Building a Legend: What Jayson Castro needs to cement his PBA legacy

Ranking PBA players isn’t that easy. The criteria we use aren’t as clear-cut as how we rank NBA players. Rings, MVPs, and other accolades aren’t enough to guarantee you a spot in these prestigious conversations. Another factor, that’s particularly unique to the Philippines, comes into play: your performance in Gilas Pilipinas.

In the Philippines, performing well in the National Team is vital in building one’s career resume. It’s been especially evident recently, as interest in our program skyrocketed during the start of the 2010s. For the most part, it helped enrich the legacies of certain players.

The best example of this is Jimmy Alapag. He went from star PBA guard to arguably the face of the National Team. He’s an absolute legend in the Philippines.

Then there are players like Gabe Norwood, Marc Pingris, and Ranidel de Ocampo, who have made the leap from solid PBA player to elite, championship-level veterans.

One’s Gilas Pilipinas performance rarely diminishes a player’s legacy. It’s the cherry on top of the already delicious sundae that is your Philippine basketball career.

But what if we reverse things? Instead of treating your Gilas stint as the cherry, it’s the sundae; the very base of your entire career?

Photo from the PBA

Jayson Castro first established himself in the Philippine Basketball scene when he was playing with the PCU Dolphins in the NCAA. He made it to the Mythical Five thrice, and he followed it up by winning MVP in the PBL three times.  It didn’t come as a surprise when he was drafted third during the 2008 PBA Draft by the franchise that’s now known as the TNT Tropang GIGA. There was no doubt that Castro was going to be a star.

In his rookie year, he was playing alongside another star guard in Jimmy Alapag. They clicked immediately, winning a championship during Castro’s debut conference, the 2008 Philippine Cup. The duo’s success didn’t end there. They followed it up by winning four more championships, a total of five from 2008-2013.  During two of those runs, the 2011 Philippine Cup and the 2011 Commissioner’s Cup, Castro and Alapag were named Co-Finals MVPs. They were starting to build a strong case as the country’s best one-two punch.

It was in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships when The Blur and The Mighty Mouse reached the peak of their powers as a duo. 

Jimmy Alapag was PUSO personified. His leadership was astounding and his defiance against the giants of Asia was inspiring. With clutch shot after clutch shot, Alapag cemented himself as the face of this era of Gilas Pilipinas Basketball.

If Jimmy was the heart, Castro was the engine and the brute force of this team. He was electric during the tournament, leaving defenders helpless after every possession. They couldn’t stay in front of him. He was too fast, too strong, and quite frankly, too good. It was only fitting Castro was awarded with the title we associate him with, even up until today: Best Point Guard in Asia.

On January 9, 2015, a couple of months after Gilas’ 2014 FIBA World Cup stint, Alapag decided to hang it up by retiring from the PBA. Normally, when someone of Alapag’s stature would retire, there would be some form of panic within an organization. But for TNT and Gilas, there was no reason to worry. They knew who was next in line. He may be dubbed The Blur, but it was as clear as day that Castro was the next centerpiece of TNT and Gilas. For the most part, he was able to fulfill those duties.

Castro’s brilliance in Gilas continued even after Alapag retired from international basketball. In the 2015 FIBA Asia Championships, he was awarded again as Asia’s Best Point Guard. Castro had established himself as the program’s anchor. He was inevitable; the elite veteran you could rely on no matter the situation. He was undoubtedly a Gilas legend.

Photo from the PBA

Let’s go back to the start of this piece. What if we reversed things? What if one’s Gilas performance is treated as the sundae, the base of your Philippine Basketball career? If we applied that to Castro, then he’d be an undisputed Top 10 Player of All-Time. Considering his achievements at the international level and the gravity these had on the growth of the sport, there would be no questions regarding his legacy.

The sad reality of it is, one’s Gilas stint can’t be the sundae. Within the context of Philippine Basketball, it will always be treated as the cherry. It makes things better, but it isn’t strong enough to capture the flavor of one’s career in the Philippines. The PBA, whether one likes it or not, has a larger sample size compared to Gilas. No amount of PUSO and tears cried can change that fact.

So, how has Castro’s PBA career gone?

Let’s go straight to the facts by going through his resume. Let’s cut it down to two parts: With Alapag and Post-Alapag.

For the most part, the difference isn’t that big. You could argue Castro got better when Alapag retired, which is what was expected considering TNT was Castro’s franchise now. But two things stand out in the table above: PBA championships and Finals MVPs.

He’s only won one ring ever since Jimmy retired and that was in 2015. His two Finals MVPs weren’t won on his own, he captured those with Jimmy.

I’m not trying to say that Castro owes his entire career to the Mighty Mouse, that would disrespectful. But the fact of the matter is, it hasn’t felt like Castro’s career has gotten better, even after he became TNT’s undisputed franchise player. This is particularly disappointing because considering his talent and skill, you’d expect him to win more championships, and quite frankly, even an MVP.

There will be arguments that The Blur is unlucky that he lives in the era of June Mar Fajardo. But as legendary as The Kraken is, Castro had the talent to at least steal one MVP from 2015-2019. Why hasn’t he won the best player award? Simple: championships.

San Miguel and Ginebra have ruled the PBA for the last five years, but TNT and Castro haven’t done themselves any favors to break into that elite tier. Ever since 2015, the Tropang GIGA have only made it to the Finals thrice. They’ve ended their conferences with semifinal finishes four times. The rest have either been quarterfinals losses, or worse, not making it to the playoffs at all. What’s been the issue with TNT?

