IT took a bench role to finally bring the best out of June Mar Fajardo in international play.
Expected to start as he enters his prime and form a twin-tower combination with Andray Blatche, Fajardo was relegated to the Gilas Pilipinas bench in the first window of the Fiba World Cup qualifiers.
That turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the reigning four-time PBA MVP proved to be the sixth man the national team needed in its 90-83 win over Chinese Taipei on Monday night.
Fajardo pumped in 17 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and two blocks in over 23 minutes as he filled the void left by Andray Blatche, who put up a sub-par offensive showing with just six points on 2-of-9 shooting and committed six turnovers.
“Kung ano yung role na binigay ni coach sa akin, tatanggapin ko yun,” Fajardo said.
“Thankful lang ako sa teammates ko at kay coach sa tiwala,” he added. “Kailangan lang talaga naming sundin yung gameplan namin. Nagawa namin, medyo nag-relax lang kami ng first quarter pero buti nakabawi kami sa depensa.”
Gilas coach Chot Reyes lauded Fajardo’s acceptance of his current role with Gilas with Japeth Aguilar starting ahead of him and teaming up with Blatche instead.
“I think it’s a tribute to the team-manship of the players on this squad,” Reyes said. “When we decided to start Japeth together with Andray even before the Japan game, I spoke to June Mar to tell him that he was going to come off the bench, and he’d be fine with it. He said, ‘No problem. Whatever you need, coach, you don’t have to worry about it.’
Fajardo did admit feeling some pressure to deliver when the starters couldn’t get the team off to a solid start.
“Medyo (pressure), pero tiwala lang talaga sa team, sa sistema ni coach, at sa isa’t isa,” Fajardo said. “Buti nakabawi kami sa depensa.”
And when he did have a chance to team up with Blatche in the second half, that opened things up for Fajardo and the Gilas shooters.
“Nagdo-double team sila kay Andray,” Fajardo said. “Kung single coverage lang, sure na makakascore na sya. Madali lang yun sa kanya. Buti na lang nag-work.”
“With all the attention Andray is getting, it allows June Mar to operate on the post,” Reyes said for his part.