ST. LOUIS – He’s waiting for his chance, for that right opportunity to show he belongs, and Ricardo Ratliffe picks up his phone to say he’s ready to make it as a professional basketball player.
It’s Tuesday afternoon, and the former Missouri forward continues to wait. He’s speaking from Hampton, Va., his hometown, surrounded by family and familiar sights during a time of limbo.
Where will he play next? The question has followed him since he went unselected in the NBA Draft on June 28. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound second-team All-Big 12 selection averaged 13.9 points per game and set a school-record with a 69.3 field-goal percentage last season. But he watched 60 picks come and go during the event in Newark, N.J., without his name called.
“I was kind of disappointed I didn’t get picked, because I was hearing nothing but positive things from teams I worked out for,” says Ratliffe, who received attention from organizations like the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers. “I figured I had a pretty good chance to get my name called.”
So this is Ratliffe’s reality as some of his peers participate in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas with their professional lives secure: He studies his next move with the hope it produces results that will catch the eye of a franchise someday. He has received attention from teams in France and Greece, China and Turkey, Italy and South Korea. He knows his path to the sport’s largest stage will include twists.
A decision about Ratliffe’s destination could come within the month. Meantime, he continues a schedule that in recent weeks has included pro-am events and training to improve his shooting range and ball-handling skills.
Ratliffe is confident he will receive a chance to play in the NBA one day. After all, he has survived a similar search before.
“It was pretty disappointing not being called, but I use it as motivation,” Ratliffe says. “Knowing that they’re still keeping in contact with my agent (Gary Moore), telling him what they want me to work on is a plus. They know that I have that potential to play on that level, which is the highest level.”
For Missouri, draft night was a victory. Guards Kim English, 44th overall to the Detroit Pistons, and Marcus Denmon, 59th to the San Antonio Spurs, received life-changing calls last month. They became the program’s first pair selected in the same draft since Byron Irvin (Portland Trail Blazers) and Gary Leonard (Minnesota Timberwolves) in 1989.
Late that evening, Missouri coach Frank Haith spoke about how their selections represented growth for his program. Before he finished, he was asked about Ratliffe.
“Guys’ paths to the league isn’t always a smooth transition,” Haith said. “It’s not always the same. That doesn’t mean that Ricardo won’t have an opportunity to play in (the NBA). I think the worst thing to do is be disappointed.”
Despite his coach’s optimism, Ratliffe wondered how his past affected the future. The former transfer from Central Florida Community College was three months removed from a career year. He increased his scoring average by 3.3 points per game last season, and he improved his rebound total from 6.0 per contest in his first campaign at Missouri to 7.5.
Ratliffe showed strengths while becoming the Tigers’ best inside presence after forward Laurence Bowers was sidelined for the season last October with a torn left ACL. He displayed awareness near the block, and he earned 28 more free-throw attempts than he did in the 2010-11 campaign.
But there were questions before the draft about Ratliffe’s undersized build for his position and his ability to become more versatile with the ball away from the paint. He also failed to stand out at workouts like the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament and the New Jersey Combine.
“I think he’s probably a year or two European player or D-League, depending on what route he wants to go,” says Kris Habbas, editor-in-chief of NBADraftInsider.com. “It depends on his role. He’s got to find his niche. He’s a good finisher around the bucket, but he’s also kind of undersized. … As exclusively being a power forward, he’s got to show that he can be a dominant rebounder (and) that he can finish and score in traffic and in the paint.”
Ratliffe is aware of the criticism. He says teams know that he’s capable of playing above the rim, but they want him to do more. They want him to attack the basket with attitude. A non-traditional route is nothing new to Ratliffe. He hopes a detour to Europe lasts no more than a year. He compared his situation to the start of his college career, when he failed to qualify academically for Division I competition.
A new obstacle presents another lesson. For Ratliffe, it includes a chance to prove himself. “He has a never-say-die attitude,” says Moore, the agent. “He has an enormous energy package – he never gets tired. His mild mannerism sometimes works against him in that people don’t think he is as tough as he needs to be. But in contrast to that, he is as tough as they come.”
The conversation with Ratliffe turns toward unexpected discoveries. He began draft night thinking he had a chance to join English and Denmon as players who received validation that their work at Missouri made NBA dreams come true. He began draft night thinking he had a chance to join them in their relief.
“I honestly thought that one of them would be able to squeeze into the first round,” Ratliffe says of his former teammates. “Those two guys, (with) the skill level that they have going in the second round, were definitely steals for those two teams.”
But the straight path enjoyed by English and Denmon won’t be his. Ratliffe understands this fact, and he has accepted it. Throughout the post-draft process he has kept in touch with Haith, who has told him to stay positive and remain focused on his goal.
There are precedents that show Ratliffe has reason to keep faith. Former forward Anthony Mason, who played 13 NBA seasons, was part of Efes Pilsen in Turkey during the 1988-89 campaign before catching on with the New Jersey Nets. Forward Udonis Haslem spent the 2002-03 season with Chalon-Sur-Saone in France, before earning a roster spot with the Miami Heat the following winter.
Other recent Missouri players also have played overseas. Forward/center Arthur Johnson spent the 2011-12 season with Maliye Milli in Turkey. Forwards Keith Ramsey and Justin Safford were part of LF Basket Norrbotten in Sweden this past year.
“I don’t think he’s quite the athletic player that NBA scouts are normally looking for,” says Aran Smith, president of NBADraft.net, about Ratliffe. “I think he’s probably a European player. He’s a pretty good athlete but a little under NBA standard. He’s got decent measurements. I think measuring at 6-8 hurt him a little bit and the fact that he isn’t a real explosive athlete. … I think the class was pretty solid in the second round, and there were enough players where he didn’t intrigue teams enough to get drafted.”
Ratliffe wasn’t drafted, but his NBA vision is far from over. There have been obstacles in his basketball career before, and he continues to wait to show where his talent can lead.
“Going overseas will be just like my junior college (experience),” Ratliffe says. “And I’m still going to end up playing at the highest level when it’s all said and done.”