Francis tune familiar for early birds

June 30, 1999|By John Eisenberg

WASHINGTON -- Tim Duncan played four years of college basketball and won an NBA championship last week as a second-year pro.

Joe Smith played two years at Maryland before turning pro and still hasn't made the All-Star team after four years in the NBA.

That's a cautionary tale of two No. 1 picks with a moral as obvious as a windmill dunk: The longer you stay in college, the better your chances of becoming an impact player in the NBA and earning even more millions.

What does all that have to do with Steve Francis? Nothing, according to him.

Asked yesterday, on the eve of the NBA draft, if he thought he had anything left to gain from playing another year at Maryland, Francis said without hesitation: "I don't think so."

We'll see.

Players such as Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury have become instant NBA stars without playing four years of college ball, or, in Bryant's case, any college ball at all.

But Marcus Camby, Jerry Stackhouse, Chauncey Billups, Donyell Marshall and Smith, the former Maryland center, are examples of high draft picks whose pro careers have suffered because they left school too soon.

Francis' decision to leave Maryland a year early obviously was the right one in the immediate sense. He might be the first player picked tonight at the MCI Center. At worst, he'll go in the top four. That assures him of what every rookie wants, a $9 million contract and a star's entry into the NBA. He can't do any better.

But that doesn't mean he's assured of starting out with a mature game ready to soar.

Sometimes, even the least likely suspects aren't as ready as everyone thinks.

Francis laughed off the possibility yesterday, displaying his usual, unwavering confidence.

"I think I'm the best player" in the draft, he said, regardless if he goes first, fourth or somewhere in between.

You have to love his swagger. And his bold assessment might be right, as anyone who followed the Terps last season knows. Francis' one season in College Park was sensational, and not just because he was such a high scorer. He also passed, defended, hustled and coexisted with older, more established teammates, a tricky task. It was no surprise the pro scouts fell so in love with him.

On the other hand, that was his only season of major college ball. He's jumping to the NBA just 35 games removed from Allegany Community College. Overly experienced, he's not.

As explosive as he was last season, there's little doubt he'd benefit from another year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, with its daunting challenges every night. He could stand to get stronger, add polish to his jump shot and find new ways to get to the basket.

Look what happened when Duncan stayed for his senior season at Wake Forest before turning pro. He was more physically and mentally prepared for the NBA's heady, exhausting rigors, a man among men, not a child. And he shot to the top of the league.

Grant Hill is another player who benefited from waiting, arriving with an All-Star game and maturity after four years at Duke. Wally Szczerbiak looks like he might be the example in this year's class.

"I'm a believer in four years," said Utah's Andre Miller, who also attended yesterday's interview sessions. "You're older, more mature, smarter. It just feels like you're ready to graduate to the pros."

Of course, Francis could have blown out his knee and blown his pot of gold during a senior season, a reality that overrides all other concerns. Let's face it, the money is just too good to risk losing it.

But that doesn't mean it was the right thing for his game in the long run to leave Maryland early.

Don't misunderstand, let's hope that's not the case. There's every reason to root for Francis, from Takoma Park.

Francis isn't some spoiled prince of the city who has been coddled since middle school. He's had to deal with his father's departure, his mother's death, a broken foot and lack of interest from talent scouts until the past few years.

The result is a palpably hungry player, one with a burning, driving quality that sets him apart from other young players. He's an unselfish superstar willing to dive for a loose ball and sublimate his game for the betterment of the team.

It would have been the saddest of stories to watch him overcome everything, develop such a game, reach the brink of stardom and wealth and then blow it with an injury in his senior season.

This was the way it needed to happen. For better or worse.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm leaving right on time," Francis said. "This year's senior class is the one I started college with. I'm ready."

They all say that. They all believe that.

Some discover otherwise, to their surprise and dismay.

Here's hoping Francis isn't one of them.

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