With the 13th pick of the 2022 PBA Draft, Blackwater selected Ato Ular. Since then, he’s been the clear frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year plum, averaging 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds on 66.2-percent True Shooting (16.8-percent above league average).
Yesterday, he had the best game of his young career. Ular tallied 34 points, including 15 points in the pivotal fourth quarter. That led to a dramatic two-point victory in favor of the Bossings.
How did he pour in a ton of points? Close your eyes. Imagine a 30-plus point explosion. What do you expect to see? If it’s a perimeter player, you’re probably expecting pull-up jumpers, daring forays inside, and lights-out shooting from range. If it’s a big, you’re probably imagining powerful dunks, elite post footwork, and overwhelming physicality inside.
Well, Ular hardly did any of that. Instead, he played his game within the context of his team and Blackwater. And at the forefront of the attack was Yousef Taha, getting Ular the shots he needed to make an impact on the game.
What Does Ular Do?
Ular isn’t an on-ball scorer. You’re not going to give him the ball and get out of the way. This doesn’t make him worse of a player than guys who can create their own shot consistently. The best basketball player isn’t the guy who can beat everyone else 1-on-1; it’s the guy who can help their team win while playing 5-on-5.
Based on what he’s shown us this conference, Ato Ular is an elite play finisher. He is the guy you want on the receiving end of a drop pass. He has a nice soft touch inside which allows him to finish tough shots against taller and heftier defenders. He’s shooting 69-percent on shots at the rim on 8.2 attempts per game and he’s also making 60% of his shots in “floater range”.
Ular is also a bit of a floor spacer making seven out of 12 of his long ball attempts – good for 58.3%. The percentage will likely go down as he takes more shots, but he’s made enough to make teams want to guard him along the perimeter.
He relies on a steady diet of easy shots: cuts, drop-offs, and putbacks. Of his 47 made field goals, 35 of them (74.4-percent) were off assists. Of the 12 remaining makes, 11 of them were off of putbacks. He has a great sense of knowing the proper timing of cuts and he plays off of his teammates well.
Ular also has a fairly decent second jump, and his high rate of activity allows him to be in the right place at the right time for his putback attempts. In addition, he has good mobility going up and down the court, which allows him to act as a threat in transition for lobs and easy buckets.
Again, he’s not a creator by any stretch. Ular with the ball in hand is not a huge threat yet. It’s possible that he will be in time, but at the moment, the results of his attempts at ball-handling don’t look too good. This is fine. You don’t need to pound the air out of the ball to be a good basketball player. Being an on-ball threat isn’t everything.
How Does Taha Unlock Him?
Right now, there isn’t a better passing big man in the PBA than Yousef Taha. His 4.8 assists per game lead all big men. Beyond this, his 7.6 Passer Rating beats out great big playmakers like Beau Belga (6.0), JR Quiñahan (5.9), and Christian Standhardinger (6.6). This number also eclipses Scottie Thompson (5.8), LA Tenorio (6.1), Mark Barroca (6.8), Kevin Alas (7.5), Robert Bolick (7.1), and Gabe Norwood (7.2). Only Jio Jalalon (8.1) ranks above him.
There is an actual argument that he’s the best passer in this conference – regardless of position. Watch this play. Jvee Casio casually sets a screen for Rashawn McCarthy. McCarthy goes through the motions, probably thinking that the ball won’t get to him. Taha then floated the pass over four defenders who didn’t know it was coming to McCarthy, who might not have realized he was open.
Taha assisted on six of Ular’s 15 made shots, but he affected nearly all of them in one way or another. The obvious plays where Ular got help from Taha were the assists. In the first shot of the reel, Taha attacked in the low post off of a face-up. He forced Jason Perkins to help, which left Ular open for a split second. That was enough for Taha to dish it. Ular’s length and touch then allowed him to make the push shot over the shorter Javee Mocon.
Next, three white shirts surrounded Taha including Matthew Wright, who was probably supposed to be keeping the weak side in check. As mentioned earlier, Ular has a great sense of timing in his cuts, and he begins his move when Wright reaches the farthest distance from him. Taha gives him a beautiful wraparound pass, and he finishes strong against Perkins who can’t jump with him.
