Japeth Aguilar’s career has been one filled with what ifs. 

What if he stayed with Norman Black in Ateneo instead of rushing to Western Kentucky?

What if he didn’t go back to the PBA immediately and instead looked for more opportunities abroad?

Or simply,

What if Japeth was tougher? What if he had a more polished post game? What if he stopped jumping at EVERY SHOT FAKE?

To be fair to Japeth, it’s not like his career has been an utter failure. After a disappointing few seasons in the PBA, he finally found his niche with Coach Tim Cone and the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. He slowly and quietly made his way up the ranks as one of the best players in the PBA, having won four PBA championships, while making it to the PBA Mythical First Team twice (2017 and 2018). Most importantly, he became a mainstay of the Gilas team, being a shoo-in for most of the squads the SBP has sent in international competitions.

Yet, despite the success Aguilar has found in the Philippines, people still can’t help but think about the what ifs. At best, he was a late bloomer who found success when he made it to the pros. But he still remained a cautionary tale for everyone who tried to chase the NBA dream. His deficiencies as a player continued to define him in the eyes of the regular Filipino basketball fan.

Expectations surrounding Japeth coming into the PBA Governors’ Cup Finals were few. All eyes were on Justin Brownlee and Allen Durham, as both imports of Ginebra and Meralco were projected to define how their respective teams would play. The locals were only going to be the supporting cast to the stars of the show; Aguilar, for all his talent, was expected to be no different.

And that’s exactly what Japeth did, support Justin Brownlee. But a beautiful thing happened during the course of this five-game series for Ginebra. Instead of making that  support role limit him, Japeth used it to shine in ways only he could.

The PBA has long been dominated by players who demand the basketball. From Mark Caguioa of the past and to June Mar Fajardo of the present, the league has forever rewarded players who dictate team’s offenses in dramatic ways. It only makes sense. The more possessions you handle, the bigger chances of you producing; whether it be off a made basket or off an assist. It isn’t exactly rocket science.

At the same time, basketball is a team sport. Not everyone can be THE guy for their teams. There can only be one — or at most, maybe even two! — anchors of a basketball team. For the case of Ginebra, those two players are Justin Brownlee and Stanley Pringle. 

Japeth Aguilar did not fit the build of being a team’s offensive anchor and it’s partly the reason why fans are so frustrated whenever they have to discuss Japeth’s basketball career. For someone so athletic and physically gifted, why couldn’t he be THE guy for his teams and dominate the way his body tells him to? He can leap with the best of them and run like a gazelle, so why can’t he apply that on the basketball court by eclipsing Brownlee and Pringle as Ginebra’s anchor?

We can look at it as Japeth accepting his role. He found a niche in Ginebra as their designated roll-man and weak side option, while also being the anchor of their defense through his shot blocking. After all, Ginebra wasn’t running traditional triangle anymore so dumping the ball to Japeth in the low block or even through the elbows wasn’t as common a scene as one would expect. There’s a certain level of humility to Japeth choosing to accept a job like this 

But the better way of viewing this is how Japeth has grown in his role as second or third option in Ginebra’s offense and system. That growth was slow and maybe even painful during his first few years in the PBA, but his performance in the Governors’ Cup Finals was a culmination of all his sacrifice.

There was nothing extraordinary to the skill Japeth showed during the course of the Finals. There were still a lot of dump and dunk plays between him and Brownlee or Pringle and he still defended the paint. 

What made these Finals so different compared to his previous runs was the attitude he played with against Meralco. He embraced the role of being a second and third option while having the mentality of an alpha. Whenever he’d roll to the rim, he would attack with ferociousness we hadn’t gotten used to from Japeth. 

This wasn’t the Japeth we had gotten used to being disappointed in. It was beautiful to watch this athletic specimen tear it up in the grandest stage of them all.

Suddenly, the narrative had changed surrounding Japeth. Instead of disappointment, fans cheered on for Japeth with pride. He finished the Finals averaging 17.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game to capture his first Finals MVP.

Of course, the what ifs will forever be a part of Japeth’s career. But the beauty of Japeth’s journey is how he didn’t allow those mishaps define who he was as a basketball player. He used his mistakes to fuel his improvement and he was humble enough at the same time to accept roles that may have been less appealing, but were of great value in the game of basketball. Japeth Aguilar was the best player in the PBA Governors Cup 2020 Finals and he was crowned the Finals MVP. That isn’t a what if and for once, we can push away fantasy to celebrate Japeth’s reality.