Road Less Traveled: Dom Fajardo and Jhan Nermal’s Unlikely Paths to the PBA

For these two NLEX Road Warriors, the path to the pro level was anything but conventional.

If he’s good enough, a Filipino basketball player’s path to the PBA is pretty straightforward: get noticed in high school, play for a reputable college program, get extra exposure in some semipro league, apply for the draft, and pray you get selected.

Rare is the player who deviates from this path, whether by choice or through circumstance, and still makes it.

Yet that is exactly what the NLEX Road Warriors have in not one, but two players. Guard Dominick Fajardo and forward Jhan Mchale Nermal, both rookies, took roads less traveled to make it to the big league. Their stories prove that with the right breaks anyone, even those who have pursued other careers, can reach the PBA.

From welder to pro player

Looking at his full name, it’s easy to think that Jhan Mchale Nermal was destined to play basketball. His second name comes from Kevin McHale, the Boston Celtics great.

Yet playing professionally was the last thing on Nermal’s mind when he was growing up in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental.

Galing ako sa mahirap na pamilya,” he told The GAME.  Standing just 5’6” as an adolescent, Nermal wasn’t even good enough to make his high school varsity team. After graduation, a future in basketball seemed even less likely as he opted to put college on hold and get a job to help out with his family’s finances.

Nermal’s work wasn’t easy by any means. It was hard, manual labor. He worked at construction sites, doing a variety of jobs such as welding and cement pouring. Once his shift was over, though, he and his fellow workers would play pick-up basketball.

It was around this time when Nermal suddenly shot up to 6’2”. Soon, people began to take notice.

May liga sa amin sa malapit na bayan,” he recalled. “Sumali ako sa SK (Sangguniang Kabataan) Kabankalan City. Mga kalaban namin, mga university doon sa Bacolod. Doon ako na-scout ng West Negros University.”

Nermal was offered a basketball scholarship at WNU, and although it was tough being away from his family for the first time in his life, he stuck with it and eventually earned his business administration degree in 2019.

By this time, he had drawn interest from coach Brit Reroma, who signed him to a two-year contract with the Bulacan Kuyas in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL).

Things were finally looking up for Nermal. Then the pandemic hit and everything screeched to a halt. With no league to play in, Nermal rejoined the workforce, this time as a patrol officer with the Land Transportation Office in Region 3.

When the MPBL resumed, he managed to book stints with the Bacolod and Bacoor franchises, which he parlayed into an invitation from the NLEX coaching staff to attend their practices ahead of the PBA draft.

NLEX coach Frankie Lim admitted he had never heard of Nermal until some of his assistant coaches urged him to take a look at him.

“Both si Enoch (Valdez) at si Nermal, pinasipot ko sa practice namin before the draft,” Lim told The Game. “They practiced three or four times before the draft. Iyong upside, nakita namin. Mataas maglaro. The guy can shoot. Puede mong gamitin sa takbuhan, sa sets. Maganda ang katawan.”

NLEX coach Frankie Lim invited Jhan Nermal to practice with the team ahead of the PBA draft. (PBA Media Bureau).
NLEX coach Frankie Lim invited Jhan Nermal to practice with the team ahead of the PBA draft. (PBA Media Bureau).

Nermal threw his hat into the 2023 PBA rookie draft, which turned out to be the largest of all time with over a hundred applicants. With so many names on the board, he admits he wasn’t holding out too much hope of hearing his name called.

Even when the Road Warriors made him the 21st overall pick, it didn’t immediately hit him.

Hindi pa talaga pumapasok sa isip ko,” he recalled. “Tinapik lang ako ng isang kasama ko. ‘Uy, tinawag ka.’ Ngumiti na lang ako at tumayo ako noong paakyat sa stage. Parang lumulutang ako noong tinatawag ako. Hinihingi ko lang naman na sana matawag ako kahit sa late round na.”

A few days later, the Road Warriors signed him to a two-year contract.

From security guard to shooting guard

Even early on as a fresh graduate of Bulacan State University, Dominick Fajardo had his sights set on NLEX.

As in NLEX Corporation, where he applied for and got a job as part of the company’s security force.

Nag-apply ako sa NLEX para sa trabaho,” he told The GAME. Fajardo had played some college ball and had also seen action in the Pilipinas Commercial Basketball League and the Universities and Colleges Basketball League, but he figured his playing days were over and done with. But because of the company he chose to work at, basketball would find its way back into his life.

NLEX is part of the MVP Group, which holds a massive inter-company sportsfest every two years known as the MVP Olympics. Fajardo led NLEX to the basketball title, copping MVP honors along the way. After it was over, he went back to his regular job patrolling the expressway.

As fate would have it, NLEX’s PBA 3×3 team was one man short just days before opening day after guard David Murrell had to rush home to the United States following the death of his father. Desperate for a replacement so late in the day, NLEX team manager Ronald Dulatre recalled Fajardo’s exploits in the MVP Olympics and asked him if he would be willing to play at short notice.

