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REAL DEAL Steve Francis: It has taken only 11 games for the flashy junior-college transfer to get Maryland fans excited, and NBA types are buzzing, too.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK -- You better watch out.

You better not pout, or walk out to the concourse to get a hot dog.

Steve Francis is coming to town.

Maryland's annual basketball appearance at the Baltimore Arena comes Saturday, when the fifth-ranked Terps take on Princeton. The Tigers are a lump of coal in an opponent's stocking, but can they spoil the celebration for a team that awoke this season to a flashy new sports car in its driveway?

Decked out in red and white, Francis has quickened the pulse of Maryland and its followers, and become a prime topic of discussion for NBA scouts. The ghosts of Joe Smiths past were in the air when the 20-year-old from Takoma Park considered going pro last spring, and 11 games in a Terps uniform have confirmed that he was ready for another level.

"He's a marvelous talent, really fun to watch," said John Nash, general manager of the New Jersey Nets. "He's one of the most talented players I've seen in the college ranks."

And if the NBA ever cleans up the mess from its lockout, and Francis opts to enter next June's draft after one season at Maryland?

"I figure he'd be considered at the top," Nash said.

A claim could be made that the best college prospects are Francis and Rhode Island forward Lamar Odom, another well-traveled player. If he maintains the level of performance he has established, Francis will be a candidate for national Player of the Year, an honor that went to Smith in 1994-95, when he was a sophomore and concluding his Terps career.

Francis is seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (16.9), sixth in assists (4.3) and third in steals (2.3). Most telling, he is also third in field-goal percentage (.566), a category that isn't supposed to be dominated by 6-foot-3 guards, but by fundamentally fine forwards like teammate Terence Morris and centers like Duke's Elton Brand.

There is one statistic Francis cares about: Maryland's score in relation to the opponent's.

During the Terps' 10-0 start, the most shots he attempted in one game were 14. After Maryland fell behind Kentucky on Saturday at the break by 13, that's the number of attempts Francis had in the second half, when he and Morris did the heavy lifting in a comeback that closed the deficit to four.

Fact: That 103-91 loss was the first regular-season setback Francis has endured in three college campaigns. He piloted junior-college winners at San Jacinto (Texas) and Allegany, and he is accustomed to channeling his aspirations into a team concept.

"I just think that in order to be considered a good player, you have to win," Francis said. "That's all it comes down to, whether it comes ugly or big. That's why I was so mad after the Kentucky game. I'm not used to that [losing]. Now that I know how it feels, I don't want to experience that anymore."

And what about all the nice things said by people like Nash?

"That is down the road," Francis said of the NBA. "I want to win 30 more games before I think about that."

Maryland has never gone to a Final Four, let alone won an NCAA title, and Francis' sense of urgency is one of the Terps' greatest assets. He wants to go places and get there fast.

"He's one of those guys who plays every game as if it's his last," Kentucky point guard Wayne Turner said before they met last week. "He looks like he's having fun. Whoever is guarding him has no chance. He's athletic, he can jump, handle the ball and shoot from the outside. He's something that you put yourself up to."

After Maryland beat rugged Stanford, Francis said he had been in rougher games on the playground, but he was taken aback by the commitment Kentucky put into guarding him. When he said, "I didn't do anything to Kentucky; I don't know why they came after me," it sounded naive.

Was there a more publicized player in the season's first month? Last week's Sports Illustrated included an article on Maryland that featured Francis. ESPN Magazine will take the next stab at his rags-to-potential-riches story, which begins with a high school career that consisted of one undistinguished season.

Television analyst Dick Vitale has tagged Francis "Elevator Man" because of his 43-inch vertical leap. Bored NBA types, like Nash and Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause, are a staple at Terps games. Francis has been in one ACC contest, yet opposing players must know that they can make their reputations against him.

"Part of the deal of getting the hype is that you're a guy people point to," coach Gary Williams said. "Steve's in a good situation, because we have enough good players. You can stop Steve, and we can still win. He knows -- and he knows that I know -- that he's going to get more defensive attention."

Let it come.

"As far as being a marked man, that's going to be hard for someone to do," Francis said. "If you want to stop me from scoring, I'll pass. You want to stop me from passing, I'll score on rebounds."

Francis is Maryland's third-leading rebounder, behind Morris and center Obinna Ekezie, but Williams said Francis has most surprised him with his defense, saying, "He's locked up some pretty good players."

"The fact that he's an all-around player appeals to me," the Nets' Nash said. "I think he'll play the point most of his [NBA] career. He handles the ball well, and passes it well. I don't see him playing two [shooting guard] at the next level, because that would take away his strengths. I'd rather have the ball in his hands."

Because incumbent point guard Terrell Stokes has run the team so well, Francis is playing out of position for two-thirds of the game. The high-flying dunks began in the 12th minute of the opener against Western Carolina, but he missed his first six three-point shots. Francis since has made 44.4 percent beyond the arc, and learned that his fifth gear isn't always required.

"Each time you change levels, you have to get into a comfort zone," Williams said. "Steve had to prove to himself that he was as good as everyone was saying he was. With all of the hype and all of the expectations, he had to see where he fit in. When he saw he could fit in, he relaxed."

Nash said Francis was fun to watch. Turner said he looks like he's having fun. It's not an act. Francis is enjoying the season and all of its festivities.

"The guys on the team told me the only way to be comfortable in the conference was to have fun," Francis said. "That's one of the things I've tried to do ever since I started playing 14 years ago."

Francis' key stats

Category .. .. .. .. Stat .. .. .. .. Comment

Scoring avg. .. .. . 16.9 .. .. .. 7th in ACC

FG pct. .. .. .. ... .566 .. .. .. 3rd in ACC

Assists .. .. .. .. . 4.3 .. .. .. 6th in ACC

Steals .. .. .. .. .. 2.3 .. .. .. 3rd in ACC

Rebounds .. .. .. ... 4.3 .. .. .. 3rd on team

Minutes .. .. .. ... 29.0 .. .. .. 1st on team

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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