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OH, TO BE A REGULAR JOE AGAIN

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Joe Smith has an unlisted telephone number in his dorm and a roommate, fellow Maryland basketball player Matt Kovarik, to help screen his calls. Except for going to class, meals, practice and games, he doesn't venture out much, in part because of people he meets who want more than his autograph or a few minutes of his time.

Long removed from his quiet life as a mostly unknown high school player in Norfolk, Va., Smith is in many ways preparing for his next life -- as a millionaire rookie and potential NBA star. Nobody is quite sure when that will begin, not even the 6-foot-10 All-American himself.

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But one thing is apparent midway through Smith's sophomore )) year: As he gets ready for the future, a part of him longs for the past.

"A lot of times, I just want to be regular old Joe again," Smith said one afternoon last week.

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Smith also knows that is virtually impossible, now that he is considered one of the country's top college players and, if he chooses to leave Maryland after this season, among the top three to five players taken in this year's NBA draft.

It has made Smith, at least below the surface, a bit wary of taking on new friends or welcoming back those who haven't been part of his life for a while. Especially now that he is six months shy of his 20th birthday, seemingly on the verge of becoming very rich and even more famous.

"That's part of the reason I don't go out," said Smith. "A lot of people, a lot of agents, try to befriend you. You never know where you might be, they're trying to talk to you, trying to exchange phone numbers. I'm trying to stay away from that."

This is not something new. As he was making his splashy debut last season, there was talk of Smith turning pro. A number of NBA general managers mentioned Smith as a possible lottery pick. A number of agents saw Smith as a definite meal ticket.

It got to the point where Maryland coach Gary Williams banned agents from the tunnel leading to the team's dressing room at Cole Field House, among them Len Elmore. The former Terrapins All-American, now an attorney and agent, represents several NBA players, including former Maryland star Walt Williams.

"It's not the guys you know who you worry about," said Gary Williams, who this year had campus security block off the area entirely to all outsiders after games, "it's those you don't know."

While Elmore has kept a fairly low profile, other well-known agents have become regulars at Cole. David Falk, the Washington-based agent who rose to prominence with such clients as Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, can be seen at most home games sitting courtside. Two other heavyweight management companies, ProServ Inc. and IMG, are usually represented there, too.

Exactly what the agents and would-be agents do to entice players such as Smith -- as well as a number of other sophomores, including North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, and Marcus Camby of Massachusetts -- into turning pro isn't closely monitored.

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"We're usually the last to know," said David Berst, assistant executive director of the NCAA for enforcement and eligibility.

Agents not monitored

Berst said that unless a player enters into a written or oral agreement with an agent, or accepts an inducement to sign a personal services contract, his eligibility is not compromised. In a recent interview with a Norfolk newspaper, Smith admitted to receiving two suits from one of Falk's clients, Alonzo Mourning. The Charlotte Hornets star grew up in the same Tidewater area as Smith.

"At first I didn't know Alonzo was David Falk's client," said Smith. "I met Alonzo up here last summer and I told him we needed to wear suits on game days. I only had a couple of shirts and sweaters, so he sent them."

Falk said that he has less contact with Mourning than nearly any of his top clients, because Nike is involved with the former Georgetown star on a day-to-day basis.

"I wasn't aware of this. I've never discussed Joe Smith with Alonzo," Falk said.

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Nonetheless, Smith certainly has been a target of agents. There have been agent sightings in hotels where Maryland stays on the road, as far away as Hawaii. But many don't have to get on an airplane to watch Smith, and to monitor their competition.

"This is one of the worst areas to be from when it comes to dealing with agents, because so many are based here," said Washington Bullets general manager John Nash. "Their job is to get close to Joe. The guy who thinks he has a chance to represent Joe is going to tell him to go now. If Joe waits, then someone else might be in the picture next year. There are also a lot of Maryland alums coming at him from the other side. Whatever he does is going to upset at least one group. I feel for the guy."

Stakes are high

Although it's difficult to feel too sorry for any college player who's about to hit the NBA lottery -- and in Smith's case, perhaps as the No. 1 pick in the draft -- many share Nash's concerns.

The stakes are quite high, when you consider what last year's top pick, Glenn Robinson, signed for with the Milwaukee Bucks ($68 million over 10 years) after his junior year at Purdue, and what No. 2 pick Jason Kidd received from the Dallas Mavericks ($54 million over nine years) after his sophomore year at Cal. That doesn't include the millions of dollars in endorsements Smith likely would receive, perhaps before he plays his first NBA game.

It's enough to get to Smith in a way that opposing centers rarely can: It's making him sweat.

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"This could be the biggest decision I'll ever make, whether to leave school and go for the millions or come back," said Smith, who is averaging team highs of 20.9 points and 10.1 rebounds for the eighth-ranked Terrapins going into today's game at North Carolina State. "It's something that would make anybody nervous."

Smith said that he will sit down after the season with Williams and the team's assistant coaches, and more importantly, with his mother, Letha, as well as other members of their close-knit family. Smith, who has a $1 million insurance policy with Lloyd's of London for this season, has until May 14 to decide whether to give up his eligibility.

The decision will be made by Smith, but his mother will have the most input of anybody else.

"She's going to have a part in it, but I'm going to be the one who has to live with it," said Smith. "I made the decision to come here when she wanted me to go to Wake Forest, and it turned out to be the right decision."

Said Letha Smith, who works in quality assurance at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Va.: "I won't try to stop him from where he wants to go. Right now, what I want Joe to do is enjoy himself and play the best he can. I don't even like to talk about it. He knows the decision is in the air, but we've only touched on it. We haven't talked about it, like when he was choosing a school."

Having fun on the court

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On the court, and around his teammates, Smith clearly seems to be enjoying himself. He has learned to handle the attention he faces during games from collapsing defenses, and afterward from swarming media members, with equal facility.

