Maryland will get Steve Francis' signature on a national letter of intent, but he dreams of wearing a uniform in a league higher than the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
A highly sought sophomore guard at Allegany Community College, Francis committed to the Terps yesterday morning over Clemson. He heard late recruiting pitches from NCAA champion Kentucky and other Top 25 programs, but he is still exploring his viability in the NBA draft.
The spring signing period for letters of intent begins today. Francis will sign with Maryland, but he also figures to declare himself eligible for the NBA draft. Early-entry candidates who are undrafted can resume their college careers, as long as they have not signed with an agent.
"That looks promising," said Francis of his prospects for the draft. "Hopefully, that will workout. If I have the chance to play professionally, I would, because it's everyone's dream to play in the NBA. If I had that opportunity next season, I would have to take advantage of it."
Despite some enormous contracts given to teen-agers, the NBA's official stance is to discourage players from leaving school early.
"They can declare, but that doesn't mean that the NBA is going to draft them," said Marty Blake, the league's director of scouting. "This is a joke. It's a shame, because we try to keep these kids in school."
Allegany coach Bob Kirk said that NBA personnel have told him that Francis "is a pretty good candidate" to be drafted. Blake said that he had not seen Francis play, but said he did maintain a file on him.
"This kid is a good JuCo basketball guard, and he can be a good Division I player. He's not good enough for the NBA, not right now. He needs to go to college."
Though Blake scoffed at the possibility of Francis' jumping directly to the NBA, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith thought enough of him to schedule a recruiting visit to Cumberland last Wednesday, two days after the Wildcats had won the NCAA title. Francis told Smith not to make the trip, and also didn't return the interest shown by Michigan.
Maryland and Clemson were always the front-runners for Francis, whose only other official visit was to Oklahoma.
"It came down to the last minute," Francis said of his selection of the Terps over the Tigers. "Coach [Gary] Williams and his assistants worked really, really hard to get me. They watched me play. They watched me practice. They showed they cared. It's also close to home. I'll be able to play in front of family and friends."
Francis is from Silver Spring, and he attended Williams' basketball camp in his early teens. He didn't play as a junior and senior at Blair High School in Montgomery County, missing one season with a broken ankle and the next because he was distraught over the death of his mother.
A scorer who could supplant Terrell Stokes at the point or start at shooting guard, Francis, 6 feet 3, is believed to be the first player to take two unbeaten teams to the national junior college championships in Hutchinson, Kan.
He played for San Jacinto in 1996-97, and took that Texas school to the NJCAA finals, then transferred to Allegany. The state power lost both of its games in the NJCAA tournament last month, but Francis scored 66 points, the fourth-highest two-game total ever registered at that tournament.
Even though he missed all nine of his three-pointers in an opening-round loss, Francis was considered one of the top three prospects at the NJCAA tournament. One longtime observer of the tournament said he was the quickest player there since Spud Webb. A national recruiting analyst at the tournament likened him to Sam Cassell, the former Dunbar star now with the NBA's New Jersey Nets.
Kirk has won 755 games in 27 seasons at Allegany. His program has produced two first-round NBA draft choices in Eric Mobley (Pitt) and John Turner (Georgetown), and he said that "without a doubt, Steve's the best player we've ever had."
Williams cannot comment on Francis until today at the earliest. If the NBA keeps its hands off, Francis would be the centerpiece in a highly regarded recruiting class that already included wing Danny Miller and forward Lonnie Baxter. Both are playing in the Reebok Capital Classic at 7: 30 tonight at the MCI Center.
Pub Date: 4/08/98