The phone calls and letters from recruiters came in bunches last fall. But while Duval High senior Pierre Johnson contemplated where he would play college basketball, the NCAA's early signing period passed. Then the recruiters' interest seemed to wane.

For a while, it appeared the 6-foot-5 senior would be a player without a team. Despite signing a national letter-of-intent last week to attend the University of Hartford, he still might be. Johnson said he is uncertain if he will attend the Connecticut school.

Although he has met the NCAA's minimum academic requirements for incoming scholarship athletes, Johnson said he is considering attending prep school next year to better prepare himself for college--in the classroom and on the court.

"I need another year, really; some people might not think so, but I do," said Johnson, a third-team All-Met who led DuVal in nearly every statistical category last season while leading the Lanham school to the Maryland 3A South Region final. "I still need to work on some of my skills in school, like working on my English and trying to bring up my grades. And it will help me work on my game another whole year."

If Johnson goes to prep school--he said he is considering Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia and Redemption Academy in Troy, N.Y., where likely NBA lottery selection Lamar Odom completed his high school career--it would re-open the college selection process. Some basketball observers believe Johnson could flourish on a prep school team, where he would be able to hone his skills as a forward. Because DuVal lacked size, Johnson played mostly center in high school.

By going to prep school, Johnson would have the chance to improve his game, work on his outside shot and possibly enhance his status among college recruiters. By enrolling at Hartford, he would have the chance to enjoy almost every high school player's dream and play Division I basketball.

While Johnson's decision process is nearly complete, a look at it offers insight to the ways college recruiting has changed in recent years. An increasing number of players are making their college selection during the early signing period in November, partly because colleges want to lock in their players as soon as possible and partly because players want to make sure they do not get passed over if they choose not to sign early. For instance, all three of the University of Maryland's men's basketball recruits signed last fall.

Some players take the early commitments a step further. Oxon Hill junior Michael Sweetney, an All-Met center, last summer made a verbal commitment to attend Georgetown. Maryland's freshman class in the fall of 2000 will include DeMatha center Matt Slaninka and Tamir Goodman of Talmudical Academy in Baltimore. Since letters-of-intent cannot be signed until the early period during one's senior year, those players have made non-binding verbal commitments.

And then there are players like Johnson. He had caught the eye of college coaches with his play at DuVal and during the summer with the Prince George's Jaguars Amateur Athletic Union team. But when he was unable to come to a decision last fall, his options became limited.

"It got frustrating at times because it is a hard thing, to pick a college you are going to go to for four years," he said. "You can't just rush into it."

It was also a difficult time for his mother, Annette Lee, who learned about the recruiting process, and its headaches, on the fly.

"When he didn't sign in the early period, [college inquiries] looked like they just dropped off," said Lee, who grew increasingly frustrated throughout the process. "That was what was worrying me. I guess it's because he didn't sign early."

But Johnson still had hope that things would work out.

"I always had a good feeling I would still get offers," Johnson said.

As it turned out, he was right. He enjoyed his recent visit to Hartford and signed with the Hawks. But he still has one more decision to make.

"I think I should know by July," Johnson said.

CAPTION: DuVal's Pierre Johnson, who led the Tigers to the Maryland 3A South Region final, signed with the University of Hartford. However, he may enroll in prep school to hone his skills as a student and as a forward since he mostly played center.