M-V-J: Belangel, Gonzales, Cansino are leading the way in the Juniors MVP race

13 games down. One to go.

And from the looks of it, the playoff race will go down the wire. The Ateneo Blue Eaglets remain unbeaten, clinching the top seed for the entire competition. But whether they punch a one-way ticket to the Finals remains to be seen.

Hot on their heels are the Nazareth School of National University Bullpups, who have secured second place, and more importantly, a twice-to-beat advantage. Meanwhile, the Far Eastern University Baby Tamaraws are guaranteed a playoff berth, after sealing the deal with a win yesterday.

Adamson and UST, who both failed to capitalize on yesterday’s games, remain deadlocked at 6-7. Provided they finish the season with the same record, Adamson has the tiebreaker and will advance to the playoffs.

But the playoff race isn’t the only race that’s heating up. It seems we won’t be able to say for sure who deserves to bring home the MVP trophy until after the regular season. So let’s make the case for the top three MVP candidates, who together sound like they could be nephews of a grumpy cartoon animal—SJ, LJay, and CJ.


SJ Belangel

Season Averages:

16.2 PPG (3rd) / 5.1 RPG / 4.8 APG (4th) / 1.6 SPG (7th) / 0.3 BPG / 3.8 TO (5th)

50% FG% (5th) / 35% 3PT / 73% FT (3rd)

Oh Captain, my captain! Belangel’s claim to the MVP hinges on his role as the best player on the best team in the league. And hoo boy, has he played that role to a tee.

Like any decorated floor general, SJ does whatever his team needs to do in that given moment. Score. Distribute. Defend. Cheer from the bench. You name it.

But frankly, the most impressive thing about SJ is how in control he is when he’s on the floor—even when he’s hurtling down the court like a freight train, with double teams ambushing him the second the ball is inbounded to him, Belangel is dictating the action with unshakable ease.

It’s that steady control that’s led Ateneo to an unbeaten record. He didn’t do it alone, obviously. And that’s the biggest (and only) argument against SJ. Ateneo is so stacked, it’s ridiculous. Their last five of Belangel, Kai Sotto, Dave Ildelfonso, Joaqui Manuel, and Jason Credo could be franchise cornerstones individually. Together, it’s almost not even fair.

Managing and leading that much talent is an achievement in itself, which once again, is a credit to SJ. The wisdom he’s exhibited in getting each of his guys going—making the correct decision most, if not every time—at this age is nothing short of remarkable.

With one game left in the elimination rounds, Ateneo looks to replicate the championship-winning season sweep of the Ravena-led Eaglets of 2010 and the Nieto-led Eaglets of 2015. How high the Belangel-led Eaglets fly determines SJ’s MVP chances.


Ljay Gonzales

Season Averages:

15.5 PPG (7th) / 7.8 RPG / 5.3 APG (2nd) / 2.4 SPG (1st) / 0.2 BPG / 5.0 TO (1st)    

39% FG / 37% 3PT (3rd) / 55% FT

Last year’s Finals MVP approaches the game a little bit differently. Like any other star player, LJay does every thing his team asks him to, which happens to be just that—everything.

Forget control. Ljay’s unhinged brand of basketball is as potent as it is chaotic. For every minute Gonzales is on the floor, he is gonna give the Baby Tamaraws everything he’s got, which is all you can really ask of a basketball player. And it shows in the stat sheet, with LJay’s name popping up in category after category, both offensive and defensive.

Reminiscent of another mercurial MVP point guard (hint: Russ something), LJay loves to launch himself against towering bigs for the rebound—at one point, Gonzales was in the Top 10, the only point guard on the list—so that he can set the offense while opposing teams are still backpedaling.

Of course, in trying to do everything, LJay often falls into the trap of doing too much. Gonzales is constantly forcing the issue, which has him leading the league in turnovers and possessing a sub-40% field goal percentage. FEU lives by him, and dies by him.

In the midst of a transition year for FEU, with mainstays like Kenji Roman off to the big leagues, LJay has willed the defending champs to third place in an especially competitive elimination round. Together with running mate RJ Abarrientos (who is having a breakout year and is also definitely a candidate for Most Valuable Jay), Gonzales is there to make sure the Baby Tamaraws won’t go quietly come playoff time.


CJ Cansino

Season Averages:

24.5 PPG (1st) / 13.2 RPG (1st) / 2.8 APG / 1.5 SPG / 0.9 BPG / 3.5 TO                   

44% FG / 30% 3PT (9th) / 77% FT (1st)

A month ago, the MVP was in the bag for Cansino. Marvel at the numbers while I insert a passage from the revered philosopher, scholar, and patron saint of irrational confidence Dion Waiters:

And those stats used to be even crazier! After the first round of eliminations, Cansino was boasting a stupefying 28 and 15 average, while carrying the UST Tiger Cubs to a 5-2 record in the first round, good for third best in the league.  He capped off the first round by obliterating the UE Junior Warriors with THIRTY TWO POINTS AND TWENTY FIVE REBOUNDS. I was ready to give him the MVP trophy then and there.

Right now, I can’t say the same thing. One on one, Cansino is still the most dominant player in the league. Ten people play the game of basketball however, and opposing teams have done their due diligence in making Cansino work to get the ball, and stifling him with double teams when he does get it. And it’s worked! Teams have brought down his average to a 24.5 and 13.2. Pathetic, I know.

But it’s been enough though to turn UST’s season around in the wrong way. The Tiger Cubs are currently fifth in the standings, and would need to win their final game while Adamson loses theirs to make it to the playoffs, and more to the point, for Cansino to be taken seriously as an MVP contender. Buckets may not lie, but nothing makes an MVP case like Ws.

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