Ateneo has had a pretty sterling preseason so far.
Just recently, the Blue Eagles beat out the Tokai University Seagulls, the National Chengchi University Griffins, and the Universitas Pelita Harapan Eagles to be crowned as the inaugural World University Basketball Series (WUBS) champion. Including their win in the Sulit Breakdown Basketball Summer League, this is their second straight tournament championship before the UAAP season.
Obviously, the goal for Ateneo is to reclaim the UAAP men’s basketball title following its defeat against the UP Fighting Maroons in Season 84. To do so, it will have to go without key players, such as SJ Belangel, Tyler Tio, Raffy Verano, and Gian Mamuyac. The holdovers and new players will have large shoes to fill in order for them to achieve their goals.
Here, we’ll be discussing the three players that would be instrumental for Ateneo and how they could contribute to their cause. Specifically, we’ll be talking about Dave Ildefonso and his growth as a playmaker, Kai Ballungay and what he brings to the table, and Forthsky Padrigao and what he needs to improve on as the team’s starting point guard.
Dave Ildefonso: Scorer and Playmaker
Ildefonso’s move to Katipunan brought along a reduction in his individual scoring, as he averaged just 10.6 points per game compared to the 17.1 points per game he averaged in his last season in NU. Don’t get it twisted, though—he did not regress with Ateneo. The scoring might have fallen, but that wasn’t because Ildefonso was worse; it was because he didn’t have to carry the scoring load. His growth as a playmaker was one of the most intriguing developments in Season 84, and his continued growth will help decide how far Ateneo goes this time around.
In the WUBS, Ildefonso led the team in scoring at 14.0 points per game and he did it by scoring everywhere on the floor. He was consistently able to get to the rim on offense, especially before opponents’ defense had settled in the halfcourt. He’s just about as complete of a scorer as any in the country. Ildefonso is a true three-level scorer capable of creating a shot for himself and shooting off-ball. He lacks elite explosion vertically or laterally, but he makes up for it with craft and floor awareness. He feels out space very well and knows when he’ll be able to get a clean shot off:
Ildefonso continued to showcase his growth as a passer during the tournament. In the previous season, he upped his assists total to 3.4 assists per game, leading the team. This was a huge improvement from his 2.1 assists per game with NU despite five minutes less time per game on the floor. He was not only a more willing passer, but a more capable one who can see the floor better as the defense collapses. That proved true in WUBS, where Ildefonso picked defenses apart. He has a good handle on the ball and he plays with craftiness. This, combined with his threat to score, allowed him to penetrate inside and force defensive rotations. When defenses coalesced around him, he was smart enough to find the open man consistently and kick it out to shooters or give drop passes to bigs. He also served as a good play connector in certain possessions where he found the open man after advantages were created by his teammates:
The biggest measurement of his growth in this area (and what we should be looking at moving forward) is Ildefonso’s ability to make more advanced passes, such as passes from the pick-and-roll (PNR) and passes through tight windows. He made a few of those in WUBS. He’s gotten a lot better at mapping the floor (the ability to remember the positions of the players on the floor without the need for looking) and that has resulted in him being capable of delivering difficult but high leverage passes. Improvement in PNR passing would complement his scoring from the PNR, as well as alleviate the loss of Belangel, who was one of the better playmakers in the league.
In Season 84, Ildefonso only trailed Belangel, LJ Gonzales, and Jerom Lastimosa in scoring off of PNRs. Being able to blend playmaking to his scoring would only make him harder to guard and would lead to an easier offense for his teammates as well:
He isn’t without flaws. Ildefonso seems wired to be a scorer and can ignore open teammates in favor of taking difficult shots. Though it doesn’t happen enough to be deemed problematic, it would be wise to cut down on it. He still struggles with physical defenses, as we saw with how UP limited his scoring with James Spencer. In WUBS, he had difficulty when put in tight situations with help defenders around him, and there is a propensity for him to lose control of the ball after bumps received from his opponents.
