When Stanley Pringle came into the scene as a potential MVP candidate last season, the feeling of inevitability that had surrounded the PBA for the last six years started to become less and less. What we all know to be true since his sophomore year: Junemar Fajardo will win the Most Valuable Player once everything is said and done. He has been the PBA’s inevitable force, and quite frankly, it had started to feel tiring for most of the league’s fanbase.
In a society where instant gratification and low attention spans have become the norm, this was bound to happen one way or another. While Junemar got his fifth MVP, there was this itching feeling his reign was starting to near its end. There were multiple reasons people felt this way, and the early returns were encouraging for those who wanted a fresh face to win MVP by season’s end.
Despite the Beermen loading up with talent over the offseason, they, along with Junemar, struggled right off the gates to start the PBA season. They were upset by the Columbian Dyip during their very first game and proceeded to lose to more games versus the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters and TNT Katropa. Something felt off, and you didn’t need to look too far to find one reason for this.
Junemar looked tight and uninterested during the early goings of the conference. Some said he was coasting, while others even went as far as to say that he looked a step slow. The ease and comfort he showed three conferences ago was nowhere to be seen.
Junemar was still producing numbers worthy of an MVP, but not without fault. His biggest issue to start the season were his turnovers, as defenses had seemingly figured out how to stifle the Kraken. Whether it was soft doubles that closed out spaces for the Kraken to rumble towards the rim, or even weakside help to strip him off the ball in the post, it was starting to look like there was finally a scouting report fit to defend the five-time MVP.
He was no longer reaching the standard he had created himself as a result of his historic MVP run. You didn’t need a low attention span or even desire for instant gratification to see what was happening. It felt like Junemar had hit a ceiling, and ultimately, the end to his reign as the league’s best was nearing its end.
The thing with kings: they have this magical switch they can learn to when the going gets tough. The Beermen were 2-3, with its road to the Finals looking tougher and tougher every day. Something needed to change. With a snap, that’s exactly what happened.
In Junemar’s last three games, he’s gone on to average 29 points per game (PPG) on 82 percent field goal shooting, and 17.6 rebounds per game (RPG). These were dominant numbers over a three-game stretch, the type we haven’t seen from Junemar over the course of his career. 20-15 had become the norm, but 29-17 on that type of shooting clip? This was some show we were witnessing to.
There were a lot of factors into Junemar’s dominance, but the biggest reason for this has been the improved spacing around the Beermen. Losing a talent like Christian Standhardinger will always be a blow. But as of late, it’s allowed SMB to go back to what they were good at running.
It’s the pet play of the San Miguel Beermen. Start by dumping the ball to Junemar in the low post, and allow the offense to flow as follows. It may seem reductionist to box their offense to two statements, but it captures the very essence of what makes the Beermen who they are. Coach Leo always stresses, “Start with Junemar.” There is no one in the league who has a talent like the Kraken. It’s a luxury the Beermen have leaned onto for the last five years of their reign as the league’s best, and it’s turned into a necessity since then.
In their past games, the Beermen have put an emphasis on initiating the offense with their best player. Putting the ball in Junemar’s hands in the post is one thing, but allowing the offense to flow as follows is another. Establishing a flow requires not just constant communication between everyone in the team, but also the ability to read what defenses would give you. A large chunk of this would depend on how Junemar would react, as he was being tasked to be the fulcrum of their action.
Over the years, Junemar has learned to react to multiple types of defenses. Early on, teams would throw double teams, forcing him to learn how to pass out of these situations. Eventually, once he figured out how to pass to open shooters around the court, he had to learn how to attack against soft doubles that forced Junemar to balance between attacking and passing.
Despite defenses trying to experiment with more and more options, it was starting to become more and more difficult to shut down the Kraken. He was starting to install multiple moves to his repertoire. It started with shoulder fakes to shake off defenders, then came turnaround jumpers from various angles, and of course, his patented Kraken step. He was starting to make a case as the next Man with a Million Moves — with apologies to James Yap — but it turns out, he had more in his bag.
Which then brings us to the second reason he’s dominated in such a way as of late: his mastery of the baseline spin move. It’s one of the riskier moves one can add into their post repertoire. It requires plenty of balance, body control, and composure in order to perfectly execute it properly. There’s a reason why even the best of players don’t go to this move as often as fans think they could. There’s plenty of danger to it, as failing to use it properly forces you to create something from the baseline. That’s pretty much an automatic double team since you have to be careful not to step out of bounds from there.
However, the risk did not outweigh the potential benefits of mastering this. It was perfect for someone of Junemar’s stature. He had the finishing ability to complete whatever play came out of using this, as well as the natural strength to help him blow-by against opponents.
