To Terps' joy and other recruiters regret, Joe Smith was... OVERLOOKED and UNDERRATED

January 19, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK — When Mike Brey was up scouting Florida State at Cole Field House last week, the Duke assistant bumped into his Maryland counterparts, Billy Hahn and Art Perry. It wasn't to talk about the Seminoles, but about Terrapins freshman sensation Joe Smith.

"I told them, 'Thanks for getting every assistant in the ACC and the Big East in trouble, because everyone of us has heard the same question at a staff meeting from their head coach in the past month,' " Brey said this week. "We've all been asked, 'Did we look at this kid?' "

With the exception of five Atlantic Coast Conference schools -- Wake Forest, Florida State, Virginia and North Carolina State wanted the 6-foot-10, 220-pound center from Norfolk, Va., in addition to Maryland -- the answer is a nearly unanimous, and certainly a red-faced, "no."

But there were extenuating circumstances for some in the ACC. Duke was committed to Greg Newton and Joey Beard. North Carolina had signed Jerry Stackhouse during the early period and would sign Rasheed Wallace the day after the Tar Heels won last year's national championship. Clemson already had Sharone Wright.

And there was another reason: Smith was severely underrated by those who make a living assessing high school talent. According to Bob Gibbons, who runs a recruiting evaluation service in Lenoir, N.C., Smith was ranked the eighth-best prospect coming into the ACC. In Dick Vitale's preseason magazine, he wasn't listed among the top 30 freshmen in the country. Tom Konchalski, a New York-based talent scout, rated him a 4+ on a scale of 5.

"If anybody knew exactly how good he was going to be," Wake Forest assistant Jerry Wainwright said last week, "everybody would have tried to sign him."

Few did. To most, Smith was considered a project, a skinny kid with very long arms who blocked a lot of shots, gobbled up loads of rebounds and ran well -- but was going to get pushed around something fierce in the ACC. He was 6-5 and 170 pounds as a sophomore at Maury High School. He grew two inches and put on about 10 pounds as a junior.

But the transformation of Smith from a promising prospect to a burgeoning college superstar took place toward the end of his senior year after he signed with Maryland.

By the time Smith headed for the Boston Shootout last spring, he already was locked up for the Terps, having signed with them during the early period in November 1992.

"If he hadn't signed early at Maryland, all the big schools would have been after him in the spring," said Konchalski. "I saw him at the Boston Shootout, and his game had just skyrocketed."

That postseason all-star tournament served as Smith's official coming out. By winning the event's Most Valuable Player award, he realized he could play with the biggest high school stars in the country. And it was there that some assistants knew they would have questions to answer when the 1993-94 season began.

"When I went up to the Boston Shootout last spring, I knew the rest of us were in trouble," recalled Brey. "He was on the same team as Joey Beard, and you had no trouble telling who the better player was. But he wasn't just better than Joey. He was better than everybody else."

Bypasses most camps

This kind of revelation is rare these days in major college basketball, when most blue-chippers are heavily scouted at summer camps by the time they reach high school. But Smith never had ventured out of the basketball-rich Tidewater area until going to the Nike camp in Indianapolis the summer before his senior year.

In Smith's mind, there was no reason. He was more comfortable at home with his friends. He could work out at nearby Old Dominion with two of his uncles. And some of the area's former stars, such as J. R. Reid, used to come home during the summer and were always looking to play.

But he never thought of himself in the company of players such as Stackhouse and Wallace. Or 7-footer Rashard Griffith, the Chicago high school star now helping bring Wisconsin into the national spotlight. Or Marcus Camby of Massachusetts, whom Smith outplayed earlier this season.

"Joe has never thought of himself as special," said his mother, Letha, who raised seven children, who range in age from 18 (Joe) to 40. "It's the way he's always been."

And now?

"I see myself as the same," Smith said yesterday after practice, "but I admit I got better between last year and this year. I worked hard on my moves in the post and in working with the weights to get ready for the big guys in the ACC and the rest of the teams we play."

Coming out of nowhere to become a star in the ACC is not unheard of -- Mark Price did it at Georgia Tech a decade ago, and Virginia's Bryant Stith and N.C. State's Tom Gugliotta did it more recently -- but few have made this kind of sudden impact on a national level. Smith has helped No. 25 Maryland to a 10-3 record and the school's first national ranking in more than eight years.

Tops in top freshman class

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