As the end of the elimination round of the PBA Philippine Cup draws closer, an unexpected team got to secure the top seed and twice to beat advantage – the Phoenix Fuel Masters. Though the team had pretty successful runs in the past few conferences, you can’t help but notice the evolution they’ve undergone this Philippine Cup.
They’re a different animal now, and a lot of factors can be chimed in for this. The defensive philosophy that head coach Louie Alas brought to the team has served as a nice anchor to the squad. Alex Mallari, one of the most underrated pickups during the offseason, has quietly had a nice conference himself. Big men Jason Perkins and Justin Chua have blossomed into legitimate forces. Then of course, there’s the familiar sight of an uncaged beast in Calvin Abueva. But all of these are just fragments of the main reason Phoenix is having a prosperous conference so far – the inevitable rise to superstardom of Matthew Wright.
To be fair, Wright has long been flirting with stardom ever since he entered the PBA in 2016. Despite being widely known as a blue chip, the former ASEAN Basketball League MVP was still quite a mystery Filipino basketball fans wanted to know more about. He had a chance, as he introduced himself when he became a part of the Gilas cadets. Selected by the Phoenix Fuel Masters via the special Gilas players draft, they hoped to land a potential franchise cornerstone. Three years in, it looks like the Fuel Masters clearly hit the right mark with the Fil-Canadian marksman.
One of the smoothest and calmest players in the league, watching Matthew Wright hoop is crazy entertaining. It’s like witnessing Danny Ocean and his eleven man crew perform one of their high stake heists. No traces of evidence. No flashes. No noises. Just clean and precise execution all according to plan.
Wright is most lethal when he is spotted up along the three-point arc. A career 35 percent three-point shooter, there is no doubt that the 6’4” guard is one of the best sharpshooters in the country today. In fact, when he suited up for the national team in the FIBA World Cup qualifiers, Matthew was designated as one of the team’s main three-point shooters.
However, in Phoenix, the value of Wright goes beyond being their best shooter. As loaded as Phoenix has been this conference, Wright has been the team’s main focal man in their offense. His scoring numbers can be quite polarizing (18.7 PPG, 35% FG, 26% 3FG), but his offensive repertoire goes beyond what he produces. Often overlooked is Wright’s ability to play on the pick and roll because of his reputation as a premiere spot up shooter. On ball-screen actions and handoff plays, Matthew mainly uses his mid-range game off the created space once the screener rolls to the basket and the help defender does not commit to him. And because of his height and shooting form, once Wright elevates for a shot, there is nothing his defender can really do but to hope that he misses his shot.
It certainly helps that high caliber players like Abueva and Perkins can be Wright’s ball screeners. If the opponent chooses to trap Wright on pick and roll actions, he is a willing enough passer to the roll man as evidenced by his 4.6 dimes per game this conference. And if a switch occurs, then Wright can dig deeper to his bag of tricks once the mismatch presents itself.
Another valuable offensive skill of Wright is his ability to play transition. A large chunk of Phoenix’s attacked is fueled (no pun intended) off of their pressure defense. Forcing misses or turnovers immediately gives them options, and Wright is the epitome of this. He’s skilled enough to attack the rim — he’s one of the more underrated finishers in the league — while finding him running to the wings for transition threes is commonplace.
For all of Wright’s brilliance, he still has his own flaws. During his stint in the national team, he has been criticized for his lackluster defensive efforts at times as there are instances where he would be late on defensive rotations and often got beat on one on one situation especially in the international basketball scene where hand check defense is strictly prohibited.
Although he is not yet an elite two-way player, Wright has been putting in consistent effort so he can develop on the defensive side of the floor. There are even times where he takes up the challenge of guarding opposing point guards when head coach Louie Alas decides to go big.
He is also racking up 1.36 steals per game this conference, and contributing on other facets other than just scoring as he’s also averaging a respectable 5.3 rebounds per game. And even though Wright’s growth as a defender isn’t complete just yet, his huge offensive contributions are more than enough to make up for it.
One of the best examples of Wright’s exemplary performance this conference was against the reigning champs San Miguel Beermen in a game that secured them the top seed after squeaking past an all-time great team all thanks to Wright’s 25 point performance and a game-clinching three-pointer in the dying seconds of the game.
With the league being dominated for years now by the same few teams, the Phoenix Pulse Fuel Masters are making a strong case as the new team on the block. They’re a fresh face, as they’ve started to climb up the ladder as a legitimate contender. At the center of that: Matthew Wright, who is slowly establishing himself as one of the league’ best. He has long overpaid his dues by living up to his label as Phoenix’s main guy since day one. But his performance can now finally be credited in the bright lights because of one thing: his team is now winning.
One can say, Matthew has come Wright on time (apologies for the pun) as Phoenix has stocked up on talent. It’s easy to doubt, but to completely ignore them would be quite irresponsible. Watch out.