True laughs

Publish date:

Up until about a month ago, Vargas, ranked as the No. 10 recruit in the class of 2008 by Rivals, was approached 10 to 15 times a day by students, teachers, fans and even opposing coaches all asking the same question: "Where are you going to college?"

To be playful, not impolite, Vargas, who was born in Moca, Dominican Republic, an agricultural city with a population of 60,000, and only began playing basketball when he was 14, got creative. Instead of saying he did not know, the shy, but sly, big man with big-time talent, stated simply that he would attend nearby Nova Southeastern University, which plays in the Sunshine State Conference. That was misleading, though. The 6-foot-10, 215-pound senior at American Heritage School (Plantation, Fla.) already knew he planned on committing to the University of Florida. "I am glad to know where I will be going to school next year," said Vargas before he sent in his signed National Letter of Intent Wednesday night. "I met a lot of good coaches and people, but in the end I wanted to be a Gator."

For Vargas, 18, the road to Gainesville has been longer than for most instate recruits. In just three years of living in the U.S., Vargas has gone from being Heritage's third option on offense, who could barely speak English, to a nationally acclaimed prospect. At the start of his sophomore year in 2005, he left his parents and two sisters behind and arrived on the campus of Miami's Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory School without knowing any English. The next winter, after transferring to Heritage, Florida's largest private school with more than 2,000 students, Vargas opened the season with three consecutive 20-point, 20-rebound games. He went on to average 20 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks per game while leading the Patriots to 20 wins and the state regional semifinals, their most successful season in history.

"Eloy's come a long way," says his coach, Danny Herz. "He really wasn't a good player when he got here. He was pencil-thin and people looked at him and said he was just too awkward. But Eloy for the last three years has worked really, really hard on his skill sets and his coordination, his balance, even his body. He was a great prospect and he's one of those players who's taken the potential and realized it."

Although Vargas is called "Yao" by his teammates (in reference to Yao Ming), his playing style is reminiscent of former Florida Gator and current Chicago Bull Joakim Noah for his energy, ball-handling and point guard mentality. Vargas separates himself from the comparison with a smoother shooting stroke and better long-distance range. This past year, in addition to meeting Noah at the Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas, Vargas found a mentor in another Gators star, Al Horford, who now plays for the Atlanta Hawks. Horford's basketball lineage -- growing up in the Dominican Republic and having won two national titles at the University of Florida -- helped Vargas visualize himself in an orange and blue jersey. "I think Eloy made a very smart decision to commit to Florida, a place where he will have a chance to win championships and take his game to the next level," Horford says. "He should have a chance to compete for a spot right away, and he'll be close to the Dominican Republic."

As a reigning second-team All-State selection, Vargas did not ease up his regimen last summer. Rather than soak in the sun and bask in the afterglow of his accomplishments, he spent most hours training and traveling with Team Breakdown, which won the AAU 17-under National Championships in Orlando. In the final game, Vargas caught a no-look alley-oop pass from Heritage teammate Raymond Taylor that made SportsCenter's Top 10 segment.

To shift into higher gear this season, especially with the Patriots' aggressive schedule featuring top out-of-state competition like the marquee match up with American Christian (Aston, Pa.) star guard Tyreke Evans on Jan. 3 in Boca Raton, Fla., Vargas is working on his perimeter play so he can transition easily into the team's new up-tempo offense. "He always does stuff that makes us say, 'Wow,'" says Herz. "Sometimes it happens in the classroom, sometimes it happens on the basketball court, which is a credit to him. He gets it done. He likes to do those kinds of things. He likes to make things look good."