Noong nagkaroon ng emergency sa team namin sa Cavitex, three days before the opening ng 3×3, pinapunta kami ni Boss Ronald, inayos iyong papeles,” Fajardo recalled. “Tapos sabak na kaagad sa 3×3. Doon nagsimula ang journey ko sa 3×3 hanggang tumagal.”

Even though he had no experience in the 3×3 brand of basketball, Fajardo thrived in the PBA’s 3×3 circuit, helping Cavitex to several leg wins. Then after the 2022-23 PBA season was over, the league launched its On Tour series, which was essentially an off-season mini-tournament that teams could use to try out free agents and give more run time for their second stringers.

Lim invited Fajardo to join the Road Warriors for On Tour, even as he was still playing for Cavitex in 3×3 and holding down his day job. He went on to average around 13 points per game in the On Tour series, bringing him to a proverbial fork in the road with regard to his career path.

Dominick Fajardo took the plunge and decided to join the Road Warriors. (PBA Media Bureau)
Dominick Fajardo took the plunge and decided to join the Road Warriors. (PBA Media Bureau)

On the one hand, Fajardo already had a steady job with NLEX the company. On the other hand, he had trouble resisting the idea of playing professionally for NLEX the PBA team. Ultimately, it was something he read that helped him make his decision.

May nakita kasi akong quote about risk,” Fajardo said. “Parang malay mo kapag kinuha mo itong risk na ito, iyon pa magpabago ng buhay mo. So in-apply ko iyon. Kinausap ko ang asawa ko na kung okay lang sa kanya na take ko iyong risk na iyon. Baka nga iyon ang magpabago ng financial status namin. Kaya pinayagan niya akong magpa-draft.”

Fajardo was ultimately selected 30th overall in the draft, nine places behind Nermal. The Road Warriors signed him to a 15-month contract, but the best part is he didn’t have to totally cut ties with his mother unit at NLEX after he was still given continuous tenure and was merely granted a leave of absence.

Life in the big league

Not surprisingly, Jhan Nermal and Dominick Fajardo are still adjusting to the level of play in the PBA. But they’ve been putting up decent numbers for the Road Warriors in the ongoing conference. Nermal averaged 10.8PPG in the Commissioner’s Cup and is currently averaging 8.8PPG in the Philippine Cup. Fajardo barely played in the Commissioner’s Cup, but like Nermal is also averaging 8.8PPG in the Philippine Cup.

Sobrang laki ng adjustment kasi iba iyong physicality sa PBA,” Fajardo admitted. “Tapos ang gagaling ng mga naglalaro. Sobrang tatalino nila. Binibigay ko na lang iyong best ko sa every practice at sa every game. Sinusunod ko lang ang mga game plan ng lahat ng coaches.

Nermal admitted he was nervously excited during his first few games. “Ang taas ng tingin ko sa PBA eh. Sobrang hirap makapasok sa PBA. Magagaling ang player, magagaling ang coaches. Paunti-unti nakukuha ko na rin.”

Their coach gave an honest take on both of them.

Mas madaling maka-adjust si Dom because of his game around the basket. Now he’s developing another weapon which is his 3-point (shot). Fighter si Dom. I think he can survive in the PBA. Given the opportunity, I think he’s gonna deliver.

“Jhan has a good touch sa labas. When he drives, he drives strong to the basket. Kailangan lang sa kanya maganda ang simula. Once he screws up at the start, wala ka nang makukuha sa kanya. Kapag maganda ang simula niya, most of the time, maganda ang performance niya.

“Both are motivated players. Hindi mo na sila kailangang i-motivate. On their own, they will already play their best. Ito ang period of adjustment nila sa PBA. May ups and downs. I think given more time, they’ll be the future sa PBA.”

To get more minutes, Lim has this piece of sage advice:

“They have to understand our schemes better in order for them to get the playing time. Kasi kung hindi naiintindihan ang mga ginagawa namin, mahihirapan kang makapasok. Complete understanding of what we do and what we want to happen. Kasi siyempre, sa ibang programs galing iyan eh. Hindi sila sanay sa larong PBA. Ganoon talaga, maraming schemes. Hindi lang basta takbo ng takbo. It’s more to that.”

It’s still too early to tell how the PBA careers of Dominick Fajardo and Jhan Mchale Nermal will play out. But for those who wish to emulate them, they have some advice.

“Continue lang iyong hard work sa practice,” Fajardo said. “Sa ibang tao, makisama lang. Kung may opportunity na dumating, dapat i-grab iyon. Huwag nang pag-isipan. Kunin kaagad ang risk, kung mayroon mang risk iyon. Baka iyon ang makapagpabago ng buhay mo.”

Adds Nermal: Sa buhay kasi, hindi ka naman bibigyan ng ganoon agad. Dapat paghirapan mo. Tiwala lang sa panginoon. Tiwala ka sa sarili mo, sa family mo, sa mga taong sumusuporta sa iyo. Hindi naman habang-buhay nasa baba ka lang. Dadating ang panahon, nasa taas ka rin. Sipag lang.”

Banner Image by Sid Ventura.

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