Elliott muscles up to the competition Basketball: Rodney Elliott, nicknamed Noodles at Dunbar, has bulked up his frame along with his inside game to become the Terrapins' leading rebounder and No. 2 scorer.

January 13, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- The body is buff, the game solid. And now that he's a college basketball standout, the nickname that Rodney Elliott brought from East Baltimore to Maryland just doesn't fit anymore.

Noodles?

"Did you see his body a couple of years ago?" explained Obinna Ekezie, Maryland's center. "He was so skinny. That's why everyone calls him Noodles."

Elliott's frame has filled out, and so has his game. When the Terps tangle with top-ranked North Carolina tomorrow (9 p.m., ,, ESPN) at Cole Field House, the first-year starter will walk on the floor as their most consistent player, leading rebounder, No. 2 scorer and No. 1 surprise.

Out from the shadow of Keith Booth at long last, Elliott is a power forward with the stroke of a shooting guard. The notion of Elliott matching up with the nation's best players might have been sheer folly three years ago, but there he'll be, knocking heads with Antawn Jamison.

"Try to find somebody who saw him as a freshman who thought he was capable of the things he's doing now," coach Gary Williams said. "Rodney persevered, paid his dues, and never griped when he was coming off the bench for three years. He's a real success story."

Pressed last week to name Maryland's "go-to" guy, Williams made a case for Elliott, and it's the first time any coach has said that about him. For the last seven winters, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound senior was always on the fringe, a nice player, but always one of the side dishes to the main course.

Elliott spent the last two seasons behind Booth, an All-American. When he came to Maryland, the center of the Terps' universe was Joe Smith. In Elliott's three seasons at Dunbar High, the program's premier big men were, in order, Donta Bright, Booth and Norman Nolan, the Virginia senior who's one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's best post players.

Before Elliott got to play with the Poets, he was cut from the JV. He had never played a game of organized basketball, but he was driven to be a part of Dunbar, the magical place across the bumpy road from his home on Central Avenue.

"When people are always telling you how good you are, you have the tendency not to work as hard," Elliott said. "Early on, someone told me I wasn't good enough to play at that level. That just made me work harder. Still, you need someone to have faith in you."

That would be Renard Smith, whom Elliott described as his mentor. Smith is the JV coach at Northern High, but in 1990-91, he was given charge of the Rockets, an under-14 team.

"Renard never gave up on me," Elliott said. "I was tall and clumsy, but he took me under his wing and worked on my fundamentals every day."

Smith said that Elliott was "6-3, and maybe 125 pounds. I could not get him to play in the post."

Elliott's jump shot began as a defense mechanism. Too frail to make his mark inside, he moved away from the basket and found his niche. So did the Rockets, who beat the Dunbar JV in a scrimmage, an outcome which got the attention of Pete Pompey, then the Poets' coach.

"Rodney always had that jump shot, he could always stick it beyond the arc, but he had to learn how to play physical," Pompey said. "We kept him on the JV the following year, and he became a more complete player practicing against the varsity."

That would be the 1991-92 Poets, unbeaten and mythical national champs, with Michael Lloyd on the perimeter, and Booth and Bright cleaning house inside. Two of the most physical, savvy forwards to work the East Coast in the 1990s, they gave Elliott an education.

"I like banging and 'bowing now," Elliott said, "but it's definitely an acquired taste."

Elliott increased his visibility at Dunbar by quarterbacking the football team, but he didn't become a full-time starter in basketball until his senior year. He had gotten his SAT qualifying out of the way as a junior and was named first-team All-Metro, but Nolan was the catch.

Maryland and North Carolina State were the only ACC schools to recruit Elliott.

"I didn't think he'd make this much progress, because he was so lean, but he did so many things," said Les Robinson, the N.C. State athletic director who coached the Wolfpack at the time. "He was a complete player, one of those guys you can't call a guard or a forward or a center. He was a tweener, and you find a place for them to play."

Williams still had difficulty finding a place for Elliott.

As a freshman, he played in 30 games for a Sweet 16 team, but never for more than eight minutes in an ACC game. Two years ago, Williams had to replace Smith, and attempted several experiments at center. Mario Lucas got a shot and then Elliott, before Ekezie settled in as the starter.

Elliott's minutes and production increased last year, but he was still the sixth man.

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