Photo by Summer Padilla

The Fighting Maroons are considered one of the title-contending teams in the UAAP, led by reigning MVP Bright Akhuetie, newcomers Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero, and the Gómez de Liaño brothers, Juan and Javi. 

Despite a 5-1 start entering Sunday’s clash against the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles, the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons have lots of strides to make to solidify their standing as one of the league’s best.

A closer look at the team shows they still have tons of room to improve after four consecutive unsatisfying victories with late game drama, especially if a certain scoring lefty’s heroics against the De La Salle University Green Archers prove to be a sign of better things to come. 

Juan game winner

In a night where the Fighting Maroons had to scrap and claw for every bucket, it was the homegrown bucket-getter Juan Gómez de Liaño who delivered for the team in the clutch. 

Coming off a season where Juan was named to the Mythical Team, averaging 16.5 points per game (ppg) and 22.5 in the playoffs, with 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists en route to a fourth-place finish in the MVP race, he has scuffled out of the gates to the minimal tune of 6.0 ppg and 2.7 assists in UP’s first six games.

What has gone wrong for the Fighting Maroons’ third-year budding star?

Is the Fighting Maroons’ glut of backcourt talent to blame, shortening Juan’s leash to the point that simple mistakes get him benched? Has Juan only struggled to get accustomed to his new reality as more of a supporting star, causing him to transition to more off-ball duties? Has the coaching staff focused too much on integrating their two ballyhooed newcomers, Paras and Rivero, that they’ve set aside Juan’s shot-creating ability and neglected to put him in optimal positions to succeed?

Or are the multiple injuries he sustained during pre-season still bothering him, causing him to shoot an ice-cold 23% from the field?

Even Juan has something to say about his struggles:

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Last season, he had free reign, domineering the offense and initiating it as a pick-and-roll ball handler. It only makes sense to keep giving him the keys to the offense because last season, when Juan had the ball in his hands more often, he had more rhythm to drain pull-up jumpers. 

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And easier catch-and-shoot looks:

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The team’s reliance on his playmaking and slashing led to aggressive drives to the hoop, making tough floaters in the process:

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And gorgeous layups off a spread-out floor:

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In the plays above, the floor is spread and Juan can go either to his left or right hand as a solid attacker. When UP maintains optimal spacing, Juan is at his most dangerous, highlighting his acrobatic finishing ability.

His court vision is also sublime, as he can see the openings created by his dribble penetration, making great reads off the pick-and-roll:

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Juan displays advanced court vision for his age with these skip passes towards the open shooter at the corner:

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What’s apparent when watching Juan play is his volume shooting and playmaking ways, as he needs the ball in his hands to be at his best. 

He is a three-level threat on offense as he can carve up the defense with his great finishing ability, good shooting stroke and advanced court vision. 

He is the Fighting Maroons’ best offensive threat when the ball is in his hands.

Then why is he being relegated to more of an off-ball role this season?

Whenever he has the ball in his hands in the pick-and-roll, he’s still making the right passes:

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However, there are times when it feels like he’s pressing to score, as less time with the ball in his hands have prompted him to drive recklessly:

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He’s also hoisting up bad shots at times:

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His three-point shooting this season has deserted him as well, maybe due to his nagging injuries causing a lack of rhythm:

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His catch and shoot shots have mostly come on good looks, but what looks like overthinking on his jumpers forces some shots to go wild:

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You can also excuse Juan, being a volume shooter, for taking contested stepback jumpers in an attempt to build rhythm:

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In Juan’s liked tweets, one was about defensive substitutions, pointing to a lack of trust by the coaching staff in his defense. 

Against the Red Warriors, Juan was subbed out after giving up two straight threes to his man.

In the first clip, he overhelped from the corner, leading to an open three:

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The following possession, Juan loses his man but recovers in time to be in proper position to contest, however, he fails to get a hand up:

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He has similar defensive lapses off the ball:

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However, these off-ball lapses are easily correctable, as proper defensive communication and positioning are coachable traits Juan could improve upon. Lost in the shuffle has been his on-ball defense, as he’s displayed an ability to shut down ball handlers:

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His help defense is usually on-point as well, being in good position to help out when other defenders get beat:

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His above-average lateral quickness and on-ball defensive IQ are apparent, as he isn’t beaten on the dribble drive, and he doesn’t overextend on closeouts. 

He is a good defensive player, as he isn’t very foul-prone, either.

His offensive slump has stemmed largely from a reduced role in the offense, coupled with his inability to make defenses pay on the catch and shoot. The flow of the Maroon offense is better when he is on the floor, however, as he usually makes the right reads off the pick-and-roll.

Juan needs to curb his habit of forcing the issue and let the game come to him, so he can maximize his reduced minutes. His lack of production arguably results from his overlap with other ball handlers, with UP being a guard-heavy team: Jaydee Tungcab’s emergence as a capable ball handler, the ball-dominance of Paras and Rivero have relegated Juan to more spot-up duty—not to mention Jun Manzo’s steady hand at the 1-spot.

However, Juan’s great court vision, explosive scoring exploits both on the drive and from deep, and his underrated on-ball defending and rebounding should make him one of UP’s most featured players. 

During these slate of games where he’s been banged up, he’s still displayed solid on-ball defense and creativity out of the pick-and-roll. How much better could he be when he recovers his form and gains more control of the offense?

The question now is how the Fighting Maroons can re-integrate Juan’s high-volume scoring in a way that incorporates fellow ball-dominant players like Paras and Rivero.

It’d be a massive disappointment if, even after an efficient and clutch shooting night against the Green Archers where Juan showed flashes of improved rhythm and consistency, he’d still be utilized as more of a role player rather than a go-to-guy.

Juan must accustom himself to playing more off-ball as UP’s other ball handlers are given chances to create, but his offense must be utilized as the primary weapon and not just as a secondary option. 

His work out of the pick-and-roll and dribble drive game, after all, propelled UP to their first Final Four berth since 1997.

All UAAP game footage belong to ABS-CBN Sports.

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