The PBA's Most Improved Player of the Year (MIP) award is usually picked up by players in their late 20s or early 30s after they make the leap from contributor to star. To be a candidate for the prestigious award at the sunset of one's career is certainly commendable, if not a little surprising.
This was exactly the reaction of Meralco Bolts forward Reynel Hugnatan upon learning that he is a candidate to win the MIP award for the PBA's shortened 45th Season.
"It took me by surprise because I wasn't even thinking about it. If it were up to me I'd give the award to the younger players but I'm grateful to be nominated and I thank the people who'll vote for me," Hugnatan said.
While giving an award about improvement to a veteran like Hugnatan may seem counterintuitive, the numbers certainly support the case.
In the 2019 Philippine Cup, Hugnatan averaged 6.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 23 minutes of play. Although he played more minutes at 28 per game in the PBA Bubble, he almost doubled his scoring average at 11.7 points per game while grabbing 4.8 rebounds per contest. He hit what should have been the biggest shot for Meralco in Game 5 of the semifinals against Barangay Ginebra only to be thwarted by an ever bigger shot from Scottie Thompson.
For Hugnatan, the situation might have been different but the work he put in has always been the same.
"During the pandemic before the season, we always had Zoom meetings and coach Norman (Black) reminded us that we needed to be in great condition. I bought equipment to be able to work out at home. I bought a treadmill since we weren't allowed to go out and then I started running outside when it was allowed," Hugnatan shared.
"When the bubble started, coach Norman gave me more playing time, which I wasn't expecting. But I was ready for it. I'm always physically prepared, no matter if I get playing time or not, so I'm thankful to coach Norman for trusting me. There's was an opportunity and I grabbed it. Even inside the bubble, I did my best to stay fit."
In the past five years, the oldest to win the MIP award was Chris Ross of the San Miguel Beermen. He won the award at 31 years of age on his eighth year as a professional basketball player.
Hugnatan in comparison will turn 43 this year and will be playing his 18th season in the PBA. He went from averaging 3.6 points in 12 minutes per game in the 2019 PBA Season to being one of the fan favorites in the PBA Bubble because of his inspired play. While the improvement was certainly visible with his numbers, he didn't do anything different. What's commendable in Hugnatan's case was how he retained his confidence even after seeing his minutes dwindle during the import conferences for the Bolts.
"At this point of my career, I don't mind how many minutes I get. Whatever chance coach gives me, I'll try my best to help the team and my teammates. I just want my team to win," he said. "Our chemistry got better because we were always together. We learned a lot about each other and it translated into our game. I think that's why we made it to the semifinals."
Hugnatan has won three PBA championships in his long career but individual awards always eluded him, quite possibly because he wasn't really interested.
"If I'll win, it'll be a bonus for me. In my entire career, I've never won an individual award. The only accolade I received was when I got to 5,000 points," Hugnatan said.
The veteran is going up against tough competition as there were a lot of players who made a big leap inside the PBA Bubble including Jason Perkins and Justin Chua of Phoenix Super LPG, Javee Mocon of Rain or Shine, Raul Soyud of NLEX, and Prince Caperal of Barangay Ginebra San Miguel.
"All the candidates are deserving," Hugnatan closed. "I'm happy just to be mentioned."