Freshman Smith bursts on Terps scene, soaring above Williams' fears

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK -- Joe Smith had yet to make his official debut as a University of Maryland basketball player, but Terrapins coach Gary Williams wanted to make sure nobody was going to burden his freshman center with an inordinate amount of early-season praise.

Concerned about the attention Smith had received after scoring 18 points in an exhibition loss to the Australian National Team, and mindful of similar pressures heaped last season upon then-freshman Johnny Rhodes, Williams gently warned last week, "Don't create a monster."

No need.

Smith is doing a pretty good job of building some monsterish expectations himself. It started with a dazzling array of jump shots, drives and dunks during a 15-for-18 shooting night in a 38-point, 12-rebound exhibition performance against Verich Reps.

But it was Smith's 26 points, nine rebounds and overall court presence in Maryland's 84-83 overtime season-opening victory against Georgetown on Friday at USAir Arena that raised eyebrows, not to mention expectations for a team picked to again finish near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"Poise-wise, you don't know what a freshman is going to do," Williams said yesterday. "Being able to walk onto Georgetown's home court, on national television, and have the kind of game Joe had his first time out was pretty impressive."

It was the most points scored by a Maryland player in his first game -- the previous record was 21 by teammate Exree Hipp last season -- and it put Smith in the kind of spotlight that he didn't find too often coming out of Maury High School in Norfolk, Va.

With a follow-up of 13 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots in 19 minutes of Saturday's 92-41 rout of Cornell, Smith finds himself in some pretty exclusive company at Maryland.

Comparing his two-game totals to the school's all-time scorers and rebounders, Smith's 39 points is second only to Tom McMillen and his 18 rebounds is third behind McMillen and Buck Williams.

"I didn't expect to come in and do the things I've done," Smith said yesterday before Maryland (2-0) practiced for tonight's 8 o'clock home game against Rider (1-0). "I expected to help the team a little bit, but what I've done so far, it's even surprised me."

It certainly shocked Georgetown coach John Thompson, who wound up having to switch his defensive assignments because the 6-foot-9, 218-pound Smith was too quick for Hoyas center Othella Harrington. His ability to put the ball on the floor made it difficult enough for the 6-10, 250-pound Harrington, but it was those 10-foot pull-up jumpers and pump-fake drives that seemed to baffle last season's Big East Rookie of the Year.

L "I didn't think he could shoot it that well," said Thompson.

Williams said that Smith's offensive talents often went unnoticed in high school, especially when he was playing on the powerhouse AAU team that featured All-America guard Allen Iverson. Williams, who noticed Smith as a sophomore while scouting Ed Geth (now redshirting at North Carolina), said that Iverson's penchant to control a game turned out to be a blessing for Maryland.

"I always felt that he was a better offensive player than he was credited for," said Williams. "I would go to games and Joe would make a great defensive play. I'd look around and everybody was watching Iverson."

Said Smith: "I did whatever the team needed for us to win. One of the reasons I didn't get a lot of attention was that I didn't get out [to the summer camps] until after my junior year. A lot of guys had been going since ninth or 10th grade, and they had bigger reputations. But after the Boston Shootout last year, I knew I could play with anybody."

It was there that Smith flourished, and was named the game's Most Valuable Player. That's when several other ACC schools began calling. But Smith chose Maryland over Florida State, Virginia and Wake Forest, in part because he liked a guy named Williams. Before he ever met Gary Williams, Smith patterned both his game and the way he wore his socks after former Maryland star Walt Williams.

"I liked the way a guy his size handled the ball and shot threes," said Smith, who has shown that kind of versatility as well, hitting a three-pointer in one of the exhibition games.

"Joe used to wear his socks up by his kneecaps," said Jack Baker, the basketball coach and dean of students at Maury High School.

Baker isn't surprised at what his former star has done so far at Maryland. He went as far as to tell the coaches who failed to land Smith that "he's probably going to be a lottery pick four years from now." And Baker, whose friendship with Maryland assistant Art Perry helped during the recruiting process, has one more prediction.

"He's so much better than people realize," said Baker. "Wait until he gets a chance to play on the wing instead of with his back to the basket. If somebody that good can be underrated, he was."

Smith's package also includes solid academic credentials and what the Maryland coach calls "a quiet, mature personality." Smith, the youngest of seven children whose oldest sister is 40, was a B-minus student who qualified academically on his first Scholastic Assessment Test try as a junior.

"He's got a real good head on his shoulders," Baker said. "This kind of publicity isn't going to affect him."

Smith has evoked memories of former great Maryland players, with names like Buck Williams and the late Len Bias being thrown in the mix. But it's only two games and some tougher opponents await down the road, especially down Tobacco Road. A player whose game is a lot more exciting than his name looks forward to that challenge.

"I want to see how I do against all the top centers, guys like [Eric] Montross," he said.

By then, who knows how big this monster will have grown?

NOT AN AVERAGE JOE

Joe Smith's two-game totals vs. Maryland's all-time scorers and rebounders:

& ........ ...... POINTS

Player .... ...... G1 ... G2 ... Tot ... Year

Tom McMillen ..... 16 ... 35 .... 51 ... 71-72*

Joe Smith ........ 26 ... 13 .... 39 ... 93-94

John Lucas ....... 19 ... 14 .... 33 ... 72-73

Albert King ...... 13 .... 9 .... 22 ... 77-78

Len Bias .......... 8 ... 13 .... 21 ... 82-83

Greg Manning ...... 9 ... 12 .... 21 ... 77-78

REBOUNDS Player .......... G1 ... G2 ... Tot ... Year

Tom McMillen .... 10 ... 13 .... 23 ... 71-72*

Buck Williams ... 13 .... 9 .... 22 ... 78-79

Joe Smith ........ 9 .... 9 .... 18 ... 93-94

Brian Williams ... 1 ... 12 .... 13 ... 87-88

Len Elmore ....... 2 .... 7 ..... 9 ... 71-72*

*-Done as a sophomore, since freshmen were still ineligible during McMillen's and Elmore's first season at Maryland.

TONIGHT'S GAME

RIDER (1-0) AT MARYLAND (2-0)

Site: Cole Field House, College Park

Time: 8

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

Outlook: The Terrapins should be tested a lot more by Rider than they were by Cornell. The Broncs are coming off an opening-game blowout over Bucknell, and are trying to replace the school's all-time scoring leader, Darrick Suber, with a more balanced attack. A 19-11 team last year that won the Northeast Conference championship -- on a jump shot by Suber -- Rider will rely more on its quickness in the backcourt, but the Broncs do have some size up front. If they can handle Maryland's pressure, which forced Cornell into 29 turnovers and 25.5 percent shooting, it might make for a closer game. But the Terps might be too big and too quick.

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