Photo by Angela Davocol
Fresh from steering the NU Bullpups to a title, three-time UAAP champion coach Jeff Napa was named as the head coach of the Letran Knights; four months after Aldin Ayo bolted to UAAP powerhouse La Salle. With the departures of top gunners Mark Cruz and Kevin Racal, Napa inherited the remnants of Ayo’s championship team led by Rey Nambatac, Mcjour Luib, and Jom Sollano to kick-start his collegiate coaching career.
Ayo’s 2015 squad was undersized; they relied on speed to power their ‘Mayhem defense.’ They placed reliance on their heavy guard rotation which includes Nambatac, Luib, Jerrick Balanza, and JP Calvo together with agile forwards Sollano, Bong Quinto, and Felix Apreku.
In short, Napa never had the right pieces when he came to Letran. The multi-titled coach formed a dynasty in the UAAP by developing young big men and imposing their size underneath; certain pieces which the Knights lacked when he came aboard.
This time though, it’s a far different story for Napa. The Knights’ head tactician will now be deploying the best line-up he’s ever had in his short tenure in Muralla. In this article, we will analyze the Knights’ deep arsenal heading into Season 94.
Diamonds in the rough
Napa found diamonds in the rough last season in the form of Alex Mandreza, Darryl Pascual, and King Caralipio who all played quality minutes for Letran. Now though, Mandreza is the only one remaining in the line-up with Pascual serving his time as a reserve and Caralipio curiously left out of the final roster.
This season, the Knights who will look to replicate this coup are former Chiang Kai Shek standouts EJ Agbong, Jason Celis, and Shamasneh Banez.
Agbong is the ultimate glue guy for the CKS Blue Dragons who took down the powerhouse San Beda Red Cubs in the 2018 Metro Manila Basketball League. The ex-Adamson stalwart will be tasked to play behind Knights’ main man Bong Quinto while Celis can provide spark of the bench and exploit his scoring gifts behind JP Calvo.
Another player to look-out for is St. Claire sharpshooter Koi Galvelo who is expected to light it up off the bench; bolstering Napa’s offensive artillery.
Meanwhile, Hanes King of the Hardcourt ruuner-up Jeremiah Taladua showed a lot of potential as a two-way guard in the past season. The former LPU cager was a regular starter for Letran; he then repaid it with a couple of big games including a 16-points outburst in the stepladder game against San Sebastian which the team lost.
Now, with a loaded backcourt; expect Taladua to log limited minutes while providing the same intensity on defense and tremendous outside shooting.
These three rookies, along with Mandreza and Taladua is set to hold the fort once the Knights’ go-to-guys hit the bench
Changing of the guards
One of the biggest blows that the team had to endure this year was the departure of star Rey Nambatac. Last season, when things got shaky, Nambatac steadied the ship. The spitfire guard sacrificed his shots and decided to do a little bit of everything for the Knights; allowing other guards like Balanza and Calvo to get used to the limelight.
Luckily for the Knights, former UE gunner Bonbon Batiller offers the same skill set that Nambatac possesses. As seen in this year’s Filoil Preseason cup, Napa recognizes Batiller’s high basketball IQ as the latter became a regular inclusion in crucial stretches of the game.
Batiller is also a proven scorer; he can light it out from outside and blow past his defenders for a lay-up whenever he wants. One undervalued facet of his game though, is his play-making ability which can be very valuable for Letran. Batiller was a shell of his old self, but expect the former UE stud to give the Knights a massive boost in the backcourt.
Another addition to the Knights’ guard rotation is former Batang Gilas ace Fran Yu. A bright young prospect who has enough experience to deliver quality minutes off the bench. Batiller and Yu, together with the ever-consistent JP Calvo and a more matured Jerrick Balanza, the Knights’ backcourt will surely give the opponents’ guards a tough time.
Additional help in the paint
Letran’s weakness was exploited last season when rising star Jeo Ambohot suffered a wrist injury that sidelined him for a couple of weeks. Ambohot’s absence left a big hole inside the paint. The Knights lacked size and had a tough time defending bigger opponents underneath.
This time though, the tables have turned for the Knights with the arrival of Taft towers Larry Muyang and Christian Fajarito.
After being buried in La Salle’s packed frontcourt, Muyang looks to revitalize his career with Letran as he is now tasked to lead the Knights’ charge from inside the paint. The ex-Archer showed a lot of promise as he posted a bunch of double-double games in the Filoil Preseason Cup along with former Blazer Fajarito.
Lack of size has been a long-age problem for the Knights, but with Muyang and Fajarito fortifying the frontcourt with Gilas Cadet Ambohot and veteran Christian Balagasay; the Knights’ long-time dilemma will now be a thing of the past.
Another silver lining in this is that Ambohot can now focus on developing his skills as a stretch-four while Muyang, Balagasay, and Fajarito take turns patrolling the paint.
Still, despite the vast improvement in the frontcourt, expect the Knights to go as far as where team skipper Bong Quinto will take them. Quinto will be playing his final year for Muralla this season, and bank on the former NCAA Juniors MVP to do whatever it takes to will his team to the finals. With his superb performance in the Filoil cup, expect Quinto to be a dark horse candidate in the MVP race this season 94.