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The Short Corner: Examining JD Cagulangan’s game beyond the heroics

Two weeks after UP’s historic conquest of Ateneo, JD Cagulangan remains the UAAP’s man of the moment. His shot that took the title back to Diliman has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, and his overtime heroics have been talked about on virtually every platform.

But his overall game and his overall performance throughout the year haven’t received as much fanfare. Overshadowed throughout the season by established names like Ricci Rivero and CJ Cansino, as well as high-scoring newcomers Carl Tamayo and Zavier Lucero, Cagulangan’s subtle brilliance has actually quietly been a huge part of why the Fighting Maroons achieved the level of success they did.

Here, we’ll discuss how he plays, how much it helped the team, and what could be the next steps he can take to achieve true stardom and future success in the UAAP and the pros.

Scoring Amongst the Trees

UAAP-84-Mens-Basketball-Ateneo-vs-UP-Joel-Cagulangan-scaled The Short Corner: Examining JD Cagulangan’s game beyond the heroics Bandwagon Wire Basketball UAAP UP  - philippine sports newsThe biggest adjustment he faced was the change in shot diet. Cagulangan didn’t see the same usage he did with LSGH, and he wasn’t quite as effective at putting the ball in the hoop against larger and better competition. Without mincing words: despite his heroics, he wasn’t a good scorer this past season, as he averaged 6.8 points per 30 minutes, the lowest mark among point guards. There are certain limitations in his game that prevented him from joining the truly elite among collegiate point guards.

Let’s start with his ability to finish at the rim, where he finished a ridiculous 71 percent, per InStat. He has a ridiculous level of touch – able to finish with either hand and convert difficult attempts, including reverse layups and finger rolls against much taller opposition:

Given his height, Cagulangan needs a lot of craft to be able to finish among the trees. One of his go-to moves to get inside and freeze the defense is a hesitation move (slowing down then exploding) to freeze the defense and get past them. He combines it with terrific usage of his head to make defenses think that a pass is coming. His change of speed is a powerful weapon to get in the paint due to his ability to accelerate quickly. It doesn’t hurt that not many players can beat him in a footrace either.

Another thing is his handles. He’s not a Terrence Romeo-type who will break you down with dribble moves in isolation. He has terrific functional handles that make him the best Point A to Point B handler in the UAAP. No moves are wasted, as all of them serve a purpose, and Cagulangan combines it with footwork that most bigs would be envious of (check 0:53 of the following vid).

The bag at the rim doesn’t end there. His body control allows him to contort mid-air, protect the ball from shot blockers, or adjust after taking contact:

But sometimes, all the craft in the world can’t help you when you crash into superior length at the rim. With bigs underneath, it’s harder for Cagulangan to find opportunities to drive inside. When he does find an opportunity, length can smother him or prevent a clean look. Layups are hard to make against tall people.

This is best illustrated by his finishing when the defense is set and when it isn’t. In the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, he’s able to knife inside and finish with bigs away from the rim or generally not set. He’s 18-of-21 (86-percent) at the rim during this time. With 14 seconds or less (when defenses are typically set/in formation), he’s 12-of-21 (57-percent, the league average is 51 percent). Still good, but not as good:

A problem with his finishing may be the lack of an in-between shot or a floater. When he shoots inside, it’s always with a view to getting to the rim. As we’ve seen, Cagulangan’s lack of height makes it easy for the defense to take away in the halfcourt. A remedy to this would be to develop a floater. He has a two-handed runner that he goes to, but he still leaps toward the rim, which doesn’t fix the problem that it’s hard to finish over bigs up close.

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A floater is pretty much a necessity for any short guard. Developing one would allow Cagulangan to maximize his ability to get in the paint and read defenses quickly. As per InStat, he only attempted two floaters the whole year:

Why does he need to improve scoring when he can just stick to playmaking? Two reasons: first, Rivero is leaving, which means UP will need more shot creation in the perimeter. Second, scoring will improve his playmaking. Adding layers to his game makes him harder to defend. Cagulangan processes information quickly and can take advantage of the mistakes defenses make, but being able to score will give the defense more things to worry about, and this makes it more likely for them to make an exploitable error.

Last season, he had one of the lowest scoring rates among players playing 20 or more minutes per game. Moving forward, UP would benefit from more points from him.

