2021 PBA Governors’ Cup Early Review: Bolick, Santos are Silver Linings in NorthPort’s Winless Start

NorthPort’s winless start to the 2021 Governors’ Cup is nothing short of disappointing, but the high level of performances from their key locals serve as a silver lining.

NorthPort 2021 PBA Governors' Cup
Original photos via PBA Images

Overview

With the exception of their lopsided 26-point defeat at the hands of Ginebra, NorthPort has lost their other three games by an average margin of only 3.3 points. Those losses — all of which could have gone either way — came against three teams (NLEX, Alaska, San Miguel) that are currently positioned at the top half of the standings. They may be sporting a 0-4 record right now, but the close games, along with stellar productions from Robert Bolick and Arwind Santos, should be a warning to the league that this NorthPort squad is not to be taken lightly.

The Numbers So Far

Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
95.6 (11th)
104.9 (6th)
-9.3 (10th)

Robert Bolick’s offense and the Batang Pier’s potential on defense

Bolick is a superstar, and his import-like numbers are telling. He is leading all locals in scoring (20.5 points on 50.5% true shooting percentage, per RealGM) and all players in assists (9.2 assists on a 37% assist percentage). Despite being the primary ball-handler for NorthPort, Bolick still packs a respectable 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio. He knows where to find his teammates who are open at the corner, and his decisions off the pick-and-roll are steadily improving.

Those easy short passes he is making to his corner shooters is really a product of the respect that defenders have for his scoring ability. Bolick is a triple-threat operator on offense, and his scoring ranges from converting on contact finishes around the rim to hitting his long-range jumpers. His 25.7% shooting from the three-point line this conference could need some improvement, but it is not at all surprising considering that he’s launching his triples off the dribble. It can’t be advised that Bolick should try playing more off-the-ball because the Batang Pier don’t have another capable playmaker — the closest to that billing could be Nico Elorde, but he is only logging six minutes per game. Even then, Elorde does not pose a threat in terms of scoring, which makes it all the more difficult for him to set up his teammates because defenders are just anticipating that he will pass the ball.

As for the team’s defense, there is no doubt that there’s some real potential here. NorthPort has the sixth-best defensive rating in the league, and they rank third in team steals (8.2 steals). With Jamie Malonzo and Paolo Taha, they have two lengthy perimeter defenders who love to put in the effort on that end of the floor. The seven-footer Greg Slaughter and the 6-foot-8 Troy Rike may not have a lot of mobility, but they have the length to intimidate inside the paint. Arwind Santos is still a better defender than most frontcourt players in the PBA, and Bolick, their best player, is also putting in the defensive work (team-high 2.0 steals). 

NorthPort has the personnel to be a great defensive team — remember that they had the third-best defensive rating (97.1) during the 2021 Philippine Cup, per Stats by Ryan. If they can remain consistent on defense, and provide a bit more help for Bolick on offense, the Batang Pier should be able to chalk up some wins on the board.

Import uncertainty

Cameron Forte played just two games before knee problems forced him to sit out. But even then, he wasn’t the best fit for what NorthPort wanted to do on offense. Sure, he was a monster on the glass (19.0 rebounds), but his offense was limited to inside the paint. He doesn’t have a three-point shot, and he could not create his own offense. As a result, Bolick had to do the heavy-lifting in terms of scoring and playmaking, even while playing alongside Forte.

Moreover, his lack of outside shooting became even more of a problem when he was sharing the floor with Slaughter. As two frontcourt players who don’t have a reliable outside jumper, they clogged the paint and made it difficult for each other to get off a good shot. The dynamic between Slaughter and Forte produced a lot of forced shots, and when they did try to connect with each other, the results were not good.

The right import — and they’re hoping it will be their reported new reinforcement Jamel Gurley Artis — for this NorthPort squad would be someone who could space the floor for Slaughter to operate inside, and could handle the ball decently to at least take some load off Bolick’s shoulders. 

Striking gold with the Arwind acquisition

Speaking of someone who could space the floor for Slaughter, their newly-acquired veteran Arwind Santos is proving to be a seamless fit. Santos, who was acquired via an offseason trade with the San Miguel Beermen, is averaging a career-high 18.3 points while also stuffing the rest of his stat line with 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 steals, and 2.0 blocks. Santos is making significant contributions on both offense and defense, and he is doing it at the age of 40, which in itself is already amazing.

If you check his stat line, you’ll see that he is taking a large dose of long-range shots (9.5 three-point attempts through four games), but is only making 26.3% of them. The shooting percentage could be better, but Santos has the green light to take all these threes because he has to. Defenders know that he could make the shot, and by being a willing shooter, Santos is helping space the floor for his teammates.

Even without the ball in his hands, Santos’s mere presence is already keeping his defender from helping out in the paint. In the play above, NLEX forward Anthony Semerad could not fully commit to collapsing on Slaughter because he also has to consider the fact that Santos can hit from beyond the arc. This allows the NorthPort seven-footer to back down his man without having someone double-teaming him. Slaughter missed the initial shot but he was already in an excellent position to put it back for the easy two points.

Along with his outside shooting, Santos can also hold his own on defense. While it’s true that staying in front of quicker players has become more difficult for the 40-year-old power forward, it’s still a fact that he is an adept help defender. This conference, Santos is actually the only player (including imports) who is averaging at least two blocks and two steals per game. It’s just four games, but Santos’s ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor is already showing with the Batang Pier.

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