"If you didn't know he was a great player, you'd never know it being around him," said Kovarik, also a sophomore.

Though his picture has been plastered on sports pages since his first game at Maryland, not everyone recognizes Smith. Kovarik recalls going to a local bagel shop for lunch recently with Smith and a couple of other teammates, dressed in their team sweats.

"A waitress came over and asked if we knew Joe Smith, because her boyfriend wanted an autograph," said Kovarik. "He just sat there the whole time and didn't say a thing. I think he was happy that somebody didn't know him. It's a lot crazier than it was last year."

The pro scouts have seen Smith's game expand, moving outside as well as around -- and above -- the basket. His performances against other top centers have pushed his stock even higher.

Smith finished with 30 points and seven rebounds against Camby, 20 points and 10 rebounds in 20 foul-plagued minutes against Wallace. He is second in the ACC in rebounding, third in scoring and field-goal percentage (.581), fourth in blocked shots (2.8) and ninth in free-throw percentage (.743).

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Asked about the fact that players such as Camby and Wallace are also auditioning for the pros, Smith said: "It makes me work even harder. A lot of people are expecting me to be a top-five pick. If I don't work hard, the other guys might take my place."

That seems doubtful. According to a number of scouts, agents )) and NBA general managers, Smith has moved to near the top of the class, ahead of such players as Arkansas junior Corliss Williamson and UMass senior Lou Roe. Smith and the two North Carolina stars, Wallace and Stackhouse, seem to be viewed as the top three players by many NBA teams. Because of his consistency and temperament, some view Smith as the No. 1 pick of any team that doesn't need a center.

The questions about what position Smith will play at the next level -- power forward or small forward -- don't seem relevant when it comes to him making a decision this year or next. What will likely have more impact, not only for Smith but for other underclassmen as well, is whether the NBA's next collective bargaining agreement will include a rookie salary cap.

"If there is significant restructuring for the first three years . . . then I think most of the underclassmen will stay," said Nash.

Elmore's dilemma

Elmore is in a precarious position: He wants to give Smith the best advice but risks losing him to another agent if it's not what the player wants to hear. Elmore has known Smith since they met during Smith's on-campus recruiting visit, but he has kept his distance since leaving a broadcasting career to become an ** agent.

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"Right now it's a difficult decision," said Elmore, who played 10 years in the NBA. "From a skills standpoint, if he's not ready for it, he'll be ready for it very soon. From a physical and emotional standpoint, how many 19-year-olds are ready to become professional athletes?"

There's nothing to say that Smith wouldn't be able to make the jump after two years at Maryland. Shawn Kemp of the Seattle SuperSonics went straight to the NBA from high school after being declared ineligible at Kentucky. During what would have been his junior season at Michigan, Bullets forward Chris Webber won the NBA's Rookie of the Year award while playing at Golden State.

Two of the NBA's greatest players, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, left college after leading their schools to the NCAA championship as sophomores. But there are also the stories of players who jumped to the pros before they were ready, including former Terp Jerrod Mustaf. Mustaf left Maryland after his sophomore year in 1990, was drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks and spent four unproductive seasons in the NBA before being cut last fall by the Phoenix Suns.

"I see what Grant Hill did by staying four years at Duke, and I see what Chris Webber did after his sophomore year," said Smith. "You don't want to come out and not be ready to play after signing a big contract. You don't want to go into the NBA with that on your shoulders."

Checking out the NBA

Smith attended his first NBA game this season, and has gone back "four or five times." At first, he went strictly as a fan, but lately he has been concentrating on watching players he might be competing against soon. He also has gotten a small taste of what his next life will be like.

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"At the Bullets games, I'd try to make it to the concession stand, and people come up for autographs," he said, smiling. "I'll sign a few and then go back to my seat because if I stayed up there, I'd be signing all night. It's good, in a way, this is happening now. Whenever I go pro, it'll be routine."

The plain truth is that turning pro after this season might be unavoidable for Smith, no matter what he might want to do. His mother, who said last year that she had a contract with her son to complete four years at Maryland and would "sue him" if he didn't finish, now prays that he has the strength to hold up under the pressure.

"I've seen him grow up a lot this year," she said. "To me, he's somewhere between a boy and a man. If he goes out and turns pro, he'll have to be a man. I think he's trying to hold onto the part that's still a boy a little longer."

The part that exists only in his mind, and sometimes in the solitude of his dorm room. Regular old Joe, the unknown from Norfolk.

SMITH'S MARYLAND HIGHLIGHTS

1993-94

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* Most points by a Maryland freshman in debut (26 vs. Georgetown).

* Most points by a Maryland freshman in a game (33 vs. Rider).

* Most points by a Maryland freshman in a season (582).

* Was ACC Rookie of the Week six times, tied for second all-time with Bryant Stith, behind Kenny Anderson.

* First Maryland freshman to be named ACC Rookie of the Year since Buck Williams in 1979.

* Third freshman in ACC history to be named first-team all-league. Consensus National Freshman of the Year.

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1994-95

* Consensus preseason All-American, including first team by Associated Press.

* Preseason first-team All-ACC selection.

* Equaled career-high of 33 points vs. Utah in Maui Invitational.

* Needs only 96 points to reach 1,000 and become the first sophomore in school history to do so.

* Needs only 18 rebounds to reach 500 and become only the second sophomore (Buck Williams is the other) to do so.

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* Already has four games with 30 or more points, tied for fourth with Tom McMillen in school history.

* Has been held to single figures in scoring only once in 46 games and has been in double figures in scoring and rebounding in 27 games.

* Named ACC Player of the Week last week for the first time in his career.

* Is a candidate for John Wooden and James Naismith Player of the Year awards.


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