Breaking Down the Jumper

UAAP-84-MBB-DLSU-vs.-UP-Joel-Cagulangan-5518 The Short Corner: Examining JD Cagulangan’s game beyond the heroics Bandwagon Wire Basketball UAAP UP  - philippine sports newsCagulangan made two huge triples to seal the deal for UP, but all things considered, he wasn’t a great shooter over the course of the season. He was 10-of-57 (17.2 percent) from deep for the season, which is far from ideal.

When looking at a player’s ability to shoot, one should not look at the form immediately and instead look at two things. First: functionality. Can he get a shot off in multiple situations? Can he shoot off a catch, off the dribble, or off of movement? If it’s a yes to all, his shot is functional. Second, look at effectiveness. It’s pretty much just how often it goes in. If a shot is functional and effective, the shot is great.

With Cagulangan, the shot just isn’t quite there yet. His touch at the rim and at the line suggests that he has a lot of potential as a shooter, but the production isn’t there yet.

Let’s look at the form.

The first thing you should notice is the massive dip. Cagulangan brings the ball down quite a bit to generate power to shoot it from a distance. Second, notice that the ball is pretty far from his body as he brings the ball up to shoot (pause at 0:06). Imagine how hard it would be to get that shot off with his current form if a defender is all up in his grill. Next, notice his knees. They move toward each other (valgus knees) as he loads up his jumper. Take this with a heaping of salt, but this may suggest that he struggles to generate force to shoot it from a distance (this might also be why he’s reliant on the dip). Improving core strength should fix this. Last, notice the left hand on his shot. It’s almost at the top of the ball, and he flicks it with his thumb (thumbing). The location of the left hand may or may not affect the shot, and the thumb flick could affect its trajectory. Note, that the dip, valgus knees, and thumbing are not always indicators of bad shooters (Kevin Durant does all of these), but the film and numbers aren’t better:

The form (along with his height) makes it hard for him to get his shot off against tighter defenses. He has solid footwork getting to the pull-up jumper, but length and pressure give him a lot of trouble. In the second play of the clip, Mark Nonoy goes under the screen and still blocks the shot. This is where the shot being not compact hurts. If the defender pressures and rushes his motion, there’s a very good chance that he misses:

Cagulangan is not a bad shooter in a vacuum. If he’s given the space he needs, he’ll knock shots down. He made 30-percent of his triples when the defense went under screens, which gave him the time and space to go into his shooting motion. He has the touch to be a very effective shooter, but the conditions need to be very favorable to get a decent look. He can be very good, but a bit of tweaking needs to be done for that success to come:

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If we want to look at a “peg” for Cagulangan’s potential growth as a shooter, we have Kemba Walker – a short guard who came into the NBA with a shaky jumper. In his first four seasons, Walker was a poor shooter who hit only 31.8 percent of his 4.1 attempts from deep per game. He struggled to create his own shot against taller and longer defenders, and 68 percent of his triples were assisted.

The resemblance of Kemba’s early career jumper with Cagulangan’s is uncanny. The low dip on the left side of the body, the positioning of the guiding hand, and the thumb flick are all things that are present in Cagulangan’s jumper. These issues made it hard for him to find an opening to shoot and it made him inefficient.

Walker, though, managed to correct these errors in 2016. He rebuilt the jumper and it led to four consecutive All-Star game appearances from 2016 to 2020. In these years, he shot 37.8 percent from three on 8.1 attempts per game, with only 48 percent of his makes being assisted. By making the shot more compact, bringing the ball closer to his body, minimizing the dip, and removing the interference from his left hand, he became one of the most dangerous pull-up shooters in the world. This just goes to show that players with good touch and problematic shooting forms can improve and become great shooters:

An Unnecessarily Long-Winded Discussion of Passing

UAAP-84-MBB-NU-vs.-UP-Joel-Cagulangan-8822 The Short Corner: Examining JD Cagulangan’s game beyond the heroics Bandwagon Wire Basketball UAAP UP  - philippine sports newsWhen people talk about a player’s ability to pass, passing is usually treated as one uniform skill. In all honesty, it isn’t. There’s kick out passing, pick and roll passing, connective passing, transition passing, and probably a fair bit more. There are tons of sub-skills under the passing umbrella, and these specifics are hardly ever discussed. To add, there are also sub-skills not about specific types of passes, but tools that help a player pass better like delivery variations, anticipation, release speed, and the ability to manipulate defenses.

