12 October 2015

Bolts Facing the Hugnatan Conundrum

Forget about trading for more explosive point-guard, or how ready is veteran Jimmy Alapag to lead the Bolts, or whether Gary David should be spending so much time hanging out at the three-point line.

The biggest issue for the Bolts moving forward is getting a legit big man like Rabeh Al-Hussaini back in playing form to defend the post, protect the rim, score around the basket and play 33-38 minutes per night.

This isn’t exactly breaking news but look at it this way: If the Bolts don’t get Al-Hussaini back in shape, somehow, whether via conditioning, diet or yoga, they might wind up losing Reynel Hugnatan.

To clarify, they would be losing him in the figurative sense. It’s already happening. And even though the Bolts have acquired 6-foot-7 Kelly Nabong, it’s tough to miss what a toll their current plight is taking on the almost 37-year old veteran from Bacolod.

Here’s the thing about Hugnatan: He’s a really nice player, a unique talent with a multi-faceted game. Guys his height who can shoot, pass and handle the ball like he can aren’t terribly easy to find. Under the proper circumstances, he has the skills and the upside to develop into a valuable, versatile weapon for a team with a creative, potent offensive system. Think Global Port Batang Pier, which has been lost without a non-traditional big man with a similar skill set as Hugnatan.

Instead, because of the personnel deficiencies facing the Bolts, Hugnatan has to play the 5. He may be a veteran defender who can defend in the shaded area, but at 6-foot-4, he is not a PBA center. And it’s wearing on him in a big way.

After averaging 7.7 points per game with Meralco last season, Hugnatan has cratered, grabbing just over four rebounds per game with a couple of donuts sprinkled in there. He even went through a three-game stretch in which he shot a mind-boggling 0-for-5 from the floor. His playing time has decreased from 31.5 minutes two years ago to 24.0 minutes and has been straight benched on more than one occasion.

But none of this – not the reduction in minutes or points scored – has anything to do with offense. It’s the other end of the court that’s slowing Hugnaan down. He works hard but no amount of preparation can make up for the fact that he’s simply not equipped physically anymore to deal with the rigors of being a traditional PBA big man on defense.

It’s probably not a coincidence that those three games in which he could barely buy a hoop came against Purefoods Star Hotshots, Barangay Ginebra and San Miguel Beermen, teams with big, strong, athletic bigs. Hugnatan has real problems handling that kind of opponent on defense. He's even had issues with end of the years guys like the NLEX Road Warriors Asi Taulava and the Aces' Sonny Thoss.

The advanced numbers, from his player efficiency rating to his defensive rating to his defensive win shares, all put him around league average levels. He piles up fouls, making it difficult for him to get into any kind of rhythm. He’s just not strong or quick or big enough. And when he struggle as badly as he has of late, his confidence takes a direct hit.

He could become tentative on offense. Shots he is completely comfortable taking look before, now feel tougher. Instead of catching a pass from Mike Cortez that finds him in the exact, right spot and going up with it, he hesitate, the defense rotates to him and he is no longer open. And he either miss a shot he normally drill with eyes closed or just pass on it altogether.

The next thing the Bolts know, he is 0-for-5 over three games and spending time on the bench that he is used to spending on the floor. And when he is on the floor, he look unsure of both himself and his teammates. He can’t break free and just play his game.

This is the dilemma facing both Hugnatan and the Bolts right now. Hugnatan is not getting any younger. He cannot mold himself into someone who can handle most regular, current PBA big men. He is what he is. And the Bolts can’t hide him. Al-Hussaini, who also isn't on the same level as some of the bigs who have been feasting on the Bolts all season, is still a little bigger and a little stronger. Nabong is undersized as a power forward let alone at center despite his ample width. And John Ferriols is 6-foot-4.

Maybe Bolts’ coach Norman Black could try playing Hugnatan and Al-Hussaini together more, with the former staying in the paint and Al-Hussaini playing stretch-5, taking his man out to the perimeter and beating him off the dribble (he has a very quick first step for a big guy) and running him around screen so he can get open for jumpers. But that would take time away from Nabong, who is developing nicely into a solid, valuable player. He’s got to be out there.

So Hugnatan and the Bolts are stuck. The fact that Al-Hussaini is playing well in the pre-season and has developed an obvious rapport with the point-guards – particularly on the pick and roll – makes it easier for Bolts to play him ahead of Hugnatan. But what will that ultimately do to Hugnatan's confidence? And if the Bolts decide somewhere down the road that they want to try to move him along with some of their draft picks in exchange for a star player, won’t that be much more difficult to do if Hugnatan has turned into an unproductive veteran?

The answer is yes. Hugnatan is already close to ending his career. It is better for the Bolts to stick with him and honor him as one of the veteran players they retire together with Danny Ildefonso.

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