The Saga of Japeth Aguilar

‘Who is Japeth Aguilar?’
Very few players in the history of Philippine Basketball has been as polarizing as Japeth Aguilar. First of all, who is Japeth Aguilar? Japeth is the son of former Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) player Peter Aguilar. Peter was listed as 6’6″, and played most of his PBA career with Ginebra San Miguel, one of the most popular teams ever in the history of the league.

Peter ended up with a son in Japeth that is taller than he is at 6’9″. Now, despite being a Basketball-crazy country, Filipinos are generally short, with Centers and Forwards generally averaging only around the 6’4″-6’6″. So any player over 6’7″ automatically generates a LOT of interest.

What makes Japeth even more intriguing is that not only is he taller than average, he is also quite athletic. He has an excellent vertical leaping ability, enabling him to dunk the ball consistently with ease with both hands, even during actual games. The last Filipino player I remember having this capability was the high-leaping 6’4″ Benjie Paras.

‘Tragic Expectations’
That combination of height and leaping ability has captured the imagination of most Philippine Basketball fans. For so long we have been unable to send a player to the National Basketball Association (NBA), and suddenly here is someone who is quick, tall and can jump high. Being a Basketball-crazy country, they (sadly) ignorantly thought he was an automatic NBA-caliber player. And most tragic of all, Japeth himself has been convinced of this idea.

The reality is that while Japeth is tall, and has excellent athleticism, he lacks the tools to become a good Basketball player. For one, he lacks the COORDINATION to be able to move well with the ball. You can see this clearly when he does his low-post moves, in which he is quite awkward with the ball. As a result, his post moves are now almost non-existent.
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Remembering The 2012 FIBA Asia Cup Philippine National Basketball Team

‘Line Up’
(Centers) – Marcus Douthit, Sonny Thoss, Enrico Villanueva, JR Reyes
(Forwards) – Ranidel De Ocampo, Gabe Norwood, Jared Dillinger, Matthew Ross, Larry Fonacier
(Guards) – LA Tenorio, Gary David, Jeff Chan
(Head Coach) – Chot Reyes
(Assistant Coaches) – Jong Uichico, Ryan Gregorio, Josh Reyes

Mac Baracael, Garvo Lanete and Sol Mercado were initially part of the team that competed in the 2012 Jones Cup Tournament, but were later released as the team was pared down to only 12 men as per FIBA rules for major tournaments. Jared Dillinger took the place of Solomon Mercadon for the main 2012 FIBA Asia Cup Tournament.

‘Naturalized Player’
For this incarnation of the Men’s National Basketball team, Chot tried a couple of things different from the previous National Teams. First was having a Naturalized Center in Marcus Douthit. Marcus was a fit for the team both on and off the court. He has great low post moves, a decent outside shot, a great rebounder an excellent shot blocker as well. He is also great in terms of catching the ball inside the paint and going strong to the basket.

Attitude-wise, he is quiet and unassuming, never one to hog the limelight, and just goes on to try to do his job game in and game out. He knows how to pace himself, usually deferring to his teammates initially. But he also knows when to step up and take charge if needed, like whenever he sees his team faltering during the game. Overall, Marcus was about as close to perfect as we could get for a naturalized big man, and credit the coaching staff for making an excellent choice in him.

The only chink in his armor is his age, he is already 32 years old as of 2012, and no doubt only has a couple more years of active, competitive play left in him.

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Playing Against Tougher Opponents

I decided to write this blog, after seeing a lot of fans of various sports like Basketball and Football come up and say that players should “play against the best” so that their game will improve.

It has become sort of a cliche to hear in sports forums that, “they should not be afraid to play against tougher opponents, because it will help them improve.”

While I do agree with such a strategy, I feel that many people are misled about what results exactly to expect from such a strategy. Let me just put forth my humble opinions here:

‘Cabatu Will Never Become Fernandez’
When a lesser player constantly plays against a much better player, it won’t necessarily mean that he will eventually reach the level of that much better player.

Put it another way, no matter how many years a player with the skills of Sonny Cabatu play against a player like Ramon Fernandez, game in, or game out, he will never become the next Ramon Fernandez.
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The Kraken Cometh

It is rare to find 6’9″ and above players in the Philippines. In the last decade, probably only a handful have come up and ended up as basketball players in college. Rarer still, is a Filipino 6’9″ player who can actually play basketball well. Hence imagine the impact that fired up the imagination of most Filipino Basketball fans, when such a player finally came into the local basketball scene. And that player, is Junmar “The Kraken” Fajardo.