Cagulangan was the best passer in the UAAP based on both the box score (5.0 assists per game) and advanced statistics (6.1 Passer Rating). A big part of that is his ability to collapse defenses by getting into the paint and kicking it out to open shooters or dumping it to a big for a lay-up. As mentioned earlier, he is a very good (and safe) ball-handler, which allows him to get two feet in the paint. He’s able to quickly read where the help comes from and send it out to a now open teammate. The only nitpick here is that his kick outs to the perimeters usually require two hands, which limits his passing angles.

Corner triples are the second-most valuable shots in the UAAP (after layups), and Cagulangan’s ability to collapse defenses and find shooters helped UP make the most corner triples in the league:

Cagulangan is a terrific passer in transition, which is huge for a UP team that derived a second-most 20.4% of its total shots from transition opportunities and scored the most points from these chances. He knows how to free teammates up by making defenses focus on him before dishing it off. He’s also particularly great at scanning ahead of him to find easy touchdown passes.

The only real knock is the limited delivery options – it’s almost always a chest pass. It can be easily read, and it doesn’t work against guys like Ange Kouame:

In the pick and roll, Cagulangan checks two of the three boxes you want from a passer; he can hit the roll man and punish openings caused by tagging the roll man, and he can use the screen to get downhill and make the drop pass. The thing lacking is the inability to throw the pocket pass. He’s a great passer with enough savvy to overcome his instincts, but his height limits the angles and deliveries he can make. A bounce pass would add another weapon to combat his natural limitations:

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Cagulangan is not a perfect playmaker. The difficulty in how we talk about a player’s ability to pass is that we often treat all passing as one uniform thing, but it’s rare to find a player that is good in all aspects of passing.

First, his height is a detriment. It’s tough to see over the defense and often, the defense can swallow his passes whole and he’s left with no comfortable angle. This is because he’s not great at throwing low or bounce passes. Often, he can be late to see an opening because of large masses obstructing his vision. Occasionally, he also looks like he has a passing window if he makes a pocket pass, but he doesn’t seem comfortable making such passes. He’s excellent, but not flawless. He needs more tools at his disposal to bring his passing up a notch:

Now let’s focus on more positives. Cagulangan is an incredibly smart player and that shines in his passing, and the most ridiculous thing about his passing is how well he manipulates the defense with his eyes.

In the first three clips of the reel below, he freezes the defense by looking one way, which prevents the help and frees up a teammate for an open shot. Look at the third clip. He freezes the low man and makes him look at the corner because he looked at James Spencer. No one tags Tamayo cutting inside, and Cagulangan feeds him. This is elite level passing.

He’s the best reactive passer (punishing the defense’s movements), but he’s also budding as an anticipatory passer. In the only bounce pass in the article, Cagulangan looks at Lucero to preempt his cut and throws a pass that leads him to the cup. He might have the quickest processing in the UAAP, as he’s able to make adjustments on the fly based on how the defense reacts. In the next clip, he’s running full speed in transition, spins with four green shirts nearby, and still finds Lucero in an instant.

Another fun thing is his jump passing. He’s not very tall, which makes it harder for him to see over the defense and limits how and where he can pass to. To combat this, he uses jump passes to see over the defense and deliver passes from above. These little leaps may not seem like much, but this subtle stuff is what makes him a notch above nearly every amateur guard in terms of passing. He’s able to get passes through guys like Kouame and Michael Phillips by changing the angles available to him with these hops before passes.

In the last two clips in the reel, we can see his value as a passer without needing to dribble. This is an extension of his ability to read defenses and anticipate openings. If the defense shifts, tilts, or changes shape as it gets to him, he knows who’s open. In the pass to Noah Webb, he makes the touch pass as soon as he gets it. This implies that he’s able to map the floor and remember where people are in his head. That’s elite:

Cagulangan is already one of the best point guards in the UAAP. He’s shown that he rises up to the occasion and delivers under pressure. The scary thing is that there is a very clear path for growth as a scorer and as a passer, and he’s the type of player with all the potential in the world to keep improving. That’s a scary proposition for the seven other teams looking to dethrone the defending champs.

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Does hoops math and watches too much game film. Talks a lot on Twitter (@_alba__)

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