UNGUARDED OPTIMISM IN TERPS BACKCOURT Great expectations following Rhodes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- There are names that keep coming up when people around here start talking about Johnny Rhodes. Some with longer memories say Charlie Scott. Others mention Johnny Dawkins.

There are catchwords that keep popping up when people who have watched Rhodes talk about the way he plays. Some say effortless. Others say smart. Most say wait until you see him.

There are questions that keep being asked as Rhodes' circuitous journey from Washington's Dunbar High School to the University of Maryland is about to end.

Is he as good as everybody says? Will Rhodes be to Maryland what Scott was to North Carolina in the early 1970s, what Dawkins was to Duke in the mid-'80s? Those are questions Rhodes chooses not to answer, comparisons he won't make.

"I just go out and play. I don't compare myself to anybody," Rhodes said while he was competing in the recently completed Kenner summer league at Georgetown.

It is difficult for the 6-foot-4 left-hander with the long arms and luscious moves to make those comparisons, considering how uncomfortable he is talking about his exploits and how unfamiliar he is with many of those with whom he is compared.

Before Rhodes left Washington last summer for Maine Central Institute, a New England prep school renowned for turning around and turning out Division I basketball talent, he barely watched the game on television.

"It never excited me," said Rhodes, who didn't play organized basketball until ninth grade because he was too busy riding bikes. "The year I was supposed to come to Maryland, I watched a little to see what it was like. Last year, I watched to see how the team [Maryland] was doing."

Rhodes didn't go to MCI to work on his game. Like many Division I prospects from disadvantaged backgrounds, Rhodes had fallen short on his college board scores.

It seemed for a while after he left that Rhodes, who orally committed to Maryland during his senior year and signed a letter of intent last fall, never would make it to College Park. As each test score came up short, the odds of Rhodes' becoming a Terrapin seemed to grow longer.

"I think a lot of people gave up on me," said Rhodes.

Rhodes never had given up on Maryland. It was the first school to send him a recruiting letter, back when he was a sophomore. Other schools expressed interest when Rhodes received a lot of attention at MCI, but he never wavered.

"He made a pretty good commitment to Maryland when he could have gone to a lot of schools as a Prop 48," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "It showed me a lot about Johnny."

Then came the good news earlier this summer: Rhodes, who never had scored the necessary 700 (out of 1,600) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, received the requisite number (17 or higher out of 36) on the American College Test. He was eligible to play at Maryland.

"I remember [Maryland assistant] Coach [Art] Perry calling me and saying, 'Do you still want to be a Terp?' " Rhodes recalled. "I didn't know what he was talking about. Then he said, 'You're a Terp, baby.' I told him to stop playing around."

The centerpiece of Maryland's best recruiting class in more than 20 years was finally in place. Incoming freshmen and early signees Duane Simpkins and Exree Hipp were viewed as encouraging signs of a turnaround, but Rhodes was clearly at the top of this class.

Even Simpkins, the slick and speedy point guard from DeMatha High, got excited when he heard the news. It came in a telephone call from another Maryland assistant coach, Corey Gavitt.

"I found myself getting hot and sweaty a little bit," said Simpkins, who envisions throwing a few lobs to Rhodes and Hipp, each with 40-inch-plus vertical leaps.

Few have seen Rhodes play since he left Dunbar. He was used mostly at forward in high school, and was a point guard at Maine Central, averaging more than 17 points, 11 assists and six rebounds for a 29-1 team that sent all 10 of its players to Division I schools.

At Maryland, he is expected to step into the shooting guard spot vacated by Walt Williams, the Atlantic Coast Conference's leading scorer last season and the NBA's No. 7 draft pick in June. There are even some who expect Rhodes to pick up right where Williams left off.

Why all the excitement? Why did Gary Williams get "about 10 calls a week asking if Johnny got his score"? Simple: Rhodes is the best backcourt prospect to come to Maryland since John Lucas, the best perimeter player since Albert King, the best prospect period since Brian Williams. Rhodes will wear No. 15, which belonged to Lucas.

But Gary Williams said all the hype could be hurtful.

"It's not fair," said Williams. "Johnny's been a great player in high school and prep school, but that doesn't mean he'll come in and have to do that as a freshman. We have three seniors who'll be the leaders."

One of the seniors, forward Evers Burns of Woodlawn, played with Rhodes and three of the other incoming freshmen on the Kenner League team, which made it to the semifinals. Burns is cautious in his appraisal, but impressed with what he has seen.

