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Raising stock in the ‘bubble’

Chua, Caperal up for PBA most improved player award

By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

THE tournament “bubble” that the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) staged last year proved to be a successful and memorable one. And for some players, it was a great opportunity to raise their stock in the league.

Justin Chua of the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters, Prince Caperal of the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Kings, and Reynel Hugnatan of the Meralco Bolts were just some of the players who had a great run in the PBA bubble at Clark City in Angeles, Pampanga from October till December, contributing their fair share in the impressive run of their teams.

For their efforts, they are being considered for the league’s most improved player award in awarding ceremonies to be done virtually on Jan. 17.

Also in the running for the award, given to players who showed considerable improvement in their game from previous seasons, are Jason Perkins of Phoenix, Javee Mocon of the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, and Raul Soyud of the NLEX Road Warriors.

Mr. Chua, 31, has been a journeyman in the PBA since being drafted 10th overall in the 2013 rookie draft.

He has played for six different teams, having stops with Globalport (now Northport), which drafted him; San Miguel, Barako Bull, Meralco, TNT, and now, Phoenix.

Given the opportunity to showcase what he could do in the bubble, the former Ateneo stalwart did not disappoint.

Mr. Chua was among the top big men in the reconfigured Philippine Cup, done so to adapt with the prevailing conditions with the coronavirus pandemic, while helping the Fuel Masters to come to within a win of barging into their first-ever PBA Finals appearance.

He posted improved numbers of 11.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game (conference-best), and shot 37% from three-point range.

His solid play complemented the equally stellar performances of teammates Matthew Wright and Mr. Perkins, and later on come-backing Calvin Abueva, to make Phoenix one of the more consistent teams in the bubble and to watch out for in the coming seasons.

Recognizing he did something special last conference after years of struggles of finding the right fit, Mr. Chua admitted that winning the most improved player award is something he would welcome if ever.

“Hopefully, the award will be given to me. Of course, to be considered for it is already a big thing, but being in the league in seven years and winning an award like this will be something. Hopefully, I win,” said Mr. Chua on The Chasedown television program last weekend.

Mr. Caperal, 27, was a journeyman as well early in his career and played in the shadows of more established stars in Barangay Ginebra until he broke out in the PBA bubble.

With long-time Kings big man Greg Slaughter deciding to take a sabbatical from the game, Arellano University product Caperal was thrust to a more significant role and instantly made an impact.  

Averaged just 1.2 points and 1.5 rebounds a game in the previous season, Mr. Caperal went on to tally averages of 9.64 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.0 assist in 23 minutes of play per game in the elimination round of the Philippine Cup.

His ability to hit shots from the outside, including triples, gave the Kings’ attack added dimension as they eventually went on to bag the lone PBA title in 2020.

Mr. Caperal’s contribution did not go unnoticed by the team officials, who look at him as continuing to be part of Barangay Ginebra’s rotation moving forward.

Prior to joining the Kings, Mr. Caperal, who was selected in the second round of the 2014 rookie draft, played for Globalport, Barako Bull/Phoenix, and Mahindra/Kia.

While already 42 years old, Mr. Hugnatan, for his part, showed one can still improve and make a difference in the league.

Played off the bench most of the time for the Bolts in the bubble, 17-year PBA veteran Hugnatan never failed to leave his mark in the game, averaging 12 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.33 assists per contest.

His play in the playoffs, particularly against Barangay Ginebra in the semifinals, was solid that saw him make big plays on both ends.

If Mr. Hugnatan wins the most improved player award he will become the oldest player in the league to win it, dislodging Dante Gonzalgo (Añejo Rum) and Niño Canaleta (AIR21), who won it when they were 31 years old.

Apart from the most improved player award, also up for grabs in the PBA Awards Night are the best player of the conference, outstanding rookie, sportsmanship award, and outstanding/elite five.

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