WORDS by Miguel Caramoan
Death, taxes, and Ateneo is once again back in the Finals. The Tab Baldwin era has been a success, as they have a chance to secure their fourth crown in six years in the second iteration of the Battle of Katipunan this 2022.
This season felt a bit different though, which the Ateneo squad might even admit. There were signs of vulnerability and flaws were much more evident, which the other teams quickly pounced on. That’s why making it back to Finals feels much fulfilling for this batch of Blue Eagles.
We could not discount the fact that Ateneo still had the talent in the top half of their rotation. Ange Kouame (even though not in 100% shape) remained to be part of the best players in the UAAP. Dave Ildefonso’s season could not be his best one, but he has still provided enough for the team. Veteran BJ Andrade helped steady the ship throughout the season.
Now the concern is who could make up the production vacated by the guys like SJ Belangel, Gian Mamuyac, and Tyler Tio. And it didn’t take long for that concern to be resolved, with the emergence of Kai Ballungay.
If you followed Ateneo during their build-up to Season 85, hearing about Ballungay would not be much of a surprise. The track record of this basketball program in producing high-quality players is nothing new, so seeing him shine in the preseason made the seven other schools sigh anew.
Expectations then started to pile up, but like every rookie (technically in the UAAP), Ballungay had to endure the growing pains. To be fair, the notion of growing pains was experienced by the whole team, as they sought consistency from the other guys to step up.
As the season progressed, everyone got comfortable with their roles and probably Ballungay being the most adept of them all.
It’s true that there’s a player in the Blue Eagles who could be in the leaderboard in statistical points, but what separates Ballungay has been his proficiency, and yes it matters in basketball. We’re here to discuss further why Ballungay warrants the spotlight.
A good snapshot to prove the preceding statement correct is looking at some significant data. The 20-year-old Ballungay has been putting up substantial scoring averages this season so far (11.1 points in 15 games played) paired with crazy efficiency shooting from the field (66.1 TS%).
How good is that true shooting percentage of Ballungay? It is 20.1% relatively higher compared to league average, per Stats by Ryan. Also, worth-noting is that we are using this metric because it gives out a proper context of shot diets of a particular player. If it happens to confuse you reading this, the basic explanation is that Kai Ballungay is good.
Time to dissect every facet that has made Ballungay effective on the offensive end.
In Season 85, it has been proven that Ballungay’s strongest suit is his ability to drain catch-and-shoot threes. Through all the games he has played, including their Final Four matchup against Adamson, the 6’7” forward shot 14-34 (41.2%). I’ll reiterate it again, this is impressive stuff.
Zooming in to the catch-and-shoot aspect of Ballungay, a wrinkle where Ateneo went was the pick-and-pop option, where he is the one who pops out. Although the sample size isn’t a ton (only 7.7% of his possessions in this playtype), it’s still productive as he scores 1.2 PPP on those situations.
Ateneo’s offense continues to be the best among the crop in the UAAP, where they scored 100.1 points per 100 possessions in the eliminations. Since Coach Tab took helm for the Blue Eagles, they have been raved as a great half court executing team.
Despite that, sprinkling some early offense attacks for Ateneo has also worked out. According to InStat, they still don’t generate much possession in the transition (second to the last), but it’s the fourth best scoring playtype of the team (0.93 PPP).
It only helps to initiate early offense and manufacture scoring in those open court opportunities with Ballungay on your team. Another statistical nugget provided by InStat states that he averages 1.5 PPP in transition. With that hops and good speed for his size, Ballungay is just a terrific above the rim play finisher.
Not a frequent alternative that Ballungay does is posting up (10% of his possessions). It makes sense because he thrives playing on the perimeter. But at his height, Ballungay can surely generate points closer to the rim and versus smaller defenders.
At age 20 and eternity of college eligibility left, sky’s the limit for Ballungay. Next step for him is to be able to create his own shots. The good news is that he has a lot of time to develop that and has the luxury of having a great coaching staff behind him. Indeed, a tough predicament for the opposition in the coming years.
We are once again bound to have another classic between Ateneo and UP (hopefully for three games). Let’s settle the debate by saying that there is no definitive underdog going into this series. Both are well-oiled machines that will have the personnel to dominate the opposing team.
If Ateneo aims to be the dominant one, they will need this version of Kai Ballungay to show up to reclaim that UAAP crown.
[Photos by Vyn Radovan]