In their September 8 match-up against Magnolia, NLEX led by as much as 16 points in the fourth quarter before allowing the Hotshots to crawl into the game back after two consecutive triples by Paul Lee cut the lead to three, 90-87, with under six minutes remaining.
With Magnolia breathing on their necks, NLEX would suffer another blow, as their top player Kevin Alas fouled out with more than four minutes left in the clock. Alas has been one of the best playmakers in the league, and the team has relied on him even more with Kiefer Ravena’s availability for the rest of the conference still up in the air.
Fortunately, Jericho Cruz rose to the occasion.
Although the Road Warriors eventually dropped a 112-105 decision to the Hotshots, the 30-year-old Cruz showed us why he is one of the best two-way guards in the league today. In the clip below, you’ll see him blow past a good defender in Calvin Abueva for a beautiful finger roll finish to give NLEX a one-point lead with only a minute to go in the payoff period.
Cruz may be one of the bigger guards in the league, but it doesn’t mean that he just overpowers his way to the rim. He has a very quick first step, and that was evident in the way he left Abueva in the dust.
In the next clip, you’ll see another display of Cruz’s explosive first step, this time against a smaller and quicker guard in Jio Jalalon.
This shows his ability to turn on the afterburners and accelerate in his penetrations, along with his skill of finishing under duress. That was a tough angle for a finish, and Cruz did it over the 6-foot-7 Ian Sangalang.
However, it’s not just these drives that make Cruz a special player on offense. Yes, he can score the ball, as evidenced by his averages of 12.2 points on an efficient 48% clip from the field and a 53.2% true shooting percentage. But he is also an underrated playmaker, as he is dishing out 3.9 assists on just 1.8 turnovers per game.
Per Stats by Ryan, an advanced stats platform for Philippine basketball, Cruz has an adjusted turnover percentage (aTO%) of 9.9%. Adjusted turnover percentage is an advanced metric that incorporates passing and assisting to calculate a player’s turnover percentage, which means that playmakers with lower aTO% are better in taking care of the ball (learn more about aTO% here). Among the players ranking in the top 20 in the assists department, Cruz is tied for the sixth-lowest aTO%, which shows us how dependable he is when the ball is in his hands.
If you want to dig in deeper into the advanced stats, you’ll also find that Cruz ranks in the top 20 in box creation (BoxCr), an advanced metric that “estimates how many opportunities a player creates for his teammates based on his passing, playmaking, scoring, and shooting skills.” Cruz isn’t just a slasher now, as he can also create shots for him and for his teammates.
Yet, we haven’t even reached the best part of Cruz’s overall skill set. In the early years of his career, he suited up for the Yeng Guiao-led Rain or Shine Elasto Painters, a team built on defense and grit. He personally learned from Gabe Norwood and Jireh Ibañes, two of the best individual defenders in league history. Now with NLEX, Cruz has not abandoned his responsibilities on the defensive end of the floor even with the all-around work he is carrying on offense.
Going back to the Magnolia-NLEX game, there was one sequence in the first overtime period that exhibited Cruz’s two-way game, as you can watch in the clip below.
The pull-up jumper was a thing of beauty. Magnolia switched on the pick-and-roll, forcing Sangalang to defend Cruz. Since Cruz’s strong side is on the right, Sangalang wisely forced him to the left, with two Magnolia defenders (Abueva and Mark Barroca) ready to help if needed. Cruz didn’t force his way to the right and initially appeared to bite on Sangalang’s bait. But instead of driving all the way to the rim, he pulled back, created enough space between him and his defender, and drained the jumper.
The mid-range shot is another trick in his bag, but it was the steal that initiated the whole sequence that shows Cruz’s versatility. Along with his scoring and improved passing, he is also averaging the third-highest mark of 1.9 steals per contest. In fact, Cruz is the only player in this conference who is averaging double-digits in points and at least three assists per game, while also ranking in the top 5 in steals.
The Road Warriors, who are sporting a 4-5 record, may need to win their remaining two games to book a ticket to the playoffs. Alas has proven to be a consistent performer even with the absence of Ravena, but the team will need Cruz to be more aggressive in their next assignments against Blackwater and Meralco. In their last two losses, Cruz only had single-digit field goal attempts, which tells us that his aggressiveness in getting his shots could be the barometer of NLEX’s success in this conference.
Still, the 30-year-old Cruz’s body of work on both ends of the floor has been impressive, and it’s exciting to see how he would assert himself and lift the Road Warriors to a seat in the playoffs.
Advanced Stats are now available for Philippine basketball! Through Ryan Alba’s ‘Stats by Ryan’, you can now look at team and player advanced stats for the current 2021 PBA Philippine Cup (and the previous three seasons) via the Dribble Media website.
Check out this glossary for a list of the basketball advanced stats terminologies.
You can also contact Ryan via his Twitter handle (@_alba__).