DURHAM, N.C. -- He was something of a folk hero before he even put on a University of Maryland basketball uniform. The best freshman guard to play for the Terrapins since John Lucas. The second coming of former Duke All-American Johnny Dawkins. The heir apparent to Walt Williams.
That's what you kept hearing last summer, when he burned some NBA players for 42 points in an Urban Coalition League game in Washington. That's what you kept hearing last fall, when he did the same thing to his new teammates in preseason workouts at Cole Field House.
"Our situation was so bad, with the sanctions and everything, and here was great news, 'Johnny Rhodes was coming to Maryland,' " Maryland coach Gary Williams recalled this week. "He was a great high school player, but there was no way he was going to be as good [as a freshman] as people said. That was part of his whole mystique."
Now, as the Terps wind down what has become a moderately disappointing season, the mystique has worn off. And as Rhodes winds up an erratic freshman year, another question is being asked: Is he as good as advertised?
Going into tonight's Atlantic Coast Conference game between Maryland (11-13, 2-12) and No. 6 Duke (22-5, 9-5) at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Rhodes has put up more than respectable numbers for a freshman: a 13.7-point average to go along with 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and nearly three steals a game.
"I know there are people who were expecting more, but I'm only a freshman," Rhodes said before practice Monday. "This is the seniors' team. I realized what my role was going to be, and I've tried to do what the coaches have asked me."
Said senior forward Evers Burns: "He really had a lot of hype coming in, and that's tough for anybody to live up to. He hasn't TC had a bad year. He's had a good year. You don't get a freshman, like a Chris Jackson [at LSU a few years ago], to dominate. Not in the ACC."
There was a point early in the season when some thought Rhodes might be that type of player. But after averaging nearly 20 points in Maryland's first four games and more than 15 through its first nine, the competition got tougher and Rhodes started to struggle. First with his shot, then with his confidence.
After a particularly rough stretch during which Rhodes missed 74 of 114 shots over nine games, Williams sat down with the centerpiece of his much-talked-about freshman class.
"I told him to keep playing hard, to keep shooting," said Williams. "I wasn't going to take him out."
Said Rhodes, who is shooting 40 percent from the field for the season: "I've gone out with the idea lately of doing more for the team. I wanted to look for my shot, but to be more creative with the ball. Now when I'm shooting, I say, 'Johnny, the ball's going in,' instead of wondering whether it was going in or not."
As a result, Rhodes has looked more relaxed in Maryland's past three games. He has hit nearly 50 percent of his shots (16 of 33). He has played better defense. In Saturday's 81-73 loss to Clemson, Rhodes helped trigger a 15-0 run that brought the Terps back into the game.
"I thought that was Johnny's best game of the year," said Williams.
Aside from 14 points, Rhodes had six steals -- one shy of Walt Williams' single-game record. It gave him 66 steals for the season, the most by any player in the ACC this season except Florida State senior Sam Cassell and the most by a Maryland player, eclipsing Dutch Morley's single-season record of 64.
Along with the likelihood of being the first Maryland player to be named the ACC's Freshman of the Year since Buck Williams in 1979, Rhodes also has a chance to be the first player since Virginia's Ralph Sampson in 1980 to lead ACC freshmen in four categories -- scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
"He's had to go through the learning process, just like any other good high school player," said Williams. "It's especially true for guards. If you are an inside player, you can rebound and play defense and still look good. When you're a shooting guard and the ball doesn't go in, it affects the rest of your game."
That raises another question: Is Rhodes' future at shooting guard, at point guard or possibly at both backcourt spots?
He played the point last year at Maine Central Institute -- where he raised his SAT score to the necessary level for college eligibility -- and has played there a bit recently in place of Kevin McLinton.
It still is assumed that freshman Duane Simpkins will be the team's No. 1 point guard next season after McLinton departs, but Rhodes likely will wind up with some time there as well. Because of his size, 6 feet 3, Rhodes will raise his pro potential if he has experience at the point.
"I enjoy playing the point," said Rhodes. "I want to do whatever I can to help the team."
Said Williams: "I think he's a good passer. He needs to work on his ball-handling."
And his shooting, which has been awful at times. But those who remember how poorly Walt Williams shot as a freshman in the ACC -- he missed all nine of his three-point attempts -- have to realize that Rhodes is about where he should be. And Rhodes doesn't seem to be in any great rush to be a folk hero.
"It's hard for any freshman to come in and take over," he said. "You had the Fab Five and all that [at Michigan last season]. But that was a whole team. That wasn't just one player."