More than a year after fracturing his tibia, six-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo has finally made his way back to the court for the San Miguel Beeermen.
He managed to overcome a minor setback that occurred earlier in 2021 when the wound from his surgery was found to be infected. The league’s extended break allowed “The Kraken” to patiently rehabilitate without having to miss additional games despite the infection.
The health and safety concerns that have stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic paved the way for Fajardo to miss just one conference of action, the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup, while recovering from his injury.
In his absence, the Beermen’s run of five consecutive PBA Philippine Cup titles came to a halt, but he has returned just in time to help them mount a title challenge.
The 6’10 Fajardo has understandably shown signs of rust over San Miguel’s first two games in the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup. He came off the bench in their opening match of the conference and scored just five points on two-for-seven shooting from the field in his first game back. The Beermen wound up losing, 93-87, to the same Meralco Bolts team that eliminated them from last season’s playoffs.
He played most of his minutes in his comeback with the second unit and often shared the floor with their sixth man Terrence Romeo. His extended playing time alongside the volume scorer Romeo, who led them with 18 points before exiting the game in the second half with a knee injury, may have contributed to Fajardo’s slow start and eventual paltry statline.
Fajardo did not make a field goal in the first half and both of his makes, one from an Arwind Santos assist and the other coming off a putback, came at the rim in the third quarter.
By their second game though, Fajardo rejoined to the starting line-up and showed flashes of his MVP form in their 110-93 win over the NLEX Road Warriors. He looked much more comfortable alongside his fellow members of San Miguel’s feared “Death Five” of Arwind Santos, Alex Cabagnot, Chris Ross, and Marcio Lassiter – and his numbers backed it up.
The Beermen seemed to prioritize finding their 31-year-old center in his usual scoring spots versus an overmatched NLEX frontcourt and he rewarded them with 14 points while also collecting 10 rebounds. Fajardo still looked a step slow on defense, but his marked improvement on offense from their first game to the second is a welcome development and solid step forward in his return.
This year’s Philippine Cup elimination round will follow a single round-robin format and the shortened 11-game schedule gives teams less room for error, but San Miguel has the luxury of depth which will allow them to reacclimate Fajardo with patience.
Even without the sidelined Romeo, their second unit still includes 2019 PBA Mythical First Team member CJ Perez, 2015 top pick Mo Tautuaa, and one-time PBA All-Star Von Pessumal. Their talented reserves could start on any other team and give them a chance to ramp up his workload slowly in the abridged build-up to the postseason.
The Beermen can get by the regular season and into the playoffs even with Fajardo at less than 100%, but come a likely match-up in the latter rounds of the postseason with the equally talented rosters of the defending champion Barangay Ginebra San Miguel or the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok, they will need to lean on their old-reliable man in the middle to reclaim their perch atop the league.
The early returns are encouraging, but only time can tell if the three-time PBA Finals MVP can return to form as the league’s most dominant player.