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April 9, 2004
No matter what happens in the June 24 NBA early entry draft, Caguas Baptist High School senior Peter John Ramos will already have come a long way.
Accompanied by friends, family, team members, an agent and the media, the 18-year-old Ramos, 7-3 and 270 pounds, signed a letter of intent to NBA president David Stern during a press conference earlier this week. In the letter, Ramos declared himself eligible while at the same time, reserving his right to withdraw his name from the draft by the June 17 deadline should he change his mind.
Ramos is the first Puerto Rican player to try to make the NBA right out of high school. Butch Lee and Jose "Piculin" Ortiz are the only two Puerto Ricans to go through the NBA draft both out of college, Marquette and Oregon State, respectively. Lee went to Atlanta in the 10th round in 1978 while Ortiz was drafted by the Jazz in the 15th round in 1987.
Caguas Criollos franchise holder Felix "Felo" Rivera, Ramos' mentor, unveiled plans to test the NBA waters by shopping Ramos to NBA teams over the next two months. Ramos is not eligible for college ball because he has played for the last two seasons in Puerto Rico's Superior Basketball League. In August of 2003, the NCAA declared the SBL a pro league.
"It's the NCAA's loss," said Rivera, who was instrumental in Ramos' decision to forgo his college eligibility by continuing SBL play. "The ruling [declaring the SBL a pro league] is selfish on the part of the NCAA. The competition in our league is better than it is in the NCAA."
Rivera indicated this week that he has no plans to put Ramos through the draft if he doesn't feel the Fajardo native will do well.
"Right now we're going to see what our options are," Rivera said. "If the feedback is positive, we'll go to the draft. If not, we'll keep working on his skills and development. No matter what happens, Peter John is going to be a professional basketball player. If that process takes a little longer, we'll spend more time working with him."
Ramos' new agent, Andrew Vye, of Kaufmann Sports Management Group in Atlanta, said he would not hesitate to use the June 17 escape valve, although he said he didn't doubt this was Ramos' year.
"If for some reason we feel Peter's not going to be drafted high enough, we'll wait until next year," said Vye, who added that Ramos' play this summer at the Athens Olympics will also give him great exposure.
"What I would ask everyone here to remember is that Peter is an early entry candidate," said Vye. "[Age] 22 is his draft year. Let's all take it easy and let the process take its course and develop. In one year his body and game are already different. I can't wait to see him six years down the road."
After a recent private workout in Chicago alongside Sacramento Kings center Brad Miller, Rivera said NBA team scouts in attendance were impressed with Ramos' long-term potential.
"They said no prospect in the 2004 draft has as much upside as Ramos, given his physique," said Rivera. "He has a chance of being a dominant center along the lines of Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming a couple of years from now."
Indeed, the NBA's best future prospects at center come from outside the United States. Some of the other big men who skipped the NCAA and plan to enter the draft include Latvia's Adris Biendris (6-11, 240 pounds), Serbia's Kosta Perovic (7-2, 240 pounds) and Korea's Ha Seung-Jin (7-3, 300 pounds). Basketball insiders say Ramos has a good chance of going no lower than fifth in the first round.
Vye and Rivera won't play the numbers game in terms of rounds.
"The draft is not far away, but at the same time it is far away. If you're looking at mock drafts right now and then you take a look at the actual draft you'll see so much variation between now and June 24," said Vye. "We'll sit down over the coming weeks as this begins to formulate and take shape."
With four years of NBA draft eligibility still ahead of him, Rivera has mapped out a course for Ramos that includes playing in Europe to get him ready for the NBA. It's a happy and dizzying set of options for a young man who by age 14 had his mother, Maribel Fuentes, spending all her extra money to have clothes tailored to fit his already 7 foot body.
"I met Peter John in New York when I went into Rochester Big & Tall to buy some clothes," said 6-7 Chago Gotay, a former SBL player. "I heard this kid speaking Spanish to his mother and I asked her if they were Puerto Rican. When they said yes, I called Felo [Rivera] immediately and told him he had to sign this kid."
"You know how it is with Puerto Rican kids in New York. Somebody's always telling you they are 6-7, but when they finally get on the plane and get down here they turn out to be only about 6-2 or 6-3," said Rivera of Gotay's phone call. "But I asked Chago, Is he taller than you?' and Chago said yes. I flew up to meet his mom at their Brooklyn apartment and as soon as Peter walked into the room I got out an SBL contract and signed him right there on the spot. I hadn't yet seen him play."
Although Ramos hadn't played much organized basketball in New York, he learned quickly. Rivera moved Ramos and his entire family to Caguas and enrolled Ramos and his sister, Belmarie, in high school. Ramos saw limited SBL playing time at age 15, but thanks to the work of coaches Leonel Arill and Carlos Calcano over the next three years, his game blossomed.
Arill said Ramos' game has improved by leaps and bounds since that first awkward night in the SBL's junior league when Caguas played Aguas Buenas.
"He's a totally different player. He has a hook shot, a jump shot and he doesn't lose his temper on the court as much as he used to," said Arill. "What I like most about him is that he knows he has a lot to learn and is willing to listen."
Indeed, what many take for lack of interest and aloofness on Ramos' part is really just shyness. In the company of his high school friends, Ramos' personality changes and he begins to become more animated and is able to joke around. Calcano, Puerto Rico's junior team coach, said overcoming shyness is making Ramos a better player.
"He has a great game for an 18-year-old kid in the thick of his development process," said Calcano, who whill take Ramos to the Global Games as well as to the U-20 Tournament of the Americas and the U-20 Central American-Caribbean Basketball Championships this summer. "Physically he is at about 60 percent of his body's capacity."
"Two years ago, on a scale of one to 10, he was at a four and today he is at seven," said Rivera of Ramos, who was named the SBL's Most Improved Player in 2003. "He still needs to work on his movement to the left side, his personal defense and his defense with the team. He needs to make decisions on the court, but he will grow into all that."
SBL president Henry Neumann credited Rivera for speeding up Ramos' development.
"Rivera has done what no other franchise holder has dared to do," said Neumann. "He had the vision and the patience to give the starting center position to Peter John without hiring an American import."
Should Ramos make it to the NBA he will join an exclusive club that includes Lee and Ortiz as well as Ramon Rivas (Boston) and current players Danny Santiago and Carlos Arroyo. Ramon Ramos, who lives in Canovanas and is a distant relation to Peter John, suffered a near fatal car accident days before he was to debut with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Montreal Expos open their 22-game San Juan season Friday (April 9) with a three-game series versus the New York Mets followed by Monday off and another three-game series, this time versus the Florida Marlins (April 13-15). Puerto Ricans Jose Vidro and Luis Lopez are both in the Expos' projected lineup.
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.