‘The Kraken’
Clash of the Titans 2009 Kraken PosterSome of the Interbasket forumers has given the nickname, “The Kraken” to Junmar, thanks in part to the popularity of the 2009 Hollywood movie, “Clash of the Titans”. In that movie, the Kraken was Zeus’ ultimate weapon, a legendary monster of the sea of enormous, size capable of destroying anything in its path.

From a basketball point of view, Junmar does seem like the Kraken of Cebu basketball. He is currently the tallest and biggest player there, and similar to the Kraken, his combination of size and skill can lay waste to any basketball opposition in that area. In fact, Junmar is the main reason that the UC Webmasters have been able to win the Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation, Inc. (CESAFI) crown this year, its very first in the league.

Fajardo was first noticed a couple of years ago when he started dominating some of the semi-commercial, pre-season tournaments in Cebu that the University of Cebu (UC) was playing in. More impressive still, was the fact that in some of these tournaments, even as a freshman, he was able to hold his own against the main Cebuano veteran big man then, the 6’5″ Rino Berame.

At that time, he was already described as 6’7″, but now he has reportedly grown to 6’10”. Over the years, he has mainly been playing in Cebu, and basketball fans naturally wonder how he would fare against teams based in Manila. Although he did get to play against various Manila college and professional teams in exhibition games, in my opinion, such exhibition matches do not really reflect true competition for him, as teams and opposing players tend to play it lightly in such games.

‘PCCL Competition’
Junmar The Kraken, in more ways than oneA true competition for Junmar, would be when he is ranged to play against good teams with good players, in a serious tournament. Such a tournament is the Philippine Collegiate Championship League (PCCL), which gathers the best basketball college schools in the Philippines to play against one another in a short tournament format. So far, Junmar as a UC Webmaster has played in three PCCL tournaments, against four National Collegiate Association (NCAA) and University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) teams.

The first was in 2008, against NCAA team Letran University Knights. Letran, an NCAA Final Four team that year, then had some good big men in 6’3″ Dino Daa, and 6’5″ John Foronda. In that game, Junmar played well, scoring 24 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and blocking 9 shots. Fajardo though was overshadowed in terms of scoring output by Dino Daa, who scored 27 points.

The next was in 2009, this time against UAAP powerhouse the University of the East (UE) Red Warriors. The Red Warriors, a UAAP title finalist that year, had a couple of good, big men in the highly athletic, 6’3″ Elmer Espiritu, and not flashy but effective 6’4″ Pari Llagas. Against such a frontline, Junmar again gave a good performance, scoring 24 points. Elmer and Pari, though, also played well against Fajardo’s defense, scoring 14 and 17 points respectively.
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The Smart Gilas Program

First of all, we need to be reminded on why the Smart Gilas program was established in the first place. Essentially, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) was starting to get tired of lending its players to the National Team, and not getting consistent, good results (i.e., medal standing finishes). The Samahang Basketbolista ng Pilipinas or SBP therefore offered an alternative, and it is the Smart Gilas program.

Smart Gilas Logo, courtesy of www.larongbuko.comThe program aims to form a national team mainly of players outside of the PBA, and keep it for a relatively long time. It will have good funding, good training programs, good exposure in international competitions, and have the best available coaches possible.

The pool of Smart Gilas players ended up composed mostly of the best players from local colleges, and so called Fil-Foreigners (players with mixed foreign and Filipino blood) from schools abroad. Some of these Fil-Foreigners have excellent credentials, coming from US NCAA Division 1 schools.

In terms of execution, I think the program has done very well so far. It has been able to get most of the best college players in the country, and has been able to discover Fil-Foreign talent as well. It has been able to expose these players in various international competitions all over the world. It has the best coaches available to it, and funding (or money) is almost never a problem.

‘Retrogression’
In hindsight, though, it would seem to me that the progam is in fact, a RETROGRESSION for the Philippines. This program reminds me of the USA’s policy before of sending its best college players to compete in major international tournaments. It worked for awhile, but when the world started to catch up to the US in basketball starting around the 1990s, it ended up being a disaster, in that the US National Team was being beaten by other countries, shutting it out of the medal race.

