MANILA, January 7, 2004  (STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - Last year, there were 62 applicants in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) rookie draft but only 40 were picked, leaving 22 "undesirables" out in the cold.

One of the "undesirables" later made it to the Purefoods lineup as a free agent although Egay Echavez didn’t stick. The drafting reached up to the sixth round with Sanley de Castro the final selection by Purefoods.

The year before, 39 were drafted among 47 candidates. Jacques Gottenbos was the last pick by Talk ‘N’ Text in the sixth round. Philip Newton was one of eight undrafted players and saw action briefly for Alaska as a walk-on.

In 2001, 48 were chosen among 57 applicants. Leode Garcia was the last choice by Sta. Lucia Realty in the sixth round. One of the nine undrafted players, Paeng Santos, made his PBA debut as a Realtor this past season.

This year, the roster of draft prospects lists 49 hopefuls. What was initially described to be a lean crop has turned out to be a rich harvest with several blue-chippers in the cast. It’s anybody’s guess who’ll be the first overall pick–a sure indication of the depth in the pool.

If you ask Philippine Basketball League (PBL) chairman Chino Trinidad, he’ll tell you his top choice is James Yap of the University of the East.

"James has the skills and size to make it to the PBA as a big-time player," said Trinidad yesterday. "He can come into the league and play his usual game–something not seen in the PBA. Shooters are a dying breed in the pros and James is a pure shooter. He’s about 6-4 and he’s a great penetrator, too. He can hold his own against anyone in the PBA right now. In the PBL last year, he was the standout except perhaps for some US-trained players. His level of maturity is ripe for the PBA."

Trinidad singled out Gary David as the draft’s darkhorse. "Gary could be the steal of the draft," continued Trinidad. "Of course, the second pick would depend on what kind of player the drafting team needs. But Gary will be a good find. He has a good attitude, good balance and he’s very durable. He’s 6-2 but he plays much taller than his size."

A wildcard in the draft could be Ervin Sotto, noted Trinidad. "Ervin is an anomaly for a big man," he said. "He brings a different style to his position because he has incredible shooting range, extending all the way to the three-point distance."

Others high in the wish list of teams are Ranidel de Ocampo, Rich Alvarez and Jean Marc Pingris–all big-bodied veterans of the Philippine squad that captured the gold medal at the recent Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam.

While the applicants are 13 less than last year, PBA commissioner Noli Eala said he’s impressed with the quality, not the quantity, of the batch. If there were 22 undrafted players last year, the number will likely be much less this year.

Also in the draft pool are Wesley Gonzales, Paul Artadi, Willie Wilson, Mac Cuan, Carlo Sharma, Manny Ramos, Joachim Thoss, Nelbert Omolon, Bernzon Franco, Warren Ybanez and Nino Gelig.

A sleeper (defined as unheralded and unknown but a potential star) could be 6-1 point guard Denver Lopez, the only full-blooded Filipino ever to play for an NCAA Division I school. Lopez cut short his senior season at Fullerton State and flew in last Saturday after playing in four of the varsity Titans’ nine games so far.

Lopez showed up at the Red Bull practice in the RFM gym yesterday and was reportedly a standout.

Shell won a two-way lottery over Purefoods to claim the first pick this year. Next in the drafting order are Purefoods, FedEx (from Ginebra in the Eric Menk trade), FedEx, Alaska, Red Bull, San Miguel Beer, Sta. Lucia Realty, FedEx (from Talk ‘N’ Text in the Yancy de Ocampo trade) and Coca-Cola.

With three first round picks, FedEx coach Bonnie Garcia is in an enviable position to inject fresh top-flight talent into the Express lineup. Trading de Ocampo to the Phone Pals was the first step to make room for a rookie replacement. Garcia will also need to fill in Jerry Codiñera’s spot. Codiñera recently underwent an emergency operation in Italy and will be sidelined several months.

Rumored to be in Garcia’s sights are Alvarez, Pingris, Sotto and David.

Whom the Turbochargers will pick depends largely on their new coach. John Moran, Leo Austria and Koy Banal are among the candidates for the job. But the logical pick is a legitimate big man who can play the post, invite the double team, dominate the boards, score and intimidate in the paint.

Shell has sorely lacked a formidable inside presence since Benjie Paras’ departure. NeitherAdonis Sta. Maria nor Frederick Canlas has worked out as a starting center. The team has a fiery corps of wingmen and guards in Eddie Laure, Tony de la Cruz, Chris Calaguio, Dale Singson and Ronald Tubid. But it is weakest at center. Workhorse Chris Jackson is a fixture at power forward and could use a rebounding center to bolster the Turbochargers frontline.

Shell’s first round pick last year was Laure. The year before, Calaguio and Canlas were the Turbochargers’ first round choices. And in 2001, it was Mike Hrabak, the second overall selection.

Expect more trades and free agent signings in the exciting run-up to D-Day (Draft Day) on Jan. 16 at the Glorietta in Makati.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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