In the last one, Taha rebounds it. His heft allows him to keep two Fuelmasters behind him, paving the way for an easy shot
Taha has become one of the most dangerous short roll passers in the PBA. A short roll is when the big man sets a screen and receives a pass rolling to the rim, but stops short of it at or near the free throw line. In the first play of the clip, Phoenix sends two toward Casio. Casio calmly floats a pass to Taha, forcing Perkins to rotate and leave Ular open.
Using his terrific body control, Ular contorts midair to finish the layup. Practically, the same thing happens in the next two clips. Why do they keep sending two to Casio? Because he’s been a killer this conference, averaging 13.5 points and 3.8 assists on 60.4-percent True Shooting (11-percent above average). The plan might have been to get the ball out of his hands.
The solution to this is to give it to Taha, who now has a 4-on-3 advantage and the vision to find the open man. Ular’s sense of timing in his cuts is maximized by Taha, who can make these reads in his sleep.
Now we move on to the more subtle ways Taha helps Ular. First, let’s talk about roll gravity. Roll gravity is the rolling big’s ability to pull defensive attention towards him which then frees up his teammates. The big has to be a threat to catch the ball and finish at the rim. Given the threat, teams will rotate to prevent him from scoring inside and this leads to more openings.
First play of the clip below, Taha rolls and draws Perkins toward him. Ular moves back a couple of feet and McCarthy finds him. Ular gets three the hard way. The fraction of time that Perkins inched toward Taha to tag him gave Ular the time he needed to set up for a jumper and the opening McCarthy needed to get a passing angle.
Second play, Taha rolls to the rim and then Larry Muyang tags him. This leaves Sean Anthony alone on the weak side to split between Ular and McCarthy. Anthony sees Taha trying to post up inside and goes toward him to help if he receives the ball. He points toward Ular, but Tyler Tio doesn’t rotate in time. Ular drains the triple. Ular was open because the priority of the defense was to protect the rim and help on Taha in the post.
The next to plays are simpler. Third play, Phoenix is in a zone, while Blackwater runs a spread ball screen (ball screen that starts with all players behind the three point line). Taha’s roll forces Muyang to tag to prevent a layup. This leaves Ular open and that’s an easy three. Last play, Perkins tags Muyang’s roll and McCarthy finds Ular for a triple. Taha’s roll gravity gives Ular open looks and practically assists him despite the stat sheet not recording this as an assist.
Taha even helps Ular with his putbacks. On this first play, Taha has the attention of both bigs. Perkins had to guard him and Muyang had to box him out. Without anyone worried about Ular, he flew in and grabbed the ball for a putback. In the next play, Perkins has his eyes on Taha which frees Ular up to do whatever. He doesn’t get boxed out and he gives Perkins a gentle nudge to get space for the rebound. His fantastic touch-up close then lets him finish.
So, why are teams giving Taha so much attention? Why can’t they just ignore him or not send in the extra help?
It’s because he’s a dangerous inside scorer in his own right.
At 6-foot-7 with a strong frame, Taha just can’t be ignored inside. Here, we see what happens when you don’t help on him. First, Anthony switches on Casio. The best way to beat a switch is with a slip and Taha does just that. Muyang doesn’t tag Taha and sticks with Ular (as opposed to what we’ve been seeing the rest of the time) and that’s one of the easiest layups you can get.
Next, they leave Mocon on an island with Taha in the post. Chris Lalata is wary of Ular who already has 34 points. Alone in single coverage, Taha has the size, heft, and touch to bully guys, draw contact, and finish at the rim. He’s a handful to handle inside and his newfound passing ability makes him even more of a pain.
Taha and Ular are a pair of front-court players whose skill sets help and complement each other. Taha is a good post-up big with a terrific sense for passing. Ular is a great finisher who moves well without the ball and can space the floor for Taha and provide him solid passing angles.
Ato Ular scored 34 points, but he didn’t do it on his own. Yousef Taha was there to find him and give him enough space to succeed. Likewise, Ular was capable of shooting, cutting with good timing, and finishing without which Taha’s passes would amount to no points. They’re a great pair that plays off each other well and helps the other realize the best possible versions of themselves in the PBA.
The second game of each PBA gameday is live-streamed on SMART Sports.