Nowadays, the US’ National Basketball Association (NBA) is allowing its best players to play in major international tournaments, as long as the player is willing to play. And here we are, generally keeping our pros from playing in international competitions, and getting college players instead.

‘Experience, and Survival of the Fittest’
The US College Players failed for a number of reasons, first of which was the fact that they were boys playing against men. You had players in their late teens and early twenties playing against players who were in their mid twenties to early thirties, or players who easily have a five or ten year advantage in terms of experience.

Another, more important factor, is the fact that the colleger players were not the best in the country. They were the best in college, but not in the whole country. They therefore were not sorted out from a selection of the best the country can offer.
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Battle of the Rookie Big Men in the UAAP Season 74: Slaughter versus Van Opstal

One of the highlights of in Basketball in the next season of the Universities and Athletics Association of the Philippines (its 74th season), would be the battle of the rookie big men between perennial University rivals Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) and De La Salle University (DLSU).

On one side, in the blue corner, wearing blue and white uniform, standing 6’11”, weighing 240 lbs … playing for the AdMU Blue Eagles … Grrrreeeeeeg Slaaaauuuuu-TER!!!

On the other side, in the green corner, wearing green and white uniform, standing 6’9″, weighing 230 lbs … playing for the DLSU Green Archers … Arrrrrnold … Vaaaaan Ops-STAAAAALLLLL!!!

While players of such heights are common in collegiate leagues in taller countries, not so in the Philippines. Its is relatively rare to find players of such height, not to mention skill, to be in one university or collegiate league at the same time.

In fact, the last time such a pair of tall players ended up in the UAAP, was in the late 80s, with 6’9″ Marlou Aquino playing for the Adamson Falcons, and 6’11” EJ Feihl playing for the University of Santo Tomas (then known as) Glowing Goldies.
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The Rabeh Al-Husseini PBA Number One Draft Snub

I have been “weaning” myself away from basketball, but still knew enough to be shocked by the news when Air21 picked Nonoy Baclao over Rabeh Al-Husseini as the number one pick overall in the 2010 PBA Rookie Draft.

I have nothing against Nonoy, I think he is a good player, and will have a long, storied career in the PBA. Baclao reminds me a lot of a younger, taller, more talented version of Freddie Abuda, because he is a player who gets things done in the frontline by virtue of hard work, determination, and heart.

However, in terms of awards (Season MVP versus Finals MVP), and statistics in college, there is no doubt that Rabeh has a clear advantage over Nonoy. So why would Air21 intentionally pick Nonoy over Rabeh as the number one pick?

I don’t agree with Air21’s assertion that it didn’t matter because they had three first picks in the draft. A number one pick automatically puts you in the PBA history books, and carries a lot of prestige with it, so it does matter.

As to why, I can only hazard these guesses:

* Air21 Sees More Potential in Baclao Than Rabeh, and Thus Considers Him as More of a Priority
– Despite Rabeh’s better accomplishments and statistics, maybe they saw something in Nonoy that made them think he is the more promising player than Rabeh. They are, of course entitled to their own opinions, but right now, it is just that: Subjective Opinions, as opposed to hard facts and statistics.
– Besides, even if they think Nonoy has more “potential”, the word “potential” means it MAY, or MAY NOT happen. Then again, they are the experts. However, even experts should not be ignoring hard, quantifiable facts. To do so is quite risky, even for them.

* Air21 Picked Nonoy Over Rabeh as a Negotiation Ploy
– Being picked number one in the PBA Draft does not only come with prestige and a place in the PBA history books, it also helps in negotiations for the contracts of the players. The agents will say, “hey, you picked my kid number one overall, he should get more extras and bonuses”. Rabeh was highly regarded, and expected to be the number one draft, and putting him at number two would sort of deflate the expectations and position of Rabeh during the negotiation phase.
– Then again, whatever “savings” they thought they could get from Rabeh is offset by the fact that Nonoy might ask more than he expected to since he was picked number one.

* Air21 Picked Nonoy Over Rabeh Because of Influence
– It could be that the people around Nonoy is closer, or has more influence than the people around Rabeh on the Air21 management. And since Air21 has the first three picks in the draft, some pushing on the part of Nonoy’s people could’ve resulted in the situation, where Nonoy got a little more prestige than Rabeh.
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