Smith rising so quick, even Montross scared

January 09, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- In the cruel, crabby world of college basketball, Joe Smith qualifies as a miracle. Nothing less than that. For once, the hyperbole is appropriate.

As a senior at Maury High School, in Norfolk, Va., he was a nice, smooth player whom the top college programs disdained. Months later, just 11 games into his freshman season at Maryland, he is the franchise. For now. And for every day he remains in school.

"It would be scary," North Carolina's 7-foot center, Eric Montross, said yesterday, "if I had to stick around for another couple of years and face him."

Scary, indeed. Montross is a hulking senior All-American, supposedly the best center in the country. Smith is a skinny 6-9 freshman who turned 18 last summer. But Smith was easily the better player yesterday in Carolina's 75-70 win at Cole Field House.

Smith did everything. He played inside and outside. He hit 18-footers and powered to the basket. He blocked shots, posted up and grabbed rebounds over 7-footers. He stole entry passes and handled the ball like a guard. Carolina rotated three big men at him, and he made them all look bad.

Showing truly startling confidence, he turned and faced Montross -- no one does that, understand -- and went right around the bigger man to the basket.

Montross was a monolith by comparison. Smith, without help from another big man, delivered 25 points and 10 rebounds. It has become his standard performance.

"And he's going to get better," his high school coach, Jack Baker, said yesterday, waiting outside the locker room after the game. "He's got a great outside shot, and he hasn't even used it yet. And he's going to get bigger and stronger."

Baker is giving a lot of interviews these days. (How hot is Smith? A Sports Illustrated reporter is working on a Smith story for next week's issue.) He is the only one with the before/after perspective. What happened? How did a high school player known mostly for his defense emerge so swiftly as a college star?

"He was just underrated," Baker said. "He was a skinny little kid as a sophomore, but by his senior year he was a real good scorer. I'm not surprised at all."

But he is, of course. No one saw this coming. Not Baker. Not Terps coach Gary Williams. Maybe they thought Smith would be better than expected. But they didn't think he'd be this good. How could they?

He is already one of the best players in the country's toughest conference. Suddenly, the long-struggling Terps are a Top 25 team. An NCAA tournament team.

That's right, a tournament team.

"We play a lot of NCAA [tournament] teams on our schedule, and Maryland is one of them," Dean Smith said yesterday.

Joe Smith is the big reason. All of the other reasons are little.

Don't misunderstand. The Terps are loaded with young talent. Keith Booth is a bold player who will get even better when he is able to move out from under the basket. Johnny Rhodes is a scorer in the process of developing a complete game.

But there is no substitute for a lithe big man who can beat everyone up.

"I had heard he was a defensive player," point guard Duane Simpkins was saying yesterday. "Then I played in some pickup games with him the summer before last. Jerrod Mustaf was playing. Tony Massenburg. Good players. And Joe was taking care of them. I knew then that he was going to be real, real good."

Smith stories. Joe stories. All the Terps are telling them now.

"I get him every day in practice," reserve Kurtis Schultz was saying yesterday, "and it's unbelievable. The coaches yell at me, 'Get in there and get a rebound!' And I want to say, like, 'You go in there and try to get a rebound!' He's just awesome. A great mixture of size and quickness."

Amid this rising wave of hype, Smith sits placidly. He has a shaved head and a little tuft of hair on his chin. His smile comes quickly and brightly. He is pleasant to reporters, honest in his assessments and not the least bit a braggart.

"I didn't think I could do this so soon, not when I started out," he said after yesterday's game. "I think it's happening because I know the game better than a lot of freshmen. I changed positions [from forward to center] from high school, which is a big adjustment, but I did it. And I know how to use my quickness."

He can even laugh about his astonishingly bland name.

"Sometimes I hear announcers say, 'Is there really someone named Joe Smith?'" he said, smiling. "But I like it. Just plain and simple. Joe Smith."

Of course, it's foolish to try to explain this phenomenon, to apply any sort of sporting scholarliness to Smith's rising star. His is a game played by young people, works in progress, still developing, maturing, changing. Weird things happen sometimes. Top recruits don't progress. Overlooked recruits bloom late.

Carolina's Rasheed Wallace was the big recruit last year. Smith was obscure by comparison. But Smith is the better player right now. Any team anywhere would take him and rejoice. Shoot, the Bullets probably would rejoice.

His package is utterly complete. He has outside shooting range and inside power. He has wonderfully soft hands. He has an unflappable demeanor. He is, said Jack Baker, a self-starter whom you don't need to coax into working.

Williams already has run out of things to say about him.

"How do you think Joe did against Montross?" someone asked the Terps coach.

"He did great," Williams said, shrugging. "He can play."

That's it. Joe Smith can play. Plain and simple.

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