Francis takes off for pros; High-rising junior opts to leave Terps for NBA after one season; Announcement due today; Some NBA GMs see him as top 3 draft pick

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Steve Francis era at Maryland, short-lived as it was, is over.

Francis, the sensational guard who made a big splash with the Terps and earned second-team All-America status, will forgo his final season of college eligibility and enter his name into the NBA draft.

Maryland called an 11 a.m. news conference at Cole Field House for today, and sources confirmed that Francis would announce that he was leaving the university. Francis could not be reached to comment.

A resident of Takoma Park whose high school career consisted of one season as a reserve, Francis grew into a junior college All-American and considered turning pro after his sophomore season at Allegany College in Cumberland.

He instead accepted a scholarship to Maryland, but after one spectacular season there, he couldn't turn down the lure of playing for pay next season. Several NBA general managers have said Francis will be one of the top three players taken in the June 30 draft, which will be held at the MCI Center in Washington.

A 6-foot-3, 194-pound package of athleticism and instincts, Francis played out of position for the Terps. He played shooting guard for Maryland, but his NBA future is at point guard, where Terrell Stokes started for the third straight year.

Francis led Maryland to a No. 2 ranking in December and a second-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but the Terps had an unfulfilling postseason. They lost in the semifinals of the ACC tournament and in the third round of the NCAAs, well short of their stated bid, the school's first Final Four.

From the October night when he was introduced at Midnight Madness, Francis captivated Maryland fans with a style that brought comparisons to Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. A 21-year-old who learned the game at the Takoma Park Boys Club, Francis brought an edge to the 28-6 Terps, who set a school record for wins in a season.

Francis led the ACC in steals with 2.8 a game and led the Terps in scoring with a 17.0 average. He averaged 4.5 rebounds and made 52.3 percent of his field-goal attempts, a high rate for a shooting guard.

Francis had 17 points and nine assists in his Terps debut and in early December was named MVP of the BB&T; Classic. He was an ACC first-team selection, and Senior Night at Cole Field House on Feb. 24 turned into his personal showcase, as he scored a season-high 32 points on 11-for-15 shooting.

Students chanted "one more year" that night, when Francis said he was "99.9 percent certain" that he would come back for his senior season.

Francis took on a heavier scoring load after senior center Obinna Ekezie's college career was ended by a ruptured Achilles' tendon Feb. 9, but he grew frustrated with the beating he took from opposing teams, who used bigger defenders and trick defenses to slow one of the nation's quickest players.

His final college game was a disappointment. Francis made just five of 13 shots and was limited to two points in the first half of a 76-62 loss to St. John's that eliminated Maryland from the NCAA tournament.

Minus Francis and three seniors who started, Maryland will revolve around forward Terence Morris next season.

The sophomore from Frederick has been rated as a sure first-round draft pick, but after the loss to St. John's, he reiterated that he wasn't ready for the NBA.

Maryland coach Gary Williams had indicated Saturday that he would meet with Francis on Monday to discuss the guard's future. Williams did not return phone calls last night.

Reached last night, assistant coach Billy Hahn would say only: "I don't want to talk about this tonight."

Francis is the second All-American to leave Maryland with eligibility remaining; Joe Smith was the No. 1 pick in 1995, after his sophomore season.

Pub Date: 3/31/99

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