Duncan rises to the occasion at Wake Forest

By now, nearly everyone who follows college basketball knows about Joe Smith's rise from obscurity to stardom, from being overshadowed throughout his high school career in Norfolk, Va., to creating his spotlight at the University of Maryland.

But compared with Tim Duncan, Smith was the king of hype before he got to College Park. Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, much like Gary Williams with Smith, didn't know what he had in the 6-foot-10 center from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.


"I didn't think he'd be this good this soon," Odom said this week. "He offers Wake Forest something we have never had -- a center who can rebound and block shots in combination with an ability to score. He really is special."

Though he didn't have the impact Smith had as a freshman, Duncan gained the respect of opposing players and coaches throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference as the season progressed. Duncan wound up leading the ACC in blocked shots at 3.8 a game, finished third behind Smith and Clemson's Sharone Wright in rebounding with 9.6 a game and averaged 9.8 points.


"Last year, I went into every game trying to prove something," said Duncan. "First, I wanted to prove it to myself that I could play against these guys. Once I got confidence in myself, I could show everyone else that I belonged. If you back down against anyone, it's to their advantage."

Now Duncan has taken his game -- and his confidence -- to another level. He is no longer an afterthought when it comes to the best college centers in the country, and is being mentioned ** right along with Smith, North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace and Duke's Cherokee Parks among the top big men in the ACC.

"I think he's a smart player," said Smith. "He doesn't try to block every shot or go for every pump shot. He kind of lets the game come to him."

Coming off an 18-point, eight-rebound, seven-block performance in Wednesday night's 76-64 victory over 16th-ranked Duke, Duncan leads the ACC in three categories going into today's 2 p.m. game between No. 14 Wake Forest (9-1, 2-0) and ninth-ranked Maryland (12-3, 2-1) at Cole Field House.

"I think I'm a lot more aggressive at the offensive end," said Duncan, whose 17.5 scoring average is second among the Demon Deacons to senior guard Randolph Childress, but whose 11.2 rebounds, 4.9 blocked shots and 71.3 shooting percentage rank first in the league. "I'm taking more shots. I'm trying to stay out of foul trouble, just be more of a leader."

Not bad for someone who didn't play organized basketball until the ninth grade. Until then, Duncan seemed to be following his sister Tricia, a swimmer who competed for the Virgin Islands at the 1988 Olympic Games. When he was 14, Duncan was ranked among the top 16 in the United States in the 400-meter freestyle.

But two things happened to change Duncan's career path: Mother Nature and boredom. When Hurricane Hugo demolished the team's pool and practice facility in 1989, forcing the swimmers to train in the ocean, Duncan started to have second thoughts. "It just made my mind up," he said. "I got kind of bored of it, and I liked playing basketball."

Former Demon Deacons star Chris King discovered Duncan, then 15, while on an NBA exhibition tour the next year, and told Odom about him. Wake Forest also was heavily involved in trying recruit Smith and 6-9 Makhtar Ndiaye of Nigeria, and 6-10 Ricardo Peral of Spain.


"If we had gotten all of them, because of age, I thought that Tim would be the one who would redshirt," said Odom. "At this time, he is still the youngest player on our team. We didn't get Smith obviously, but by the time we started practicing, it became very evident that Tim was more advanced than we thought he'd be."

Perhaps the performance that foretold Duncan's emerging stardom came against Smith. At the time, the Maryland freshman was terrorizing the ACC, having averaged more than 25 points and 14 rebounds in his first three league games.

In a 61-58 victory over the Demon Deacons, Smith got 17 points and 12 rebounds. But Duncan more than held his own, finishing with 14 points and seven rebounds before getting into foul trouble. Duncan seemed to be the first center in the league to match Smith's quickness and shot-blocking ability. Duncan had 12 blocked shots in the two Maryland games.

"Nobody had talked about him the whole recruiting process. Nobody really knew anything about him," said Maryland coach Williams. "Yeah, he was a surprise. But it only took about five minutes to realize he was a good player, so it wasn't a long surprise."

Asked what he remembered from his first meeting with Smith, Duncan said, "I remember we got beat, Chill [Childress] got knocked out, nothing much else."

Smith's and Duncan's paths have seemingly crossed many times, yet they have never met. Last summer, when Smith and Wallace had to forgo invitations to try out for the U.S. Goodwill Games team going to Russia because of academic commitments, Duncan was a last-minute replacement.


"It was a great experience, playing against all those players in practice like Cherokee Parks and all those professional teams from other countries," said Duncan.

But Duncan likes the position he's in. While players like Smith, Wallace and Parks get most of the attention throughout the ACC and the country, Duncan can operate in relative obscurity. That could change if the Demon Deacons continue to move up in the national rankings and stay at the top of the ACC.

Having Childress around takes a lot of the attention, on and off the court, away from Duncan. Though it likely will prevent his being All-ACC until the others leave, Duncan doesn't seem to mind.

"I'll take whatever comes to me," he said. "There's more pressure on them that way."