Basketball

Natural born thriller: J-Jay Alejandro leads the Energen Pilipinas charge

FIBA Asia Photo / Milad Payami

SOME KIDS ARE just meant to be basketball players.

Take Malayan High School of Science senior and Energen Pilipinas Under-16 national team captain Rodolfo “J-Jay” Alejandro III, for example.

His father and namesake, Rodolfo “J-Are” Alejandro, Jr., was a former amateur and semi-pro player who played in the Metro Manila Universities and Colleges Athletic Association and the Philippine Integrated Chinese Athletic Association. His godfathers include former PBA player Mar Morelos, Rodolfo Jr.’s PICAA teammate Jojo Castillo and La Salle-Araneta coach Jun Bosque, who turned out to be J-Jay’s first coach when he became part of his elementary school varsity team in Grade 4.

Yes, some basketball players are destined for greatness –- even if they have to be dragged kicking and screaming to it.

“The first game (J-Jay) played, he was crying while I was tying his basketball shoes,” said father J-Are, with his typical wide smile.

It didn’t take too long, though, before J-Jay – a nickname short for Junior Junior – found his natural scoring touch.

ALEJANDRO WAS NOT a highly sought-after recruit entering high school. Though the Caloocan native played for his city’s home team in the Jr. PBA tournament in 2007, he had to go through a tryout for the Malayan Red Robins, who played in the juniors division of the NCAA.

He joined Malayan as a freshman and instantly earned playing time, even scoring in double-digits on occasion. In his sophomore year, he was already a starter. By his senior year, he was one of the top individual performers of the league, averaging a league-leading 25.4 points and 9th-best 4.4 assists per game.

But team success always seemed to elude Alejandro.

As a freshman, he was part of a Malayan team that finished 0-12 for the season, which included a then-record-setting career game of JRU’s Keith Agovida, who scored 82 points in 37 minutes against Alejandro’s Red Robins.

As a senior, Malayan had improved enough to challenge for a final four seat, but fell just short as Emilio Aguinaldo College edged it out for the last spot in the semifinal cast. He did get some measure of revenge for the Agovida game as he set his own career-high against JRU in the first round, notching an impressive 46 points.

He could have very easily bailed on his team, though.

In his third year, he was offered the opportunity to join fellow Energen Pilipinas teammate Gelo Vito in La Salle Greenhills, if he was willing to sit out a year for eligibility purposes.

But the Alejandro family knows what it’s like to come from humble beginnings, and for them, loyalty and gratitude are valued virtues.

“I told the coach, ‘Nobody wanted to recruit him coming out of grade school, you should have gotten him then,’” said J-Jay’s father.

IT’S EASY to see why the Under-16 national team was enamored with the versatile, lanky, 6-foot-flat Alejandro.

He has a game perfectly suited for the international game. J-Jay has dangerous range, able to knock in three-pointers in a variety of ways, from spot-up trees from the corner to pull-up jumpers in transition. Alejandro may be the best shooter on the team, although resident three-point artist Nic Dalafu might have something to say about that.

But if you overplay him on the perimeter, Alejandro has the ball-handling to penetrate against most defenders and good enough court sense to find open teammates whenever he draws help on drives.

He also uses his length and creativity well in finishing around the basket.

In Energen Pilipinas, they play him at the 3-spot, although he might have the skills to play as many as three positions, including point guard.

And on defense, well, the Energen coaches like to joke about having to hold on to your valuables whenever you see J-Jay in Quiapo. He shows great instincts in getting steals and turning them into easy transition buckets.

All that went on full display in his breakout game in the FIBA Asia Under-16 Championships in Nha Trang City, Vietnam.

Right after Energen Pilipinas defeated Saudi Arabia to set up a clash against unbeaten Japan for the top spot in Group F, Energen coach Olsen Racela outlined his strategy for the game against Japan.

“I might start Alejandro,” Racela said. “Tomorrow, Jay Alejandro will break out. He always comes out in big games.”

Racela had started games with his team captain on the bench, with specific instructions not to show off his full arsenal. The first few games – against Indonesia, Vietnam, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – were against weaker opponents and it wouldn’t do to let the tougher teams, like China, Korea, Lebanon and Japan, scout against the team fully in the earlier rounds.

Despite keeping him on a leash in the first few games, though, it was evident that the other teams were keeping an eye on him.

“Japan practiced before us earlier,” Racela shared. “The moment Jay Alejandro came in to do his shooting, everyone was watching him. You can’t hide everything. There are flashes of brilliance during games.”

Those flashes of brilliance include his team-best 17 points in his international basketball debut against Indonesia on day two of the championships and his highlight plays scattered all over the rest of the preliminary and second rounds.

But none of those flashes prepared Japan for Alejandro’s full arsenal.

Racela’s words ultimately proved prophetic as the young Filipino captain dropped 34 points on the Japanese, alongside 10 rebounds, 4 assists and one steal in leading Energen Pilipinas to an 83-72 victory to finish the second round with a clean 5-0 slate.

ALEJANDRO’S CHARACTER SHINES through no matter how much he tries to hide it behind humor. Much like his father, J-Jay is a jokester who loves to laugh, cajole his teammates into interviews they are uncomfortable with and pop into pictures uninvited.

His father speaks highly of him, though, as a young man who is very considerate of his parents. Despite being his team’s basketball star, J-Jay has no problem whenever they need to borrow his allowance for household spending. Alejandro is also a natural leader, as he serves as the Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) chairman of his barangay in Bagong Barrio, Caloocan City.

After scoring 34 points against Japan, the highest total of any player in the tournament except for India’s 7-foot center Satnam Singh Bhamara, who scored 41 against Korea in the 2nd round, Alejandro had insisted that teammate Rev Diputado be included in the interview the Filipino media had requested with J-Jay.

The move initially seemed like a comedic ploy to make the media-shy Diputado squirm, but Alejandro’s sincerity was apparent during their interview, when he discussed his teammate’s contributions.

“It was the defense, especially from Diputado, because he was the one who marked the shooter (Taisei Shirato, who was held to three points),” said Alejandro. “That’s not an easy thing to do.”

On the court he is an intelligent player who follows his coaches’ instructions to the letter, leading the way for the rest of the team. “When we scouted Japan, we saw their defense was weak,” said Alejandro. “So (assistant) coach Nash (Racela) told me to keep driving.”

Head coach Olsen Racela, whom Alejandro lists as his favorite local basketball player and personal hero, had nothing but praise for his captain.

“Didn’t I tell you he was going to show up today?” said Racela. “He’s the leader of the team, the captain ball. That’s why I know he’ll show up in big games.”

“It doesn’t surprise me, it doesn’t surprise the coaching staff or his teammates. They know who to go to in crunch time.”

ALEJANDRO, DESPITE his natural scoring ability, does not find satisfaction in putting up points on the board. When asked how he felt about his performance after the Indonesia game, he noticeably failed to mention his scoring.

“I’m happy,” said Alejandro. “Because I gave my best.”

Lucky for us in the Philippines, we have front row seats to several more years of the 16-year-old star’s best.

And J-Jay Alejandro’s best – it’s pretty damn good.

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