Mercado revels in guarding imports like NLEX’s Thornton

Jane Bracher

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Mercado revels in guarding imports like NLEX’s Thornton
'I actually take pride in my one-on-one defense. I take pride in guarding perimeter imports,' says Sol Mercado

MANILA, Philippines – A 6-foot-1 playmaker should have no business guarding a 6-foot-8 big man. But Sol Mercado does not play by those rules.

The Barako Bull guard took it upon himself to ask for the unenviable task of guarding NLEX’s athletic import Al Thornton, speaking with head coach Koy Banal in the days leading to their Tuesday night, March 24 match-up.

“I wanted to guard him so I told coach and he put the trust in me and I guess I did a pretty good job,” he shared following the Energy’s come-from-behind 91-85 win over the Road Warriors.

Banal was especially appreciative of Mercado’s initiative, explaining it is exactly what he wanted to get out of his players.

“I love what Sol Mercado had done to Al Thornton. Since we came in to practice to prepare for NLEX he already told me ‘I’m gonna guard him,’ I just gave it to him,” he said.

“It came from him. I didn’t talk about that idea. We’ve been talking about the loss of growth, having the initiative and making that first step to grow. And Sol, for his experience and all the (reputation) he had, he just came in ready.”

Banal, wanting to ensure his team would arrest a 4-game losing skid, was smart enough to come prepared with a back-up plan in case Mercado failed.

But he didn’t have to pull that out of his back pocket. Mercado succeeded, limiting Thornton to just 7-of-23 shooting from the field for 24 points, which is a far cry from his usual 30+ nights.

“If you give him space, then he can dictate you so I try to just get up on him and try to cut him off,” Mercado, 30, explained what he studied the moves of Thornton on tapes. “He keeps it simple, either jab and go, but he’s tough. He hits tough shots. I guess I just caught him on an off night.”

Thornton, a 31-year old NBA veteran, recognized Mercado’s efforts but maintained it wasn’t a particularly good night for him, too.

“He did a good job. I missed shots. That’s pretty much it,” said Thornton, who was also a defensive liability with NLEX going -14 in his 41 minutes on the floor. “I just missed shots.”

NLEX import Al Thornton (12), seen here driving to the basket, says he had an off night (7/23 FGs) but admits Mercado's defense also affected his performance. Photo by Nuki Sabio/PBA Images

Mercado, who was productive with 12 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds, bared he particularly wanted Thornton as his assignment since they both played in the same zone on the court.

“I’ve been watching Thornton and he’s more of a perimeter guy, even though he’s 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8,” he explained.

“He’s gonna try and post me up but I’m gonna try and use my strength to get low to not let him get deep position. And it was a battle out there. Me and him, we were talking during the game. It’s mutual respect.”

“With me I just try to get low and use my strength against bigger guys. They’re gonna try and shoot over me but as long as I challenge them (it’s okay),” he added.

Thornton currently being fourth in the league in scoring among imports – and landing the top spot at one point, according to PBA Head Statistician Fidel Mangonon III – was also something that enticed an eager Mercado.

“Just somebody I wanted to battle. I wanted to compete and take on the challenge of guarding the hottest import right now, scoring-wise,” he said. “I actually take pride in my one-on-one defense. I have some work to do on my off-the-ball defense, but my on-the-ball defense, I take pride in that.”

This is not the first time Mercado guarded much bigger guys than him.

He previously took on Barako’s former import Josh Dollard exactly a year ago in last season’s Commissioner’s Cup when Mercado was still with San Miguel Beer. He said he grew up playing against imports “my whole life” and his trainer from the US used to train with NBA players as well.

He is looking forward to the season-ending Governors’ Cup, where imports are traditionally more of perimeter players with height limits of just 6-foot-5.

Despite his ability, and desire, to go head to head against rim protectors, Mercado admits 7-foot-3 centers like KIA’s PJ Ramos are absolutely out of the question.

“That one, I won’t ever ask for that. I would never ask to guard him,” he said laughing, before turning serious. “I take pride in guarding perimeter imports.” –

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