It’s easy to point the blame to injuries but the reality of it is, the Tropang GIGA haven’t had any semblance of stability ever since Jimmy left the franchise. They’ve had four different coaches from 2015 – 2020. They’ve been involved in trades again and again; from JP Erram, to Mo Tautuaa, to Terrence Romeo, to Ray Parks, then JP Erram again. The one constant in these five years, aside from Ryan Reyes and Harvey Carey? Jayson Castro.

Photo from the PBA

That’s not to say Castro’s the problem, but The Blur hasn’t done himself any favors to solve the issues of his team. During Romeo’s stint in TNT, there were rumors of jealousy between the two star guards. His leadership style has also been under attack since he isn’t as fiery or as animated as the likes of Jimmy and Ranidel de Ocampo.

As brilliant as Castro is, his flaws are still clearly seen. You need a certain level of success for these to at least be swept under the rug. Pingris wasn’t polished, but we ignore that because of his winning in San Mig Coffee and Gilas. Fajardo’s Gilas stints have been mixed, but he’s in the running for Greatest of All Time because of how dominant he’s been in the PBA. Castro, while crowned as Best Point Guard in Asia, doesn’t have that level of success yet. There are still detractors who say he isn’t a leader. His talent, while abundant, hasn’t resulted in championships for TNT. Sometimes, all it takes to wipe away all of the noise is one moment.

Enter the PBA Bubble, where the Tropang GIGA were considered as favorites from the very beginning. Aside from their depth and talent, a large reason for people’s belief in TNT was Castro. Best Point Guard in Asia still held weight. Castro needed to deliver.

For the most part, he did. In the nine elimination round games this season Castro averaged 18.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists in 26.7 minutes per game. Castro was efficient, steady, and reliable. While Bobby Ray Parks and Roger Pogoy scored most for TNT, Castro was still the franchise’s anchor. Where The Blur goes, TNT follows. TNT ended the elimination round as the third seed. A championship was certainly in play.

They started the playoffs with a dominant 104-83 win against the Alaska Aces. Castro was solid, but he was able to display his true mastery in Game 1 of the semifinals against the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters.

It was a tight game from start to finish and it wasn’t surprising that come clutch time, Castro was the one who took over for the KaTropa. Even with Calvin Abueva and Jason Perkins’ dominance down low, nothing could stop Castro from delivering the win for his franchise.

Photo from the PBA

His stat line was phenomenal: 20 points, six rebounds, and six assists in just 29 minutes of play. Coach Mark Dickel was conserving Castro throughout the game so come the crucial moments, The Blur could deliver. Deliver he did.

It was a different story in Game 2. Bobby Ray Parks was the talk of the town and deservingly slow. He was hotter than fish grease, scoring 41 points on 10 made three-pointers. Problem was, he fouled out with 4:59 left in the game. The score read 92 all at that point. All eyes were on Castro to save the day for the KaTropa.

The clock kept ticking. We kept on waiting. The Best Point Guard in Asia was supposed to save the day for the Tropang GIGA. But instead of praising him for his heroics, we wound up celebrating Calvin Abueva’s excellence instead. The Tropang GIGA had lost, 110-103. Castro never wore his cape for his franchise.

Game 3 was an opportunity for Castro to bounce back and we got a mixed bag. He had 12 points and six rebounds, but the problem was, he also missed six out of his 11 free throws. It was a very close game from start to finish and making at least three more would have given TNT quite the cushion as the game progressed. Fine. Misses happen, even to the best of us.

With 22 seconds left in the game, the score read 92-89 favoring the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters. It’s been a rough outing for The Best Point Guard in Asia, but Castro still had the chance to put on his cape at this moment. Sometimes, all it takes is one moment. It could have been this one.

Off a wild scramble, Simon Enciso dished it off to Castro to the right wing. TNT needed a three so Castro needed to either shoot this off the catch, or at the very least, step back and pull-up. He opted to do half of the latter. Why half? Because he hesitated and didn’t pull-up. That split second allowed Justin Chua to recover and Castro settled for a contested heave.

Castro had the cape, but it slipped the moment he hesitated. The Fuel Masters secured Game 3 and now they were one game away from making it to the Finals.

The Tropang GIGA, on the other hand, is a game away from losing in the semifinals. Again. A loss would make this their sixth semifinals finish in five years.

Typical Tropang GIGA, right? This has been the status quo ever since Jimmy Alapag retired. It’s easy to laugh and to brush it off, but it’s sad to think about given the proud history of this franchise.

Photo from the PBA

It becomes even more disappointing when you bring Castro into the equation. The let down doesn’t stem from the fact that Castro couldn’t match what Jimmy did; it stems from the fact that for some reason, he can’t seem to get over the hump. If we’re talking about pure talent and skill, Castro has Alapag beat. But it’s those little things, the moments, the intangibles, and the other factors that make this game so much more than points and analytics, that makes Alapag’s legacy so much stronger compared to Castro’s.

That’s not to say that we should expect Castro to put up 30 points on a nightly basis moving forward, that was never the goal. What’s so frustrating is how Castro has failed time and time again to take games over when it matters the most. It’s not about production. A filled-up stat line doesn’t always equate to value.

It’s the little things that make a difference. The intelligence when navigating a basketball play. The foresight to think of options while running particular sets.  The ability to control your team’s momentum, whether leading or trailing. The great ones have that ability, from Jimmy, June Mar, James Yap, among others.  Castro has shown he has that in the international level. Can he dig even deeper and show that he has that in the PBA level?

Castro has had a fruitful career, but he can still rise in the all-time rankings. The cherry’s already established, but making the base, that sundae, is what will help catapult him from all-time great, to close to untouchable. The Blur is in uncharted territory. With no Kraken standing in his way for the first time in a long time, he has a rare opportunity to make his mark. Everyone is waiting to see if Castro can bring his PBA legacy closer to his Gilas legend.