A star is rising up

This article was published in the Daily News on December 13, 2000.

He is aware that his stellar, early-season play puts him in contention to be selected as an NBA All-Star for the first time.

Beyond that, Sixers center Theo Ratliff does not think much about whether he'll be representing the Eastern Conference at the All-Star Game, Feb. 11 in Washington.Ratliff believes wondering what he has to do to beat out the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Elden Campbell only would distract him from doing the things that have made him successful.

"I don't even allow myself to think about that," Ratliff said of becoming an All-Star. "The most important thing for me is to just play 100 percent every time I step on the court and do the things to help your team win.

"That's what I like to pride myself on doing. "

With Ratliff playing at a high level, the Sixers are 16-5 heading into tonight's game at Washington.

"This team has had a lot of success with me approaching the game the way I have and a lot of other guys approaching the game the way they have," he said.

"I can't really go out with the idea of trying to make the All-Star team. That's when you really start playing selfish and worrying only about yourself. That's something I never want to be considered as. "

Still, serious All-Star consideration is exactly what Ratliff should be getting because of the way he's played. Starters for the game are selected by the fans; the seven substitutes are chosen by the coaches within each conference.

When he was drafted in the first round by Detroit in 1995, Ratliff was regarded as a shot-blocking intimidator. Through much hard work, he has developed a nice offensive game to complement his superior defensive skills.

Through the first 21 games this season, Ratliff's statistics (12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.9 blocks) are only slightly better than last season, when he averaged 11.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in 57 games. But there is no question that Ratliff is a much more complete player - one deserving of All-Star consideration.

It has been a continuous process of growth that not even Sixers coach Larry Brown could have predicted three years ago, when he traded Jerry Stackhouse and Eric Montross to the Pistons for Ratliff, Aaron McKie and a first-round draft pick.

"I can't tell you I saw Theo coming in here and being our starting center right away," said Brown, who signed free-agent center Matt Geiger the season after acquiring Ratliff. "I just saw the kind of player I like - an athletic kid who was defensive-minded, who I thought had a big upside.

"I honestly thought he had a capacity to really improve, but I never imagined he'd do it this quickly. And I still think he hasn't completely scratched the surface of what he can become, provided he continues to work. I'm confident he will."

Some players, like superstar guard Allen Iverson, enter the NBA with high expectations and instantly shine as brightly as any star.

But others - like Ratliff and point guard Eric Snow - come by their success after a gradual process of hard work and improvement.

Ratliff, 27, wasn't some highly touted lottery pick. He was selected 18th by Detroit the same year the Sixers chose Stackhouse third.

A native of Demopolis, Ala., Ratliff ended up at the University of Wyoming because he was a lightly regarded, spindly, 6-7, 167-pound forward when he signed early with the Cowboys.

"There weren't a lot of big schools recruiting me," Ratliff said.

Ratliff was not a polished offensive player, totaling just 307 points in his first two seasons at Wyoming, but the one thing he always could do was block shots and alter a game defensively. In fact, when he left Wyoming, Ratliff was the NCAA's second-leading career shot-blocker with 425, trailing only Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning.

"Coaches would always tell me that a lot of guys can play offense, but only a select few can really play defense," Ratliff said. "They said, 'With your talent and the ability you have to play defense, you can make something happen for yourself. '

"My ultimate goal was to try to go to college and get an education. So, if playing defense was the way to make that happen, then I was going to play defense. "

Although he averaged 14.9 points in his last two seasons at Wyoming, Ratliff became a first-round pick primarily because of his defense.

But a young, raw Ratliff never quite fit in with what then-Detroit coach Doug Collins was trying to do with the Pistons.

"It was just a case of Theo having to wait his turn in Detroit," McKie said. "The way that offense worked, there weren't really any plans for Theo to become a post-up player. Theo's game hadn't evolved into running pick-and-rolls, taking guys to the basket and shooting those short jumpers.

"But here, he started to learn his talent and realize his potential. He got an opportunity, and each game he got better. He started to show more aggressiveness and demand the ball. That's what you need in a big man. "

When Ratliff first came to the Sixers, he was one of the few people who believed he could consistently deliver those things on offense.

He had to prove himself.

"When you haven't established from the start of your career that you are an offensive threat, it takes time for people to get that confidence in you," Ratliff said. "It was up to me to show that when I got the ball I could make positive things happen. "

Sometimes, it's not the quantity of the opportunities but the quality of them. Even though Ratliff is still only getting a little more than eight shots a game - roughly his average as a Sixers - it is clear his team is no longer afraid to give him the ball at crucial moments.

"I've become a little more vocal with the coaches in letting them know that I want to have the ball down on the low block," said Ratliff, who is sixth in the league in field goal percentage at .520. "I think my teammates are getting more and more confidence in me as they see that I am doing certain things. "

Defensively, Ratliff is a superior player who keeps getting better. Offensively, he's an improving player who has shown that he can make shots and make them at big moments.

That's a nice combination to have in a big man - one the Sixers are just starting to fully exploit.

"We still have to go in to Theo a lot more," Sixers assistant coach Randy Ayers said. "I think his confidence has soared. His defensive ability has given him offensive confidence. Sometimes guys just need to be given time for their talent to fully blossom. "

Defense is always going to be the staple of Ratliff's resume, but, with each day, as he continues to develop his overall game, his body of work fills out.

"You want to become a complete player," Ratliff said. "My frame of mind from the start was more focused on the defensive side. But I've always wanted to be as dominant on the offensive end as I have been on the defensive end. That's something that I continue to work on getting better at. "