions with their multiple skills. With players like Newsome, Grey, and Daquioag bringing up the ball, that has taken out the playmaking from guys like Amer, Anjo Caram, and even Jonathan Uyloan. Especially the latter. The one time all three point guards played well in one game at the same time was in that loss to SMB. So it’s a period of adjustment.
Now back to the bigs. Rabeh al-Hussaini has built on his superb performances off the bench in last year’s season-ending finals but he has been inconsistent. Justin Chua has come and contributed but not as much considering his long lay-off after injury. Bryan Faundo has yet to approximate his game from last year but I suspect that he misses playing alongside Onuaku and Durham who he fed off.
Other players who slide in and out of the five spot include Reynel Hugnatan (when Cliff Hodge is moved to the four) who has continued his sterling form. Kelly Nabong’s there as is Ken Bono.
That post presence, shaded lane scoring, and rim protector is important. The output from that spot needs to be consistent and it will open up the other positions for contributions.
And lastly, as for Alapag’s leadership. While he is still in practice, on the bench, and in the locker room, his presence on the court hasn’t been replaced. It hasn’t helped that Jared Dillinger has played only one match. Sure there are quiet leaders like Hugnatan but in my opinion, the overt mantle of leadership has yet to be passed. Last year, I thought the ball moved around some. This conference, why do I get the feeling that some are looking for their shots?
It’s going to be a tough stretch for the Bolts with their next three matches – all must-wins. Yet, it’s all part of the process. The record might not tell the whole story but that is what it is – a process. But they do have to grow up quick because they’d like their successful previous season to be the start of something good and not an aberration.