COLLEGE PARK -- When the cover story of a national college basketball preseason yearbook raised the question, "Why Can't Johnny Shoot?", Maryland fans thought it might have been referring to a certain 6-foot-5 sophomore guard.
Shooting, especially from the outside, has been something Johnny Rhodes has had problems with since he put on a Terrapins uniform. It likely cost him Freshman of the Year honors in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season. It probably cost Maryland at least one significant victory earlier this season.
And, at times, it completely overshadowed the other aspects of his otherwise solid game.
"He had a very good freshman year, except he didn't shoot well," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "People judge players by how they shoot, but the thing that he's done throughout his first two years is work hard. That shows in his rebounding and his defense."
It now appears that Rhodes is starting to become the complete player -- and potential star -- he was hyped to be coming out of Dunbar High School in Washington and Maine Central Institute. It also appears that after a struggle again earlier this season, Rhodes' shooting is catching up with the rest of his game.
With his confidence buoyed by impressive back-to-back performances in blowout victories over Wake Forest (19 points, 12 rebounds) and Loyola (a season-high 22 points), Rhodes hopes to keep it going when Maryland (15-7, 7-5) plays at North Carolina State (9-15, 3-9) tonight.
The revelation of Rhodes as an outside threat coincides with the rejuvenation of the Terps, whose three-game winning streak has put them in solid contention for an NCAA tournament bid, and freshman center Joe Smith, who is again starting to put up impressive numbers. Rhodes has hit 16 of his past 28 shots, including seven of 12 on threes, in the past two games.
"By me working a little bit more on my shot, that will help the team," said Rhodes, who still is shooting only 40.9 percent for the season, 31.6 on threes. "If you have somebody stroking it from the outside, that's going to open things up inside. Joe is like our bread and butter. By me hitting my shot, that opens things up for Joe. And when they have to get to Joe, that opens things up for me."
Regardless of his shooting, Rhodes has certainly helped Maryland in many ways this season. He leads the team in assists (4.2), is second in rebounding (6.8) and is second in the ACC behind Florida State's Bobby Sura in steals (2.4). His rebounding average is the highest by a guard in the ACC since Bruce Dalrymple's 6.9 a game at Georgia Tech 10 years ago. His 12.2 scoring average is third among the Terps, behind Smith and fellow sophomore Exree Hipp.
In fact, the type of player Rhodes has become is far from the one he was supposed to be. Compared with former Maryland All-American John Lucas and former Duke All-American Johnny Dawkins -- as much for being left-handed as anything else -- Rhodes often seemed to be overburdened by expectations during his freshman year.
"He scored a lot in high school because he was bigger than most of the other players," said Williams. "But he was never a great shooter. Part of the problems were the expectations. It had been such a struggle here because of the NCAA sanctions, and getting Johnny Rhodes was such a big thing."
Said Rhodes, who averaged 14 points while shooting 42 percent last season, "When I was in high school, I wasn't known as a shooter. I don't know where it came from. Basically, I see myself as a scorer."
There were times earlier this season when Rhodes was neither, since it's difficult to score when you're shooting horribly. During one four-game stretch, Rhodes missed 18 straight threes and 29 of 42 overall. The Terps won three of the games, but in a 75-70 loss to North Carolina, Rhodes was two of 13 overall, 0-for-5 on threes.
Admittedly, Rhodes has never been a gym rat. His lack of commitment to working on his jumper was a source of frustration for the Maryland coaches. But after being gently prodded to put more arc on his shot, then hitting three straight threes in the second half against Clemson, Rhodes began to work harder after practice with assistant coach Billy Hahn.
"It was very frustrating," Rhodes said of his shooting slump. "You heard people saying, 'Johnny can't shoot.' Your confidence starts going down the tubes. Every time I was shooting the ball, I was shooting it different. Sometimes, my shoulders were squared up but my feet weren't. Other times, my feet were squared up, but my shoulders weren't. They also got me to put more arc on the ball because I was shooting line drives."
Said Hahn: "It's like anything else when you're dealing with kids. You try to have them do something, but sometimes you have to back off and then come back later."
Aside from the questions about his shooting, there were other, more troublesome whispers that Rhodes was having problems academically, that his eligibility for next season was in jeopardy. Rhodes deflects those rumors like he does so many passes, saying that "last year was a big adjustment . . . each year gets a little better." But Williams grows a bit testy when the subject is raised.
"He's fine," Williams said. "I get tired of hearing those questions. I'm proud of what he's doing. Johnny has done what he's been asked to do."
On the court these days, Rhodes is doing more than he's ever done since coming to College Park. The comparisons to Lucas, whose jersey number he wears, and Dawkins have quieted. But so have the questions, especially one. "Why Can't Johnny Shoot?" hasn't been asked for a week at least. A certain sophomore guard wouldn't mind if he never hears it again.