Lastly, his passing isn’t pinpoint accurate. Ildefonso’s deliveries aren’t always perfect and he can misjudge which pass would be best in a scenario. There are also some silver linings in his errors, though. In 0:34 of the following reel, he sends a pass to empty space without looking at that spot on the floor. It feels like he mapped out his teammate’s location on the floor and sent it to where he thought Gab Gomez would be, but either misjudged where Gomez would be or threw an inaccurate pass. Either way, if he can consistently make that pass, that would open up a lot for their team:
At 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, Ildefonso possesses good height to operate as a lead guard. He doesn’t have the explosive athleticism of similarly-sized PBA superstars such as Calvin Oftana and CJ Perez, but he’s further along in his playmaking development comparatively, whether you compare them at the same age or even at present. His three-level scoring and his budding playmaking will be what will drive the Ateneo offense in their quest to recover the crown. His growth from his time as a Bulldog to the previous season was already remarkable. Even still, there is another leap that he could take.
Kai Ballungay: Modern Forward
The biggest newcomer for Ateneo is undoubtedly Kai Ballungay. What you need to know about him is that he ticks all the boxes you want from a modern forward in the current era of basketball. He has the size to play inside at 6’7, the ball skills to contribute with the ball in his hands, the shooting to stretch the floor, and the athleticism and feel to be a versatile defender.
Size is still king in the UAAP. UP has 6-foot-11 Malick Diouf, 6-foot-8 Carl Tamayo, and a pair of 6-foot-6 players in Zavier Lucero and Henry Galinato. De La Salle University sports 6-foot-9 Michael Phillips, 6-foot-9 Bright Nwankwo, 6-foot-7 Raven Cortez, and 6-foot-6 Kevin Quiambao. Ballungay’s height and versatility are welcome additions to help Ange Kouame and Geo Chiu usher up the frontcourt.
In Season 84, Ateneo posted an 88.0 Defensive Rating (DRTG). They were first in the league and 6.0 points better than league average. However, this was the worst defense from them since Season 80 (before Ange Kouame arrived), where they were only 1.9 points better than average. This was also markedly worse than the two other seasons where Kouame played for them. In Season 81, they were 12.5 points better than average. In Season 82, they were 11.3 points better than average. The defense fell from anomalously great to just very good. One of the biggest reasons for it is the loss of Will Navarro’s secondary rim protection. Lacking in size at the four, Ateneo had no answers at the rim on the occasions that Kouame was pulled to the perimeter.
Enter Ballungay, whose size and leaping ability give Ateneo the support they need in those situations. In addition, he’s mobile for his size and capable of defending the perimeter for stretches. His feet may not be the quickest, but he has fast hands capable of accurately swiping at the ball on the move to help him out. He’s a versatile defender capable of contributing inside and outside, and that’s enough to help restore the luster of their defense alongside Kouame:
On offense, he’s a solid finisher inside as a lob and a roll threat by Ateneo. His size, fluidity, and mobility allowed him to get a ton of easy points inside. In total, 62% of his shots came from inside the arc and he was able to make good on 59% of these attempts. His ability to move without the ball and run in transition was a source of a lot of easy points:
Based on the three games played, Ballungay doesn’t seem like a dominant finisher who you can just dump the ball to. Though he is quick and a decent leaper, he struggled to score inside when contested or in a congested paint. Excluding the game against UPH, he only shot 42.9-percent from inside. He isn’t a fluid finisher capable of contorting his body to avoid contact or change the point of release on the ball. Instead, he accepts contact from vertical defenders and this throws off his shot. This could prove to be a problem against a team like La Salle that has a bevy of limbs that they can throw his way:
Where he truly starts to show his potential is his ability to do something with the ball. Balunggay can take the ball himself in transition and in the halfcourt. A person his size being able to charge to the rim comfortably would draw a ton of defensive attention and free up a teammate in the dunker spot or on the outside. He should be able to blow by most UAAP bigs, and this adds an extra dimension to an already elite offensive team:
The biggest skill flash from him was the ability to shoot off of movement, which allows a player to move to gaps in the defense and get open shots. This is more valuable than being able to shoot from a stationary position as it’s harder to scheme against. He made four triples in his two appearances, but all of them were from one game. He showed the ability to run out to behind the arc from inside, which would either pull away a big and give his team an opening inside or give him a free shot. Despite only making triples in one of his games, the shot looks promising. There’s good energy transfer in his shot starting from the catch and the footwork on the catch looks fluid whether he hops or does the 1-2 step. More likely than not, the shooting is real. Further strengthening this is the fact that he’s comfortable drilling them from the midrange as well:
Ballungay won’t fix every single one of Ateneo’s problems, but he’s possibly enough to make those problems feel like they don’t exist. His performance next season (and how quickly he acclimates himself to Philippine basketball) will be one of the biggest keys to their success. There’s a lot to love about his game and it’s easy to envision how much of an impact he’ll have on the floor.
