Rising for Terps layup or NBA shot Recruit: Allegany Community College standout Steve Francis is bound for College Park, unless he's taken early in the NBA draft.


CUMBERLAND -- Maryland's more seasoned basketball followers hope that they don't experience deja vu this spring.

In 1974, Lefty Driesell signed the player who would finally make Maryland the "UCLA of the East." Moses Malone never played for the Terps, however; he jumped directly from high school to the Utah Stars of the old American Basketball Association.

A generation later, Maryland faces an unsettling question about another prize recruit: Will Steve Francis become Gary Williams' Moses?

Unless Francis is capable of making history, the answer is no.

In early April, the Allegany Community College sophomore guard signed a national letter of intent to play for the Terps. He would turn a nice recruiting class into a nasty one, but there's a catch. Francis is so good, he might be too good for Maryland. He's considering filing for early entry into the NBA draft.

What would it take to get Francis out of a Terps uniform next season?

"Obviously, if I was taken in the first round, I would go," Francis said. "You've got to realize, it might not come to that."

Francis has yet to place his name in the pool of players with college eligibility who want to test the draft waters. He has until Sunday to do so; the draft is June 24.

Fact: No junior college player has ever been selected in the first round of the NBA draft.

Seattle used the 17th pick in 1989 to take Shawn Kemp out of Trinity Valley Junior College in Texas, but he came with an asterisk. Kemp began that school year at Kentucky, and just passed time at Trinity Valley, where he never played.

According to the National Junior College Athletic Association, 60 players with junior college backgrounds were on NBA rosters at the start of this season. All but two logged time at a four-year col- lege, both exceptions were drafted in the second round and neither has made much of an impression.

Forward Martin Lewis was taken in 1995 by Golden State, and played 25 games over two seasons for Vancouver before being waived last October. Portland selected guard C. J. Bruton last year, but the Blazers steered him to Australia to get more experience.

Francis isn't on the list of the top 70 draft prospects circulated by Marty Blake, the league's director of scouting. Blake said that Francis isn't ready for the NBA, but he made the same claim about Vince Carter. Last week, the North Carolina junior forward became the 14th player to file for early entry, and he could wind up a lottery pick.

At least four NBA teams have contacted Bob Kirk, the coach at Allegany. Francis' frame -- 6 feet 3 1/2 , 193 pounds -- and game keep growing, but his experience is a shortcoming.

A February schedule dotted with Cecil, Charles and Frederick wasn't exactly Duke, Clemson and Georgia Tech, let alone the Bulls, Lakers and Pacers. Junior college greats from Bob McAdoo and Nate Archibald to Larry Johnson and Sam Cassell played in the NCAA before the NBA. What makes Francis think he can hop over that step?

"I've got confidence in what I can do," Francis said during a recent interview in Kirk's office. "The hours I've put in the gym, all the years of practicing. I practice every day to get better.

"I am ready."

Francis, 21, is a combination guard who said he's preparing to play the point in the NBA. As far as doing something no junior college player has done before, he's been there, done that. Francis is the first player to take two unbeaten teams to the NJCAA tournament.

Francis played at San Jacinto in Texas in 1996-97, then transferred to Allegany to get closer to his home in Silver Spring.

He has received advice from friends and family and the NBA's Undergraduate Advisory Committee, a panel that consists of Blake, vice president Rod Thorn and several general managers who provide underclassmen with a frank, confidential assessment of their draft prospects.

The committee's consensus opinion is that Francis should stay in college, though at least one member thinks that he is, indeed, good enough to be taken in the first round this year.

Francis also has gotten counsel from Kirk and Williams.

"Look, I'm the guy who told Joe Smith to go, because he couldn't have improved his situation," Williams said of the Terps' sophomore center who was the No. 1 pick in 1995.

"Players should do what's best for them. Obviously, Steve Francis is going to make us a better team, but I also think college would make him a better player and improve his stock."

If Francis attends Maryland, it would probably be for only one season.

"If I'm doing it this year, I'll do it again next year," Francis said of his early-entry deliberations. "I guess it depends on the year we [the Terps] have. If I go there, everyone will have high expectations. The only way I won't be facing this same situation is if we don't have a good season, and that's a long shot."

With Francis, Maryland would likely be picked to finish second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, behind only Duke. He can shoot the three, penetrate and dish, rebound and defend. At least that's what they say, since his career has unfolded far from the mainstream.

Francis played one semester of high school basketball in Montgomery County, but built his reputation on the AAU circuit. He said that he scored 840 on the SAT as a senior in 1995 and nearly accepted a scholarship to Mount St. Mary's.

He attended a prep school in Connecticut for one semester, but dropped out because the tuition of $10,000 was too steep. He has spent one winter in Texas and another in Western Maryland, where he grew to legendary status.

"Louis Goldstein was up here for a reception," Kirk said of the state comptroller whose passions include boosting the state and Terps basketball. "I told our president, 'It might help us if Steve Francis goes to see him.' I had met Goldstein one time, but he wouldn't know me. He came up in a red checked blazer, said he'd like to meet the kid."

Maryland fans also want to get to know Francis -- at Cole Field House, instead of in the NBA.

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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