TWO of the personalities that made the biggest news in the offseason – rookies June Mar Fajardo and Chris Tiu - make their much-awaited PBA debut on Wednesday night when Petron Blaze and Rain or Shine clash in the Philippine Cup at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The 6-10 Fajardo, the top pick overall in the rookie draft who attracted a lot of attention in the offseason because of his immense potential, and longtime amateur star Tiu are expected to play major roles in the 7:30 p.m. main game of the season's first double-header.
Fajardo is expected to start at center for the Boosters but will have his work cut out for him against Beau Belga and JR Quinahan, Rain or Shine's centers who have the wide frames to body up on Fajardo inside as well as the outside touch to challenge the rookie's dexterity on defense.
“Their (Elasto Painters) big men shoot from the outside, so for us, it will be a challenge," said Petron rookie coach Olsen Racela. "June Mar will have to come out to defend the perimeter. But this will be a good game and good test for us on how we have improved.”
On the other hand, Tiu, taken in the first round by Rain or Shine, is set to alternate with pal TY Tang in handling the playmaking duties for the Elasto Painters while reigning Rookie of the Year Paul Lee recuperates from shoulder surgery.
Fajardo has showed the public a glimpse of what he can do during the team’s preseason games. He has a decent shooting touch from 12 to 15 feet, a good post move and knows how to use his size inside.
The former University of Cebu star also knows what his role in the team would be.
“Kailangan ko pa mag-improve sa depensa ko. Since di naman ako kailangang umiskor gaano dahil marami namang scorers sa team,” Fajardo said, pointing to Arwind Santos, Fil-Am Chris Lutz, Joseph Yeo and Jay Washington as the team’s top gunners.
Lutz and Dorian Pena are set to play for the Boosters against the Elasto Painters after recovering from injuries. The 6-3 Lutz was sidelined during the past Petron practice games to let his hip flexors/adductors strain heal while Pena has fully recovered from his hamstring injury.
However, the Boosters are still expected to be without guard Marcio Lassiter, who is nursing an MCL injury and may need to sit out the team's first three games.
Racela should also be attracting his share of the attention as he coaches his first game since replacing Ato Agustin, who has assumed the new role of assistant team manager. The longtime San Miguel star will have former national coach Rajko Toroman by his side as consultant.
“I’m learning from coach Rajko. And that’s really part of the adjustment I need to make as the coach. Of course, Rajko will play a major role for us in our campaign this season,” Racela told Spin.ph.
Rain or Shine coach Yeng Guiao said being the smallest team in the league, he expects his players to gang-rebound throughout this season and run at every opportunity.
“Rebound is effort, we need to cultivate that constantly,” said Guiao as he challenged undersized frontliners Larry Rodriguez, Jervie Cruz and Ronnie Matias to rise to the occasion.
“We’re going to be a running team. That’s the only way to keep pace with bigger teams. We don’t want to play half-court game. We want to play the up-tempo game,” he added.
Retooled ball clubs Air21 and Barako Bull kick off their campaigns in the 5:15 p.m. curtain-raiser.