"On the high school level, people can live up to their reputation," said Burns. "When you get to college, you have to prove yourself all over again. I think Johnny can do that. He's a tough player."

Rhodes, though, might prove to be the most versatile player on this season's team, considering his ability to put the ball on the floor and in the basket. Put it this way: He is a more complete player than either Walt Williams or Len Bias was at similar stages in their careers.

Max Good, who coached Rhodes at MCI, said last spring: "Johnny's the best player I've ever coached here or on the college level [at Eastern Kentucky]. He's wise beyond his years. If he goes to Maryland, he'll be among the great players by the time he's finished."

Those who have played with and against Rhodes during the past few years talk of someone with a special talent, an almost sixth sense of when to make the right pass, take the right shot or merely slam one down in your face.

"He likes to get everybody in the flow," said Hipp, a 6-7 swingman from Harker Prep who might have even more raw talent than Rhodes. "He doesn't like to shoot unless he has to. But he can take over a game about any time he wants."

Said Mike McLeese, who coached Rhodes for three years at Dunbar: "Johnny is a system player. When he went to Nike [All-Star] camp, he didn't raise a lot of eyebrows. You've got to see him play in a structured environment to appreciate what he can do."

His sluggish performance at Nike before his senior year, as well as a marginal academic record, kept many of the nation's top Division I programs from, as McLeese put it, "banging down my door."

Rhodes initially chose Maryland over Connecticut and St. Bonaventure, and committed to the Terps because Gary Williams' style of play was similar to his high school's, the campus was close to his family's home in Southeast Washington and, given the Terps' recent problems, he probably would start right away.

But there was a problem: Maryland can't accept Prop 48s, students whose board scores and grades in core curriculum courses don't reach NCAA guidelines. Rhodes had the core (about a 2.4 grade-point average, said McLeese), but not the board score.

"I was a lazy-type person," said Rhodes. "When I went up to Maine, they got me to take care of my priorities. When I went up there, my study habits were very poor. You have a chance to study up there. There are not a lot of people calling you to go out, things like that."

The process of getting his board scores up to NCAA standards was a matter of one step forward, two steps back. Rhodes got close a couple of times, but earlier this year his scores reportedly fell off. The chances seemed dim.

Then, after getting help this spring from DeMatha English teacher Buck Offutt, Rhodes took the ACT in mid-May.

"Buck had it in my mind that I would get the score," said Rhodes. "He would tell me, 'Don't even consider junior college.' Everything has worked out."

Not that Rhodes' academic struggles are behind him. Others who had little or no trouble in high school found the transition to Maryland difficult their first couple of years. For some, it is a battle from the day they walk in until the day they graduate.

"He's going to have to make the adjustment of going to class on the college scene," said McLeese. "All these things are going to factor in on the basketball course. In Johnny's case, he's such an even-tempered person, the pressure won't get to him."

But Rhodes must face the hoopla that is bound to surround him once he gets on campus later this summer. It will only build toward the team's first official workout on Nov. 1, and will increase when the regular season starts a month later.

"I just want to go out and play hard," he said. "And win."

Maryland's freshman class

JOHNNY RHODES

Data: Shooting guard, 6-4, 170 pounds, Washington, Dunbar High and Maine Central Institute.

Comment: Talent scout Bob Gibbons rated Rhodes as the best prep school player coming into Division I this year.

EXREE HIPP

Data: Swingman, 6-7, 180 pounds, Washington, Harker Prep.

Comment: Relative unknown going after his junior year, Hipp's stock rose dramatically as he expanded his game with increased perimeter skills, especially his outside shooting.

DUANE SIMPKINS

L Data: Point guard, 6-1, 160 pounds, Greenbelt, DeMatha High.

Comment: McDonald's All-American who started four years for Morgan Wootten. Depending on his progress in preseason practice, could start as a freshman or come off the bench.

MARIO LUCAS

L Data: Forward, 6-9, 215 pounds, Memphis, Tenn., Fairly High.

Comment: Played in the shadows of high school All-American and coach's son, Sylvester Ford, but displays soft shooting touch and ability to come up with loose balls inside. Probably a year away.

NEMANJA PETROVIC

Data: Center, 6-10, 235 pounds, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, North Penn High School, Lansdale, Pa.

Comment: Was a question mark because of injuries suffered during senior year, including torn ligaments in knee that required major surgery. Expected to be out until November, Petrovic is three months ahead of school. Good shooter, very strong, needs to learn American inside game.

--Don Markus

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