From a projected first-round pick to ending up as the 17th overall pick in this year's PBA draft.
Former University of the Philippines Maroons player Ricci Rivero surprised many when he was chosen by Phoenix Super LPG in the second round of the rookie draft held on Sunday, September 17, 2023, at Market! Market! in Taguig.
Mock drafts predicted Ricci as among the top prospects — with ESPN Philippines ranking him at number three overall — making his slide to number 17 unexpected.
Former NBA G-League player Stephen Holt emerged as the top pick overall after he was selected by Terrafirma Dyip.
Blackwater Bossing went for Christian David as the number two pick.
Big man Luis Villegas was selected number three overall by Rain or Shine Elasto Painters.
Rounding up the first round were Keith Datu (Rain or Shine), Zavier Lucero (NorthPort), Kenneth Tuffin (Phoenix), Richard Rodger (NLEX), Brandon Bates (Meralco), Schonny Winston (Converge), BJ Andrade (Converge), Cade Flores (NorthPort), and Taylor James Miller (Terrafirma).
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PART OF WINNING TEAMS
Ricci was part of the young U16 team of the Philippine national team that swept the SEABA (Southeast Asia Basketball Association) Championships in 2013.
U16 means that all the players competing are below 16 years old.
Ricci played for the De La Salle University Green Archers in the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) where he won a championship in 2016 at the seniors collegiate level in his rookie year.
He transferred to the University of the Philippines (UP) and joined the Fighting Maroons to play alongside notable recruits such as Kobe Paras and Carl Tamayo.
In 2022, UP ended its 36-year UAAP title drought by winning the championship against the Ateneo Blue Eagles in a thrilling three-game series.
After college, Ricci signed with the Taouyuan Pilots in Taiwan's P.League but failed to see action because of an ankle injury.
Ricci played briefly for Blackwater Red President in the PBA 3x3 in February this year.
Joining 3x3 competitions was nothing new to Ricci, who played previously in the U18 3x3 World Championship in 2015 and the U23 3x3 World Cup in 2018.
Ricci announced his participation in the PBA draft in July this year.
DID "CHEATING" ALLEGATIONS PULL RICCI DOWN?
Outside basketball, Ricci also drew attention for his romantic involvement with actress Andrea Brillantes.
The two dated and had a high-profile relationship that the public followed and consumed on social media.
Ricci and Andrea reportedly broke up on the first week of May 2023, which happened to be their anniversary month.
The separation was allegedly because of a third party on Ricci's part, prompting Andrea's fans to label the young cager as a "cheater" and "user."
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This leads to the question: Did the issue play a role in Ricci's chances of being drafted early in the first round?
Teams, after all, see their players as representatives of their brands inside and outside the playing court.
For coach and basketball analyst Martin Antonio, Ricci's personal life had nothing to do with his draft performance.
"The draft was loaded with one word: Size," Martin told PEP.ph (Philippine Entertainment Portal).
"PBA teams will always be enamored with size. Almost all first-round picks have a distinct size advantage for their position," continued Martin, emphasizing the edge taller players have over other aspirants.
Stephen Holt, the first overall pick is listed at 6-foot-4, while second pick Christian David stands at 6-foot-6, and Luis Villegas at 6-foot-7.
The other first-round picks were just as towering: Zavier Lucero (6-foot-7), Keith Datu (6-foot-8), and Brandon Bates (6-foot-9).
Ricci, meanwhile, is 6-foot-1 and plays the shooting guard position.
On a side note, other projected top picks but with size disadvantages like Fran Yu (5-foot-9) and Brent Paraiso (6-foot-1) were also drafted late.
Martin added, "Basketball is basketball. Players are drafted based on their fit to the system, coaching style, and overall basketball impact that they bring to the table.
"He was drafted on skill and fit to Coach Jamike Jarin's system with Phoenix."
This might be true in the case of former De La Salle University standout Schonny Winston, who was part of the first-round and ninth overall pick in the draft.
Schonny plays the same shooting guard position although he can slide easily to the point guard role if needed.
So why was Schonny drafted ahead of Ricci? Schonny is viewed as a more gifted scorer than Ricci.
The Filipino-American guard was a vital cog in La Salle's UAAP season 85 campaign in 2022 and even led the MVP (Most Valuable Player) race for a time before dropping out for missing games because of a calf injury.
This made Schonny perhaps more attractive in the eyes of coaches and scouts.
Ricci's absence in basketball leagues recently might have also contributed to his descent in the second round, according to Martin.
It's worth noting that Ricci was last seen playing competitive, full-court basketball in season 84 of the UAAP.
His failed stint in Taiwan, where he didn't play at all, and lack of exposure on the hardcourt as of late deprived coaches and scouts of the chance to assess his strengths and weaknesses during actual games, making it hard to determine if he's ready for the pros.
Another factor, said Martin, was his health, particularly the condition of his injured ankle that kept him from playing organized basketball.
Still, Martin feels that Ricci's marketability didn't suffer in light of the controversy between him and Andrea, and his ranking in the draft.
"Ricci is still one of the most marketable and bankable endorsers and influencers as of the moment," remarked Martin.
As in any league, a player's placement in the draft is no indication of how his career as a pro will turn out.
Some top picks ended up having mediocre careers, the same way some late draft picks rose to play key roles in their team's quest for a championship.
The ball is now on Ricci's court to make the best out of the situation and prove his value to the team that trusted and drafted him.
For all the talk, Ricci going to Phoenix late in the draft may be the right ingredient to help the controversial cager find his footing in the pro league.
As Martin puts it, "But from a coach and trainer perspective, despite the slide in the draft, he ended up in the best possible situation to jumpstart his PBA career."