It was Game 5 of the 2019 Governor’s Cup Finals. There was just a little over three minutes left in the final quarter of the series. Japeth Aguilar trooped to the line, about shoot a bonus free throw. A few moments earlier he had just completed a thunderous two-handed dunk that put Ginebra on the brink of another championship.
As he makes his way to the charity stripe, he was met with a growing growl from the Ginebra crowd in the Mall of Asia arena. It started from the upper bowels of the arena and eventually made its way down to the court.
“MVP! MVP! MVP!”
If you would have told me a couple of years ago that Japeth would receive MVP chants in the Finals for Ginebra, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. After all, it wasn’t an easy start between Japeth and the Ginebra fans. But if there’s someone in a Ginebra uniform that deserves to finally nab an important award such as the Finals MVP, it’s Japeth.
Japeth Aguilar joined Ginebra via trade back in 2013. At the time, getting a player like Aguilar was a big deal for the Ginebra especially since the team has always been thin with their front court rotations.
At 6’9″, Aguilar’s height alone was such a difference maker. That is why as an avid Ginebra fan, I was very excited for the team to finally have a big man with the physical tools of Japeth. Expectations grew even further when Ginebra decided to pair him with seven-foot center Greg Slaughter, the team’s no. 1 overall pick in 2013, forming a formidable twin tower combo.
With Greg as his frontcourt partner, Japeth was expected to grow as one of the best big man in the league.
In his first conference alongside Slaughter during the 2014 Philippine Cup, Japeth showed what everybody was expecting of him. He led the team in scoring and helped Ginebra finish with the best record in the Elimination Round. Because of that, he was a front runner for the Best Player of the Conference.
At the time, everything seemed to bode perfectly for Japeth and the Ginebra. Although they failed to deliver a championship, Japeth was poised to be The Man for Ginebra, a player that can lead them to a championship moving forward.
But things suddenly went south. After several conferences rife with surreal drama, failed expectations, and multiple coaching changes, Ginebra lost their identity. And so did Japeth.
There were games where Japeth would be over-aggressive, to the point that he would lose control and poise, affecting his decision making especially in crucial moments of the game. He would jump on pump fakes and foul opponents in the process. Then, there would the times that Aguilar would lack the aggressiveness. He would finish shots in the middle soft and was also lethargic defensively. He just looked lost during these games.
For several conferences, Japeth became the picture of inconsistency for Barangay Ginebra. Every game, Japeth became an embodiment of Forrest Gump’s famous line about life being a box of chocolates: You’ll never know what you’re going to get.
He would rack up a double-double and be the best player of the game but in one game, he would be a non-factor for the team in the next. And for the millions of fans of Ginebra, Japeth just became just so frustrating to watch.
Enter Coach Tim Cone.
Coach Tim’s arrival changed the trajectory of Japeth’s career. Under the guidance of the winningest coach in the league, Japeth rejuvenated his play and placed himself as arguably the second best big man in the league behind five-time MVP, June Mar Fajardo.
Perhaps the greatest to ever do it, Coach Tim once was able to convince me that Marc Pingris was the best player in the PBA. He transformed the defensive dynamo into an elite post playmaker, masterfully initiating the vaunted triangle offense.
To see him pull his craft on a two-way talent such as Japeth was something to behold. For starters, Aguilar became a defensive monster. In his early years in Ginebra, Japeth would only often rely on his jumping abilities to block every shot he can possibly get. Now, Japeth’s defensive IQ was outstanding especially. He is more discerning, knowing when to go for the block or just staying on the ground and using his length to bother the opponent’s shot. His post up defense also improved a lot, being able to hold his own against Fajardo and the slew of imports he’s tasked to defend.
Offensively, Japeth also became a mismatch for opponents. But instead of having him post up more, he was used perfectly during the early offense attacks of Ginebra, such as early seals or quick hits under the basket. But Japeth is at his best as the screener to Ginebra’s multiple playmaker. Because of Cone’s system, where ball movement is prioritized, different angles were created from initial passes to make Japeth’s pick and roll attacks much more easy and efficient. He now looks more comfortable attacking the hoop and finishing strong off a nice pass from one of his guards.
It also helped that Cone would often stagger Japeth and Greg’s minutes, allowing him to play more as the main roller next to playmakers and shooters. This helped maximize Japeth’s athletic abilities and mobility against slower and smaller centers.
From a frustrating player with untapped potential, Japeth successfully transformed into a valuable piece that does invaluable things for the team.
His growth culminated during the Governor’s Cup Finals. He averaged a beastly 17.4 points, seven rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game. He was simply a force in this series. The Meralco bigs couldn’t keep up with Japeth’s strength and athleticism in the paint. His play on both ends of the floor sent a statement to the rest of the league. Japeth dunked every chance he could get and swatted silly shots that were in his vicinity.
This series encapsulated Japeth’s growth and evolution into one of the elite players in the league. He’s not just Jumping Japeth or Japeth Like it’s Hot anymore.
He is Japeth Aguilar, the MVP of the 2019 Governor’s Cup Finals.