WORDS by Miguel Caramoan
The storyline for the NU Bulldogs this UAAP Season 85 has been their depth. Try checking out the leaderboard for the statistical points, and you won’t see a name from this squad. But look, here they are vying for a chance to win another chip.
It feels like every single guy that NU head coach Jeff Napa has called upon was up to the challenge when needed. To put it simply, they just epitomized team basketball.
Even with the presence of veteran and top-scorer John Lloyd Clemente and prized rookie Kean Baclaan, what made this crop of Bulldogs special was the other guys. It feels unfair to just put the spotlight on one specific player that stepped up.
Hear me out though, as I try to make sense why Jake Figueroa deserves some of your love.
Highly touted coming out of high school (Season 82 Jrs. MVP), the transition to college didn’t come easy for Figueroa. From essentially playing some minutes as a big, into an interchangeable guard/wing for NU. Another aspect as to what the second year player and the team is so versatile.
Numbers really don’t pop out for Figueroa in his first two seasons in the UAAP. With the rise of analytics, he isn’t someone that would fit the bill of a modern player, especially with his lack of outside sniping (only shooting at 9.5% from rainbow country).
But hey, sometimes the intangibles of one player isn’t measured through the stat sheet alone. Watching the tape should be essential. And if you happen to do that, Jake Figueroa is one the guys you’ll appreciate.
The Bulldogs finished the elimination round with a record of 9-5, good for the third seed as they enter the Final Four once again since Season 78. It was all possible through their defense, which ranked third overall (allowing just 88 points per 100 possessions). This pretty much compensated for the lack of offensive efficiency they had that was only good for sixth in the league, per Stats by Ryan (90.1 points per 100 possessions).
Like the old saying goes, defense wins you championships. Looking at NU’s roster, they sure don’t lack the lanky wings and bigs to make your offense struggle. The likes of Mike Malonzo, RJ Minerva, and Jolo Manansala can bother your best perimeter players. Pair it with the rim protection of foreign student-athlete Omar John, no wonder they have been successful on that end.
For Figueroa, he blends well with the defensive wings NU has. At 6’2” and a long wingspan, he has been tasked to hound some of the top guys on the opposition. To reiterate, this type of impact isn’t going to reflect (unless there is an available advanced metric here in the country) in the box score. Yet, it is as valuable for his team’s defense.
If there could be one aspect to Figueroa’s game that will impress you with numbers is his steals. He averages 1.43 of them per game, which is third among the team. It’s only telling that NU has been the second best in this category.
Let’s watch how Figueroa has been a menace in the passing lanes.
This time we peep at the pesky on-ball defense of Figueroa that has caused multiple turnovers.
Speaking of the advanced tracking mentioned earlier, this probably contradicts the point about Figueroa not being loved by the numbers, but why not. It supplements the description of him being an elite defender.
According to InStat, Figueroa only allows 0.46 PPP when defending isolations and 0.69 PPP in pick-and-rolls where the handler is play finisher. Those who find these data kind of vague, if
Figueroa’s biggest asset in NU’s offense is his slashing ability. He gets to the cup easily and uses his body properly to evade his initial guy plus the help side defender at the rim.
Probably the most underrated part of a sound basketball player is self-awareness. We can definitely say that to Figueroa because he doesn’t force himself to be a guy that he isn’t. In his 118 field goal attempts this season, 98 of them came in the 2-point area, where he shoots at a 42.9% clip.
Indeed, Figueroa knows his strengths on offense.
Another facet of Figueroa’s offensive skill set is vision to find his teammates. Again, it may be an unpopular opinion because the assists on average isn’t as high (2.1 assists), but the passes he has dished out has resulted in optimal looks. Here’s some of the passing chops he has shown.
To be frank, there’s nothing flashy in Figueroa’s game. It will not make you jump out of your seat because of excitement, but sometimes a player that makes the right plays is enough. He may not be the most skilled guy in the UAAP, the things Figueroa brings to the table is as serviceable as the flashiest player out there.
I believe that the aforementioned interpretation that we had on Figueroa is also applicable to the NU Bulldogs. That’s why they have been successful this season. They just don’t stop working, especially on the defensive end.
The question is will it be sufficient to be able to take down the juggernaut in the UP Fighting Maroons. We don’t know. As cliche as this may sound, we have seen stranger things happen. Blueprint was there in their first round encounter, but the Final Four is a different animal.
Only thing certain is we saw how the NU Bulldogs encapsulated the concept of playing as a cohesive unit. Jake Figueroa is just one of the pieces that made the engine work.
[Photos by Vyn Radovan]