Coach Tim Cone can be seen berating Sol Mercado at times, but that’s only because his performance is the engine that powers this furious Ginebra run.

Please God, no jinxes.

Every time I praise or criticize anyone, they start doing the opposite. Once, I thought to myself that Terrence Romeo’s love of taking matters into his own hands will turn him into Bonbon Custodio 2.0 and lead to the death of his career. Then he started to average his career-best in assists last All-Filipino conference.

Before last year’s Return of the Kings saga, I always thought Ginebra was about to break the “Kangkurse” every time they top the elimination round, only for them to sputter blanks even before they reach the championship round. I also thought James Harden’s mastery of the pace-and-space basketball will give him the keys to dominating the playoffs this season, but then he transformed into Jeremy Lamb (Who? Exactly) in Game 6 and Mike D’Antoni lost a playoff series to Greg Popovich for the umpteenth time.

So please God, let there be no jinxes when I claim that Sol Mercado has become the second biggest piece in Coach Tim Cone’s jigsaw of a team.

Of course, the biggest puzzle piece is the half-Filipino (kidding) import Justin Brownlee, who ironically is the smallest import in this midseason conference. His versatility to switch as a 3 or 4 guy (and even sometimes, as a 5) eases the flow of Ginebra’s game plan on both ends. Sure, he has trouble guarding the post against the taller, stronger imports, but the Kings have Japeth Aguilar and Dave Marcelo to handle those bruisers.

Most of Brownlee’s energy, which admittedly is not in endless supply unlike other imports, is reserved for scoring and creating shots for others.

He is still to find his magical, championship-winning range, but otherwise he has been meeting the mark as the perfect reinforcement for the Kings. Through six games, Brownlee is averaging 26.7 points with 11.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists, though only making 2.5 of his 7.7 three-point attempts per night.

L.A. Tenorio, who leads the locals in scoring with 15.7 points per game, is another key piece along with the imposing two-way presence of Aguilar. Joe Devance is the true half-Filipino reinforcement, as his statline reads Brownlee-lite: 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. Sophomore Scottie Thompson is another major contributor, though he still needs to improve his consistency in scoring before he takes over as the lead guard in Ginebra’s bevy of backcourt guns.

They are all vital to the Kings but Cone’s strategy for winning games is greatly dependent on which Sol Mercado will show up, game in and game out.

It is no coincidence why Mercado was absent in that lone loss and present in all five victories. This season, Sol has never started a game and only averages a median 9.2 points on just 23.9 minutes per match. But that’s what makes him the most important piece in Cone’s strategy.

The 32-year-old is shooting 51.5% from the field, and has made a healthy 35% of his four three-point attempts per game. He gets rebounds (2.3 per game), he dishes assists (4.7 per game) while also being careful with the ball (1.2 turnovers per game). He guards the best perimeter player of the opposing teams, and sometimes gets into the face of taller imports when it’s time to bang bodies down low. He is not afraid to be physical on defense (gets called for a personal foul 3.2 times a game), and will sacrifice life and limb to get the Kings as much possessions as he can.

To summarize: He does all that, off the bench, in just half of the game.
Not many teams have that luxury – fielding such a complete player off the bench.

SMB enjoys having Arwind Santos start on the pine, though he is nowhere close to Sol in playmaking. Santos’ shooting is also a suspect this conference, as he only has seven makes in 26 three-point attempts. Alaska’s Calvin Abueva is another fine piece to have on your bench, but he commits three turnovers per game and can ignite a comeback from opponents because of his antics – just ask us Ginebra fans (HAHA). TNT is a mix-and-match team that is built on versatility. Only their import, Donte Greene, started all seven games they’ve played, making it hard to define who is the sixth man in that 12-deep team.

Last, and of course the least (F. U.), I don’t really want to talk about Star, especially Mark Barroca, who is the closest player to off-the-bench stabilizer that we are looking for. But for comparison’s sake, Barroca plays close to 30 minutes, and shoots just 40% from the field and 25% from deep, not something you want from a vet facing second-stringers of other teams.

Even the advanced stats love Sol, which is surprising since the nerd numbers hated him earlier in his career when he was just a bulkier version of NBA’s Monta Ellis. That’s a nice way to say that Sol Mercado was a tweener of a guard who will shoot more times than the number of his points, most of the time to the detriment of his team, which will eventually lead to a coach pondering to trade him away. Fortunately for him, he and Cone are starting to find control in Sol’s chaotic pace. And when this Sol train is humming like a Japanese bullet train on top speed, Ginebra can go 0-100mph real quick.

In the five games he played in the Comm’s Cup, Sol is enjoying a career-best 122.9 offensive rating, compared to just a defensive rating of 99.4, for a positive net of 23.5, the third-highest in the team following Aguilar’s +25.5 and Brownlee’s +24.9.

He sports a usage rate of just 15.8%, which is really low for all the stats that he puts up. His true-shooting percentage is at a team-best 62.2%. All while having a 17.7 PER, which will be the highest in his career.

To be clear, I am not saying that Ginebra is the PBA’s Golden State when I say that Sol is to the Kings what Andre Iguodala is to the Warriors. Both are versatile veterans, once known to carry everything for offenses but willingly put on Ginobili’s super-sub cape and start on the bench to be a plug on whatever hole the starting lineup has on any given night.

At 33, Iggy even improved on this sixth-man role, averaging a three-year-best 7.6 points on 52.8% shooting from the field, while dishing out 3.4 assists per game and committing less turnovers (58) than games played (76). Aside from the center position, he can play anywhere you want. I know the dynamics of the PBA and the NBA are vastly different, but Mercado and Iggy play really similar roles.

Sol, who was traded for by Rain or Shine on the 2008 PBA draft night, averaged 13.5 points per match in his rookie year, and normed a career-high 17.7 points per match in the 2010-2011 season, which he spent partly with the Elasto Painters and Meralco Bolts. Then after roller coasting through San Miguel and Globalport, he found his home with the Kings.

I am not saying LA, Japeth, JDV and any other King are not as important, but none of them can cover as much ground as Sol can.

If LA (WAG NAMAN PO SANA LORD) goes down, Sol can start at the point and Samurai J.J. can take Sol’s place as the off-the-bench point guard. Mercado can also take Scottie’s starting post and have Chris Ellis take Sol’s spot as the back-up shooting guard/small forward. Same with JDV. Same with Brownlee. And, in desperate measures, even Japeth’s post (though no one can really fill the gap for a 6-9 athletic wing playing some of the best basketball of his life).

Sol is like moldable peg on a Shape-sorting toy for toddlers, as he can fit any hole in the lineup. LA, at this time of his career, struggles to guard anyone (I say that with nothing but love). Scottie can switch anywhere on the wing, but will be eaten by big men on the post. JDV will be put on skates by the Romeos, the Pringles and Castros of the league. And Cone would rather have Brownlee spared from the clash of bodies below the rim.

With the Kings at 5-1, they are in good shape to get a hold of a top four spot and even snag the second twice-to-beat advantage spot because it is sure as hell that SMB will that the top seed.  I think they can get it, but if they want to do it without any hiccups, they need Sol to become the Swiss army knife that Cone envisions him to be.

Again, God, no jinxes please.

– Roland Quilente

Stats from HumbleBola

Image credits: Josh Abelda

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