In a development that will surprise few but sadden many in College Park, Maryland basketball star Joe Smith apparently is leaning toward giving up his final two years of eligibility to enter the NBA draft.
Smith confirmed a report in yesterday's Washington Post that said the 6-foot-10 center has told his mother, Letha, that he believes he is ready to make the jump to the NBA. But he isn't quite ready to make his final decision and gave a faint flicker of hope that he might wear a Terrapins uniform next season.
"We sat down and talked over the weekend and I told her that I thought I was mentally and physically ready for the next level," Smith said yesterday at BWI Airport, shortly before boarding a plane for Atlanta, where he was honored last night with the Ban-Naismith Award as national Player of the Year. "She might disagree, but more than likely, she'll go along with what I want to do."
According to the Post, Mrs. Smith said, "He thinks he can do it. I do, too. At each step he's done higher."
But Smith left the door open, however slightly, for a possible return for his junior year. He said that though he was leaning toward coming out, there were a number of factors that could affect his decision. The most likely would be if the NBA implemented a rookie salary cap before the June 28 draft.
"Today I might be leaning [toward leaving], and tomorrow I might be leaning the other way," he said.
Asked what incentive there would be for him to return, Smith said, "Being here with my friends. We've been together for two years. We've done pretty well, but we haven't won a national championship. That's something every college player wants to do."
If Smith doesn't come back, it would end a storybook career at Maryland. Smith rose out of relative obscurity as a high school player in Norfolk, Va., to become one of the best players ever in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Smith was named Rookie of the Year as a freshman and was only the third player in league history to be named first-team all-league as a freshman. He was named Player of the Year in the ACC as a sophomore, and was the only other player besides Kenny Anderson of Georgia Tech to be named first-team all-league his first two years.
Nationally, Smith also was named Freshman of the Year and was named national Player of the Year as a sophomore by two organizations, the Atlanta Tip-Off Club and the Associated Press. He was the leading vote-getter in the AP's first-team All-America selections.
Smith, who averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in leading the Terps to two straight NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearances, said yesterday that he is close to making his announcement official.
"I want to talk with my mom a couple of more times," said Smith, who has until May 15 to declare his intentions. "It's not something we want to talk about on the phone, so I'll have to go down or she'll come up."
The Washington Post reported that the decision could be announced tomorrow at the Terps' basketball banquet.
Maryland coach Gary Williams, who accompanied Smith to Atlanta last night, said a decision is not final. Williams and his coaching staff have presented Smith with a list of players who have left after their sophomore years, and those who have left after their junior years, to show what a difference one season can make.
The most pointed example of a player whose decision to leave two years early proved unfortunate was former Terps forward Jerrod Mustaf, who was the No. 1 pick of the New York Knicks (No. 17 overall) in 1990, and spent four unproductive seasons in New York and in Phoenix before the Suns cut him this season.
Then there's Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard, whose decision to stay at Michigan through his junior year turned into a career-making choice.
"The one thing I've told Joe is to make sure that there's not a salary cap in place for this year," said Williams. "And to make sure you don't sign with an agent before the draft."
The threat of an NBA rookie salary cap, a key part of the collective bargaining agreement being negotiated between the players association and the league, is apparently the impetus for many underclassmen to leave.
If the agreement can be worked out before the draft, the top draft picks no longer will be able to command long-term, megabucks contracts such as the $68 million deal signed by last year's No. 1 pick, Glenn Robinson of Purdue. Smith is expected to be among the top three to five picks regardless of who comes out.
The only prominent underclassmen who have announced their intention to leave early are Arkansas forward Corliss Williamson and Virginia guard Cory Alexander, both juniors. Aside from Smith, the player most anticipate coming out early is North Carolina sophomore center Rasheed Wallace.
"You never know how a guy is going to play when he gets there [to the NBA]," Williams said. "Nobody knew how Joe was going to be coming out of high school. But everybody has seen how hard he's worked, so that won't change."
Smith's anticipated departure would leave Maryland with a large void. Williams has signed one center, 6-10, 260-pound Obinna Ekezie, a Nigerian who played the past two years at a prep school in Massachusetts. Williams said yesterday that he hopes to sign another big man during the spring signing period that begins today.
Meanwhile, he and others in College Park await Smith's decision. Smith thought the postseason would be relaxing, his decision notwithstanding. It has been anything but, with his mother besieged by so many calls that she was forced to change her telephone number for the second time this year.
"It's been very tiring," said Smith. "What I wanted to do after the season ended was just relax. But it's just been up and down for me with everybody calling and asking me what I'm going to do. I'm still kind of open."