Phoenix Super LPG center Justin Chua was one of the breakout performers inside the PBA Bubble so it does not come as a surprise that he's one of the candidates for Most Improve Player of the Year.
"It just feels like 2020 wasn't so bad after all. After everything that happened, I was still blessed with so many things and winning the Most Improved Player of the Year award will be the highlight," Chua said.
Drafted 10th overall by the Magnolia franchise back in 2013 when they were still called the San Mig Coffee Mixers, Chua has played for GlobalPort, San Miguel Beer, Barako Bull, Meralco, and TNT before landing with Phoenix in 2017. Now at 31 years of age, Chua played the best conference of his career in the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup.
The former Ateneo Blue Eagle averaged 11.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and a league best 1.6 blocks in 17 games, shooting 35% from the three-point range.
Chua will be up against Javee Mocon of Rain or Shine, Reynel Hugnatan of Meralco, Raul Soyud of NLEX, and Prince Caperal of Barangay Ginebra. Interestingly, another strong candidate for the award is Chua's teammate Jason Perkins.
"Me and Jason, through the years that we've been teammates, we've done our best to learn how to play alongside each other. At first, it was difficult because he didn't know how I played and I didn't know how I played," Chua admitted.
"Accepting our roles made it easier for us. When I accepted that he'll be our main big guy in the team, it was easier for me to adjust to my role in the team. I don't want to steal his touches or step on his toes so I accepted it. At the same time, he also gave me a lot of confidence. He'll tell me to take my shots when I have good looks. It's a good relationship because we're very open to each other about what we need to do in the court and there's no envy between us. We cheer for each other. I'm happy when he does well and he's happy when I do well because it's all for the team."
Aside from having a solid tag-team partner in Perkins, another big reason for Chua's surge is his more defined role under head coach Topex Robinson.
"Coach Topex was a huge reason why I played well. He kept things very simple. He'll give you an opportunity to do what you can by finding spots where you can be effective," the center said. "It benefitted me that he allowed me to play outside more than inside because our offense became more diverse. I'm the center and I play outside while our guards played inside so it was a great opportunity for me to expand my game and become more valuable in the long run."
While the scoring and rebounding were skills that he already had before, the biggest improvement for Chua, in terms of numbers, were his blocks. He was never known as a shot-blocker but he doubled his average from the 2019 season.
"With the blocks, it really just happened. I didn't practice it. I didn't train to be a shot-blocker," Chua said. "Again, it all just happened because I accepted my role in the team. I was the big man so I had to protect the paint and help my other teammates defensively. Jason, Calvin (Abueva), and Matthew (Wright) play a lot of minutes so I know at some point I'd need to give them opportunities to rest on defense. I'll be there to help them. I'll be there for them as much as I can."
Aside from Chua and Perkins, Abueva and Wright are also candidates for individual awards. Both are in the running for the Best Player of the Conference award with The Beast also nominated for the Samboy Lim PBA Sportsmanship award.
For Chua, this is a sign that Phoenix Super LPG is headed in the right direction.
"As we saw, the core is already there. We're not that old yet. There's years left to be together. We're getting closer and hopefully we get the chance to reach the Finals. We were one game away last conference and that made us hungrier to go get it next time."