It’s been said that circumstances reveal the man rather than make him. The truth is, it’s usually a mix of both. Circumstances can change over time and with this change comes adaptation and even evolution, growing pains included.
For CJ Perez, his current circumstances may be a far cry from his past experiences in more ways and one, and it has required some adjustments both from him and his new team, the San Miguel Beermen.
Since Perez was officially traded to the SMB last February 2, the 2019 PBA Rookie of the Year moved from a perennial cellar dweller in the Columbian/Terrafirma Dyip to the winningest franchise in PBA history. Winning was few and far between during his time in the Dyip and one victory already felt like a championship for the franchise. With the Beermen, winning is a given, to the point that their stacked roster and winning tradition require championship or bust expectations with every conference.
Playing with the likes of six-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo, two-time PBA Defensive Player of the Year Chris Ross, seven-time PBA All-Star Alex Cabagnot, six-time PBA All-Star Marcio Lassiter, three-time PBA Scoring Champion Terrence Romeo, and seven-time PBA All-Defensive Team member Arwind Santos has also given Perez the ideal situation to find his role within the team at his own pace.
The 2019 PBA Mythical First Team selection also injects a little more youth in a San Miguel roster which only has Romeo, Von Pessumal, Fonzo Gotladera, and Wendell Comboy among its players under the age of 30. The number one pick in the 2018 PBA Draft has also provided energy on defense by disrupting passing lanes, something that will allow the elder statesmen of SMB to devote more time on offense. As a secondary playmaker, Perez also gives the likes of Ross and Cabagnot more opportunities as cutters and shooters, especially when he draws defenders on his drives.
Through 10 games, Perez has been averaging 16.9 points (on .439/.319/.667 shooting splits), 5.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.1 steals. The 2018 PBA D-League Aspirant’s Cup champion averaged 21.7 points per game in his two previous seasons with the Dyip, and while he has shown he is capable of big scoring nights like his 39-point performance against the NLEX Road Warriors, he won’t be asked to score that much at least on a nightly basis.
In fact, he’s been tasked with leading the second unit or when Ross, Romeo, and Cabagnot are on the bench. He’s had success in limited roles, with some of his best work coming with the national team.
On the whole, the results have been mixed considering his past two seasons, but he has recently found stability as he has played more games. Ten games in, it has been a tale of two CJ’s: He has no problems generating offense from almost anywhere in the halfcourt and can even start fast breaks on his own by grabbing defensive rebounds and going coast-to-coast for the layup. Conversely, the aggressiveness that comes with his drives can also lead to ill-advised decisions that could result in costly turnovers and missed opportunities.
All of these were on display in his last two games. Perez had 24 points in a 110-80 win over Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters that secured the Beermen’s spot in the quarterfinals. It was the same game Romeo exited due to issues with his right Achilles tendon, thrusting the former LPU Pirate into a position where he could step up and take over. He pushed the pace and kept the defense guessing with quick passes to the likes of Fajardo and Paul Zamar.
However, Perez and San Miguel could not replicate their winning ways against the Magnolia Pambansang Manok Hotshots. While the two-time PBA Scoring Champion finished with a team-high 20 points, he missed 11 of his 17 shot attempts. Complicating matters was that he and the rest of SMB could not contain Paul Lee, who exploded for 32 points.
Eventually, he’ll get even better as he continues to develop chemistry with Fajardo, Mo Tautuaa, and the rest of the Beermen. Right now, he has the same amount of assists as turnovers (17) so he will need to shore up his decision-making especially with Romeo’s status up in the air.
Of course San Miguel head coach Leo Austria has always had a knack for making players buy into his system, but the pace with which Perez has adjusted (especially considering how we are still in the middle of a pandemic) points to how things will get even better the more he spends time with the Beermen.
Perez was known as a speedster who needed to work on his decision-making back in his college days, and while he may still have some of those tendencies, he will certainly mature in the same way the 2017 NCAA MVP grew as a player during the last few years of his collegiate career.
The change of scenery may have been night and day, but CJ Perez will finally get his first taste of PBA postseason action after two years of losing and early-season exits. At this point, he’s still getting his footing with the San Miguel Beermen but teams have already been defending him knowing that it’ll be a scary sight once he figures things out.