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New Faces Could Head The Puerto Rico Team

February 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001 All Rights Reserved.

With the beginning of the new Olympic cycle, some of the island's best players prepare to hit the road for the 2004 Olympic games. Phoenix Suns center Daniel Santiago is expected to take over star center Jose "Piculín" Ortiz's position, now that Ortiz announced his retirement from international competition. "Definitely, I'm not returning to the [Puerto Rico] team. I think it's time for new and young faces to step in for the next Olympic cycle," said Ortiz, who played with the three-time champions Santurce Crabbers. "There's a lot of talent in this league. With the right training, Puerto Rico can be as competitive as it was during the '90s."

Ortiz was referring to the Puerto Rican team that was among the top five teams in the world in 1991, when it finished fourth in the World Basketball Championships in Argentina. The team also posted gold medal victories in the 1993 Central American-Caribbean Games, all Centrobasket tournaments held during the decade, and the Pan American games.

Santiago, who made his debut in the 1999 Pan American Games in Canada, won't be the only new face on the team. Rahim Johnson and Antonio Falu may not be household names for most Puerto Rican basketball fans, but both could be considered and added to the pre-selection of 25 players for the team.

Although the pre-selection hasn't officially been announced, Superior Basketball League director Henry Neumann acknowledged neither Johnson nor Falu is among those on the 25-player list that should be announced later this month.

"Neither of them is included in the pre-selection, but I don't rule out the possibility of them, or anybody else, being added," Neumann said. The team selection committee includes Neumann, Santurce Crabbers' franchise holder Ricardo Carrillo, Puerto Rico Basketball Federation President Hector "Hetin" Reyes, Players' Association President Jose "Cheo" Otero, Caguas Criollos franchise holder Felix "Felo" Rivera, and team coach Julio Toro. "However, both Falu and Johnson will be among a group that will be watched closely during the summer. We are very interested in their development."

Johnson, a 6-6 forward who plays for the Quebradillas Piratas, is leading the National Junior College American Association (NJCAA) in scoring with a 31 point per game average while playing for Lon Morris Junior College. He also is averaging 6.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists, aside from netting 40 three-pointers in 21 games played.

Johnson left the Piratas after the regular season last year claiming lack of playing time. He averaged 3.4 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 11 minutes played per game for Quebradillas as the seventh-man off the bench.

Meanwhile, the 6-5 Falu has his rights reserved by the Aibonito Pollitos although he hasn't played on the island in the past three years. Falu, a sophomore at San Jacinto Junior College last season, can play point guard or shooting guard and is considered the top guard prospect in Junior College for Division I universities next season. He was an All-American freshman selection last season. San Jacinto is currently 21-3 and ranked 6th among all junior colleges in the NJCAA, but Falu's statistics were unavailable.

"Falu is incredibly talented and can play either guard spot. I've known him since he was five years old," said Neumann. "However, he has had some attitude problems in the past. In fact, he was coach Clyde Drexler's first-prize recruit at Houston University two years ago, but somehow Falu blew his chance there. Nevertheless, he still has to be considered."

Regarding Johnson, Neumann admitted he is intrigued by his potential as a small forward on the national team. "Johnson is a scoring machine. I like his ability to create his own offense, especially off-the-dribble," said Neumann, who was impressed by Johnson's play with the Piratas last season despite his lack of playing time. "Johnson may not have played many minutes, but his impact on the game, once he entered the court, was always felt," he added.

Puerto Rico will be active this year in Centrobasket, expected to be held in Dominican Republic, and the World Qualifier, to be held in Mar del Plata, Argentina.

Next year the Central American-Caribbean Games will be in El Salvador and the World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis.

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