MANILA, Philippines—From the depths of anonymity in the 2001 PBA draft, Peter June Simon has taken a long but steady route to superstardom.
“It’s really been a blessing,” said Simon, who was drafted in the fifth round (43rd overall), of his career thus far. “Merong time na halos two years din ako nasa bench [There was a time when I spent almost two years on the bench].”
But the former University of Mindanao hotshot continued working on his game until he cracked the rotation with Purefoods/B-Meg. He’s played a key role for the squad since then, winning an All-Star MVP trophy and a Mr. Quality Minutes award along the way, as well as establishing himself as one of the best players off the bench.
And in the ongoing Commissioner’s Cup championship series between his B-Meg Llamados and the powerhouse defending champions Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters, the 6-foot-1 shooting guard is fast shaping up to be a deciding figure in the series.
Simon finished with 18 points in B-Meg’s 88-82 victory over Talk ‘N Text in Game 1 of the best-of-seven affair Monday night, knocking in the crucial baskets at the start of the fourth quarter to augment a superb Llamados defense and give his squad control of the ballgame.
“We basically rode PJ in that stretch,” said B-Meg coach Tim Cone after the game.
“Ine-embrace ko lang ang opportunity na binigay sa akin ni Lord [I’m just embracing the opportunity the Lord gave me],” he added.
His ability to play off the ball has allowed him to thrive in the system Cone introduced to the Llamados after taking over as their head coach at the start of the season.
“Ang Triangle Offense kasi, equal-opportunity offense [The Triangle Offense is an equal-opportunity offense]. Hindi nagtatagal ang bola sa isang tao [The ball doesn’t stay with one person for too long],” he explained. “Nagkataon maganda ang shooting ko [It just so happened that my shooting was great].”
But it was more than just chance that allowed Simon to torture the Texters in front of 13,000 fans at the Araneta Coliseum. He picked his shots throughout the match, conscious of his attempt count all night.
“I think I took 10 or less shots,” he said.
Eleven, actually. And he made nine of them, each one more crucial than the other.
“PJ got going and there were times when we tried to put him at the post,” said Cone. But it wasn’t his ability to make shots over the smaller TNT guards that made the difference. It was his ability to make shots, period.
Lost in the din of the Game 1 victory was how that 9-of-11 was closer to the norm than it was to the exception. This season, Simon is hitting at an average clip of 51.4 percent from the field. Given a few random parameters by PBA stat chief Fidel Mangonon III, Simon ranks fifth among players who have suited up in at least 10 games and made at least 50 field goals.
Even more amazing? He is the only guard in that top five, meaning he is the only one who takes perimeter shots consistently and whose clip has to take a hit from a 30.2-percent rate from beyond the arc.
In fact, using the same parameters, Simon is the only guard shooting above 50 percent from the field. And it is that effectiveness that tripped the Talk ‘N Text defense all night. It wasn’t just the mismatch. In fact, one of the two shots Simon missed was when he took Jimmy Alapag down low at the post.
“What can I say? PJ is PJ. He’s a hell of a player,” said Texters coach Chot Reyes.
And he will continue to be one for B-Meg. He isn’t worried even if TNT decides to point its defensive game plan at him.
“Mag wo-work lang ako sa Triangle [I’ll continue to work within the Triangle],” he said. “Sa sistema na yun, lahat may pagkakataon mag step-up [With that system, everybody has the chance to step up].”
And if he is bumped off the flow of Cone’s intricate offense?
“Sabi ni coach, kapag may breakdown, puwede kami lumabas sa Triangle [coach told us that if there’s a breakdown in offense, we can step out of the Triangle],” said the 31-year-old Simon. “Minsan kasi, may situation na kailangan mag on-the-fly kapag may breakdown [There are situations when we’ll have to go on-the-fly when there’s a breakdown].”
Yes, PJ Simon, like his more illustrious teammate James Yap, has the license to freestyle. And to think this was the same player who, over a decade ago, teams passed up on—not just once.
Read more on PBA finals and B-MEG vs TNT.