Smith backs in to NBA

Maury High School in Norfolk, Va., holds a special place in Joe Smith's heart. It was there that he became a talented, if obscure, high school basketball player. It was there, less than 2 1/2 years ago, that he announced his intention to attend the University of Maryland.

Today, it will be where the 6-foot-10 sophomore center will hold a noon news conference and reportedly say that he will forgo his final two seasons of college eligibility and opt for the June 28 NBA draft.


With his mother's financial struggle apparently foremost in his mind, but with the NBA's impending rookie salary cap certainly in his thoughts, Smith will turn college basketball's worst-kept secret into reality.

Neither Smith nor his mother, Letha, was available for comment yesterday.


The expected announcement by Smith will end months of

speculation. And, barring a change of heart, it also ends one of college basketball's best rags-to-riches sagas. Smith will leave as one of the most storied Atlantic Coast Conference players as well as one of the most popular to wear a Maryland uniform.

Starting with his 26-point, nine-rebound, nationally televised debut against then-reigning Big East Rookie of the Year Othella Harrington of Georgetown, Smith's career became the stuffs of legend. Though he did not stay long enough to dent the career records at Maryland, he was the only player in school history to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds his first two seasons.

Maryland coach Gary Williams wasn't quite ready to talk about Smith's career in the past tense.

"I don't know what he's going to say [today]," Williams said yesterday. "Unless he signs with an agent, he still has until 30 days after the draft to make up his mind."

Smith's legacy includes being the first Terp to be named national Player of the Year, an honor given him by two groups this season. It includes being the second ACC player to be named all-league first team as a freshman and sophomore, following Kenny Anderson of Georgia Tech.

Smith, who won't turn 20 until a month after the draft, is expected to be one of the top three to five players taken and could be, depending on next month's draft lottery, the first pick. That he stands to make from $40 million to $68 million -- the contracts of last year's top three picks -- certainly played a factor in Smith's decision.

"I don't think he or anyone else is being forced out [by a possible rookie salary cap]," Washington Bullets general manager John Nash said yesterday. "They've watched other guys come out early. Most of the top players don't go to school with the idea of being there four years. They encounter the age-old question: 'If I come back, do I risk my health or reputation?' "


Nash cited Arkansas forward Corliss Williams as a player whose stock was higher after his sophomore season, when he led the Razorbacks to the national championship.

There are few if any players whose stock is higher than Smith's. In fact, the only players who might get drafted above Smith should they decide to come out are fellow sophomores Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse. Another sophomore center, Tim Duncan of Wake Forest, plans to remain in school.

"I think the top five or six players could be sophomores if they decide to come out," said Nash. "And Joe is very high in that group."