The inclusion of Reynel Hugnatan to the list of nominees for the PBA Most Improved Player award was seen as a surprise for many that the honor is usually given to younger players.
But that doesn’t mean that the Meralco veteran has a legitimate shot at winning the honor against Phoenix Super LPG’s Justin Chua and Jason Perkins, Barangay Ginebra San Miguel’s Prince Caperal, Rain or Shine’s Javee Mocon and NLEX’s Raul Soyud.
Here’s a look at every player in contention for the award which will be handed out in the virtual PBA Awards Night slated Jan. 17.
Raul Soyud (NLEX Road Warriors)
The former University of the Philippines big man became a key fixture on coach Yeng Guiao’s squad after years of spending most of his time on the Road Warriors bench.
Soyud averaged 10.0 points on a league-best 74-percent shooting with 6.8 rebounds during the PBA Philippine Cup bubble held at Angeles University Foundation Sports and Cultural Center, a far contrast to his 4.5-point, 3.5-rebound averages in 2019.
His minutes also increased from 10.4 per game for the previous season to 18.4 inside the bubble.
NLEX management was quick to reward Soyud with a contract extension which he signed Wednesday.
Javee Mocon (Rain or Shine Elasto Painters)
The sophomore forward emerged as the topscorer for a Rain or Shine team that relies on balanced offense. He was one of two Elasto Painters (the other was Beau Belga) who averaged in double figures with 12.0 points.
Mocon also had 7.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks which were slight improvements from his rookie averages of 10.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.5 blocks.
He started the bubble by tying a career-high with 25 points in Rain or Shine’s 87-83 win over San Miguel Beer. The ex-San Beda star had eight games of at least 12 points and four of at least 10 boards.
His performance in Pampanga is good signs that Mocon is poised for bigger things to come, though that won’t be the sole basis for getting the Most Improved.
Jason Perkins (Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters)
“Hefty Lefty” wasn’t the only reason why the Fuel Masters came close to earning a first-ever PBA Finals appearance after putting up big numbers inside the bubble.
Perkins averaged 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 17 games of the Philippine Cup compared to his 2019 campaign that saw him produce 10.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 2019.
During the Philippine Cup, the 2018 Rookie of the Year produced seven double-doubles and had a 30-point game in a November win over Rain or Shine.
The former La Salle Green Archer teamed up with fellow Mythical Five contenders Calvin Abueva and Matthew Wright to send Phoenix to the semifinals where it almost beat TNT in their series that went the full games.
Prince Caperal (Barangay Ginebra San Miguel)
Caperal capitalized on the saga that resulted in Greg Slaughter’s absence from the bubble to become an integral part in Ginebra’s title run.
He gained the trust and confidence of coach Tim Cone right from the start of the Philippine Cup and posted 7.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 22 games after an average of 1.2 points and 1.5 rebounds in 34 games during the 2019 season.
Caperal also made 29 of his 69 three-point attempts for a 43-percent clip as he was able to add another dimension to Ginebra’s offense with his perimeter shooting.
Caperal also played a key part in the Kings’ Game 5 semis win over the Meralco Bolts when he made the pass to Scottie Thompson for a corner three in the final seconds.
The bubble was a huge break for Caperal after being left in the free agent pool following forgotten stints with GlobalPort, Barako Bull, Phoenix and Mahindra/Kia. Getting the award will certainly help boost his confidence by the time the new season rolls on.
Justin Chua (Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters)
Chua is another player who has found his big break in the bubble after years of bouncing around several teams and being a silent contributor with the Fuel Masters.
The southpaw product of Ateneo averaged 11.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.6 steals in 17 games during Phoenix’s run to the Philippine Cup semifinals. Chua had a modest production of 8.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.6 assists and 0.7 blocks in 2019.
He scored in double-digits 10 times while topping the shortened season in blocks which seemed the last thing everyone will think of when asked about the serviceable big man’s game.
Chua scored 21 points in a crucial win over Rain or Shine on Nov. 10 that gave Phoenix a twice-to-beat advantage in the quarters and swatted five blocks two days prior against Blackwater.
Reynel Hugnatan (Meralco Bolts)
The 42-year-old received a nomination not only because of an increase in numbers but also for being one of the key figures in Meralco’s breakthrough semifinal stint in the Philippine Cup.
Hugnatan averaged 11.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 16 games for the Bolts, more than doubling his 2019 production of 3.6 points, 2.7 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 34 games during the 2019 season.
He scored in double-digits 11 times during the bubble which also saw the 22-year pro dating back to his MBA days with Negros pick up his game to a notch higher in the playoffs.
Though Hugnatan caused a bit of controversy with what he said or what he didn’t say during the semifinal series with Ginebra, he made two memorable shots in that encounter with a go-ahead three in a Game 4 win and a tying triple that eventually went for naught in the deciding fifth game.