NORFOLK, Va. -- Choking back tears while he stood among about 100 friends and family members in the gym where his career began to take shape, Joe Smith revealed college basketball's worst-kept secret yesterday.
"I'd like to thank Coach [Gary] Williams, Coach [Art] Perry and Coach [Billy] Hahn and everybody who did a great job getting me ready to play. My two seasons at Maryland were the greatest I ever had," said Smith.
The 6-foot-10 sophomore center led the Terps out of the Atlantic Coast Conference cellar to two consecutive NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearances and a tie for the ACC regular-season championship this year.
"I'm glad I could help turn around the program," he said.
But Smith, who stopped twice to compose himself during his opening remarks in the Maury High School gym, left open the possibility that he might return for another season at Maryland. Recognizing that the NBA might implement a rookie salary cap that would take effect next season, Smith said he has not signed with an agent and will return to school on Monday to finish the spring semester.
"I haven't signed with an agent yet, in case I change my mind," he said. "I just got tired of answering the same question every day, 15 times a day. It was hard to have fun when I went out at night."
Still, three months before his 20th birthday, Smith -- this year's Naismith Award recipient as the nation's top college player and the only Terp to win this honor -- stands to become a multimillionaire. He is widely considered certain to be among the first five players picked when the NBA conducts its June 28 draft.
As long as he doesn't sign with an agent, Smith has until 30 days after the draft to change his mind and return to college. According to NCAA rules, he would retain his eligibility.
"As of now you could say it [his decision] is final," he said.
"Right after the Connecticut loss [in the Sweet 16] I started thinking about it. I really came to this conclusion last weekend after my mother and I sat down and talked about it.
"I proved all season that I can play the game. I know I need to get a little stronger and there are some aspects of my game I need to work on."
Maryland coach Gary Williams said: "Joe was in a great situation. If he came back, he'd be back with four other starters from a team that went to the Sweet 16 two straight years. The emotions are always to stay with the school, but Joe has to look at what's best for him and his family. He's in a position that few people that his age or any other age are in.
"I'm happy for him," Williams said. "He certainly had a lot to do with changing the image of our program. Nobody can ever say that Joe didn't give a great deal to the school. He gave us credibility. It goes in steps and Joe being the player he was allowed us to skip a couple of steps.
"By being national player of the year, ACC Player of the Year, he showed you can go to Maryland and get as many chances as any player in the country. For a long time, a lot of people didn't think you could do those things going to Maryland."
Maryland junior forward Exree Hipp, Smith's teammate for two years, attended the news conference.
"I'm behind him 100 percent," Hipp said. "He's a great person to be around. He's softhearted, he never got a big head. He always had room for improvement. He gave 110 percent every night, and you wanted to do whatever you could to help him win the basketball game. It was fun watching him mature."
It seemed as if Smith matured instantly, beginning with his freshman debut, a 26-point, nine-rebound performance that lifted Maryland to an overtime victory against Georgetown. From there, Smith immediately made an impact in the ACC, garnering more attention on national television.
With a blend of quickness, tenacity on the boards, a soft shooting touch and intimidating shot-blocking, Smith became the first fresh man in school history to be named to the All-ACC first team.
As a sophomore, Smith played like a man with no distractions, leading Maryland to a 26-8 record. He averaged a league-leading 20.9 points to go with 10.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, second-highest in the ACC in each category. He became the first Maryland player to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds during his career.
Asked if Smith is ready for the NBA, Williams said: "He's going to keep getting better because of his talent. I'd like to see him gain 20 more pounds. Mentally, I think he is. He's as good as any player I've seen in keeping his concentration over a season.
"He's got a lot of work to do facing the basket, but just watching in practice, he's a quick learner. The biggest thing for him to do is to get stronger. But he heard all year that he wasn't strong enough to play in the NBA yet. I'm sure he'll be motivated by that. Our motivator is to prove that we can be a good team is without Joe."
After Smith announced that he would make himself available for the draft, he sat down beside his mother, Letha, leaned against her and sobbed.
"It's been exciting, but it's also been quite tough," said Letha Smith, who has raised seven children and hinted at the financial hardship that will disappear with Smith's first NBA contract. "Joe told me he felt he had reached his goal, and after seeing the way he handled himself this year, it's time to go. I give praise and thanks, knowing that the Lord has blessed us."
Jack Baker, who has coached at Maury High for 19 years and tutored Smith on the game's fundamentals, remembered Smith's sophomore high school season, when he was a boney 6-6 kid with a world of potential and a striking eagerness to learn the game.
"It's very thoughtful of Joe to come back here for this. I've been doing this for 19 years and he's the only one I've ever had like him," Baker said.
"I remember people calling me after that first [Georgetown] game and I wasn't surprised. I knew he would have a great collegiate career, no matter how long it was."