What was missing, however, was the balance needed to complete the move efficiently. While he used the baseline spin a lot in Game 5 of the 2018 All Filipino Cup Finals, he looked more like a newbie ballerina still trying to get a hold of controlling one’s body than a seasoned expert in the sport. He’d teeter a lot when setting the baseline spin up, with some degree of hesitation to the way he moved. He did put up 42-20 to clinch Finals MVP during that run, but it turned out, we were set to be witness to so much more.
The counter whenever Junemar would get the ball in the left block would have been to send a second defender ready to meet him when he makes his move towards his left shoulder. It came from either a soft double or a straight up hard double that forces him to pass it out to a teammate. He’d use turnaround jumpers from his left shoulder or his Kraken step to counter this, but his options were growing thin. Enter the mastery of the baseline spin, which feels like a case of the rich getting ever richer.
Send the second defender to double on that side, and now Junemar can counter by spinning towards the baseline. He’d try to do this before, but with difficulty. Now, he does this as if it’s turned into his go-to move.
Doubling towards the baseline is pointless too. You’re just giving him space to attack towards the rim. An alternative defenders have been trying: playing him one on one as aggressively as possible. Force Junemar into tough baskets by playing him physical. JR Quinahan of the NLEX Road Warriors, one of the widest and toughest bigs in the league looked to be up to the task.
At the end of the day, Junemar’s too strong, and too fast even for one half of the Extra Rice Inc. In the eternal words of One Direction, “Nobody can drag me down. Nobody nobody.”
Be too strong, you’re giving up agility against the more than capable Fajardo. Have too much speed, and you’re likely to be pushed around like a rag doll by the Kraken. You need the right blend of strength to take on whatever hits, and the speed so you don’t get left behind wherever direction he goes to. Do this, and you force Junemar to tough shots such as contested turnaround jumpers. That should count as a win for the defense right?
Abu Tratter defends Junemar straight up here, and he deserves credit for keeping his ground despite the size disadvantage (playing in practice against a monster like Ben Mbala must have helped). He stays honest, on his toes, with his hands up ready to defend whatever attempt Junemar may take.
Off the turn and the pump fake, Abu bites, but not enough for Junemar to get some sliver of space to get an open look. Good defense Abu! But good offense will ALWAYS trump good defense. Junemar just looked executing this move. After the pump fake, with zero hesitation, he rises up for a beauty of a jumper.
If there’s someone who looks best built to defend Junemar one on one, it’s probably Mo Tautuaa. He’s bull strong, long, and with the agility to keep up with whatever move is thrown against his defense. At this point, Junemar already had 38 points to the tune of 13/14 (yup, just ONE shot missed). You can’t look back too much if you’re Mo. Defend him straight up here, and you give Northport a shot at closing the gap and completing your comeback.
With time winding down on the shot clock, Junemar is able to get a decent seal. But thanks to the excellent team defense by Northport, Fajardo no longer has time to just back down and create a basket for himself. He has to create quickly, with less than eight seconds left on the shot clock.
Almost immediately, Junemar turns. Mo anticipates this very well. He leaps just enough to stifle Junemar while giving him the opportunity to land back on the floor for a possible second jump. This is tremendous one on one defense by Mo. He baits Junemar into a tough jumper. Junemar flails as he leaps, looking like he’s baiting the refs into calling a foul. Refs don’t bite. It doesn’t matter. Someway, somehow, the Kraken makes the jumper.
Once again, good offense ALWAYS beats good defense. An understated part with that move Junemar did, is how he did it with ZERO hesitation. He knew he’d shoot. He already had an idea on what kind of shot he’d throw up. It would have been tough, but when the best players attempt these with utmost confidence, there’s only so much you can do. Junemar happens to be the best in the league, and it isn’t even remotely close.
After a rough start to the conference, Junemar has started to roll once more. He’s back to leading the league in scoring (22.3 PPG), and rebounding (12.8 RPG). The Beermen have also followed suit, as they’ve won four straight games to give them a shot at locking up a slot in the top two after the elimination round.
By all accounts, this dominance by Junemar has felt tiring. It’s been six years of watching him crush opponent after opponent, and even for the craziest of fans, it can get taxing to watch. We always want something fresh, which made Pringle’s emergence so exciting for some of the fans.
Here’s the thing; instant gratification, more often than not, doesn’t lead to the best of choices. Sometimes the cliches, those inevitable choices, are the ones that simply make the most sense. As Junemar has added new tricks to his already loaded bag and with San Miguel starting to figure things out, the inevitable inches closer once again.