Forthsky Padrigao: Floor General-in-Training
Ateneo’s most important loss was the departure of Belangel for South Korea to play for the Daegu KOGAS Pegasus. With Forthsky Padrigao starting in all three WUBS games, this move seems to have accelerated his timetable. How he acclimates to his increased role and responsibilities is the biggest question that Ateneo faces.
You can’t talk about Padrigao without talking about his court vision. He’s capable of seeing open lanes before the defense realizes the gaps. He’s also one of the best passers in terms of accuracy and ball placement. In particular, he has terrific, feathery touch on his lob passes. He sees opportunities early and often. This means defenses can’t relax when he has the ball because if they do, he will find the easy shot. He can still improve his deliveries by improving his passing with one hand instead of turning his body to fire his passes with two hands. This would lessen the time it takes for the ball to get to the open man and open up more passing angles to him:
He would also do well to improve keeping a live dribble. Padrigao tends to pick the ball up with two hands which not only shaves time off the clock, but also limits his options, forces an offensive reset, and ends a phase of their attack. Dribbling would allow the ball handler to create or find options that would otherwise not be there had they killed their live dribble. In some of these possessions, the ball pick-ups were probably either due to the need to rotate the ball due to the presence of the zone (meaning: picking it up was a planned part of the possession) or due to being made uncomfortable. In either case, Padrigao could have probably gotten better passing angles had he picked up the ball a beat later. Being able to keep the ball on a string and continuously probe and pressure defenses is a skill that every high-level playmaker has.
This is not to say that he can’t probe with the ball. There are occasions where he’s shown he can and does. Padrigao has displayed the ability to string the defense along and draw defensive attention for an extra second or two, which is enough to open up a passing lane for a good shot.
Padrigao takes a lot of tough shots. The optimistic point of view is to watch the times he makes it because he does make some of them. He’s made contested shots off the dribble from three and inside the arc and he’s made jumpers off of major movement, too. The optimist will believe that in conjunction with his fantastic touch on his passes and these shotmaking flashes, he’ll eventually improve enough to consistently make these shots. He seems to have strengthened his core too, which has resulted in some visible improvement in the lower body portion of his jumper.
Even if there’s optimism, we still have to be realistic. A lot of the shots he takes are shots that are way above his pay grade. In WUBS, he had shooting splits of 31.4%/33.3%/50.0% and this was aided by two triples that went in off the glass. These numbers go along with his prior data. In Season 84, he shot 44.0% from the field and 36.8% from deep while missing both of his free throws. This 25-shot sample size isn’t enough to presume he’s improved from his past numbers. In 13 FIBA games, he had shooting splits of 20.0%/15.5%/46.2% on a 90-shot sample. In 40 UAAP Jrs. games, he had shooting splits of 33.1%/21.0%/49.0% on a 513-shot sample. It’s pretty unreasonable to believe that Padrigao has improved enough to warrant taking those shots and to consider them as good possessions.
There are two issues that contribute to his tough shot-taking. First, it’s shot perception, which is what a player perceives to be a good shot. Shot perception takes time to adjust for young players, especially ones who have lived off of taking tough shots at lower levels. Long twos and off-the-dribble jumpers with a lot of time left on the floor aren’t great shots, and that has to be learned.
Another factor to consider is his inability to create separation with his handle and with his athleticism. A common theme in a lot of these shots is that they are contested. A hand is in his face, not by choice, but by the inability to shake his man off. Lack of elite burst, shiftiness, and strength all contribute to the fact that most of the time, he’s unable to create objectively good looks.
Padrigao has a lot of growing to do on the court. Among the three guys discussed here, he’s the one that’s furthest from being a strong positive contributor for the team. That doesn’t mean he won’t be or that he can’t be. That’s why teams prepare and coaches guide players to their ideal selves. Belangel is a tough act to follow and replicating him will be impossible. However, a Belangel clone isn’t needed. What Ateneo needs is the best version of Padrigao showing up and taking the reins of their offense.
Can Ateneo reclaim the crown? The answer is yes. The Blue Eagles might not be the overwhelming favorites that they have been for the past few years, but they’re still a great team filled with talented players and backed by one of the best coaching staff in the country. On paper, they can compete with any team and come up on top. Now will Ateneo actually be able to reclaim the crown? That can only be answered by Ildefonso, Ballungay, Padrigao, and the rest of the Blue Eagles when they take the floor.