Albert King is that rarest of basketball jewels, a player capable of being dominant without being domineering, who honed his exquisite game under conditions that almost demand a selfish style and yet somehow escaped still thinking "team."

What wonderfully gifted players in the last 15 years have been criticized for being too unselfish? Bill Walton. Bill Bradley. Dave Cowens. The Brad Davis purists still see in their minds but have not seen on the court since his freshman year at Maryland. That special crowd.

And now King Albert, as he was known long before graduating from being the most "in" name in the limited world of recruiting to the intense spotlight of national college hoops at Maryland.

No one under 6-9, with the possible exception of Pete Maravich, ever began a college career with more attention. Not Adrian Dantley. Not Oscar Robertson. Not Elgin Baylor. And few have been more celebrated for reasons other than the usual basketball numbers.

"He can do anything he wants anytime he wants," said Howard Garfinkel, whose business is knowing players. "Knowing Albert as I do, he's deliberately cooling it.And he might stay that way as long as they're winning - until he either has to do it or wants to do it.

"When 99 out of 100 players say what Albert has - that he's only a freshman and doesn't want to steal the spotlight - they're full of it, lying because they simply can't play. He means it. He's sincere."

And he can play.

But his path through Maryland might well be troubled, for reasons that include his style of play, his size and pressures by coaches from one end of the nation to the other, scouts such as Garfinkel and writers such as myself.

For our own motives - some terribly selfish - we seek out basketball players at tender ages and project their worth at the college level. Unfairly, we often single out a player as the best in his class - and then become touchy when he fails to deliver as expected.

Tom McMillen was the latest example, a player Sports Illustrated called the best of his high school class (in fact the nationally unknown Bill Walton later proved to be). We ought not to fall into that trap with King Albert.

It is possible King will prove to be the foundation of a string of splendid Maryland teams, perhaps a national champion. But he is not what is known in the trade as "a franchise," a player who by himself generates unbeaten seasons.

At 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds, King is too short and slender to have a Moses Malone-like impact at Maryland. And because his first instinct is to pass, especially against the Twinkies tht clutter Maryland's early schedule, King is not likely to be among the collegiate scoring leaders.

But he is the one player Driesell has lacked in his years at Maryland - and perhaps his entire coaching career - the intelligent, immensely gifted swingman who can knit a team and sometimes control games himself with his range and inside moves.

The frustration of Driesell's coaching life is that sometimes he has had fine big men and no feeders, fine feeders and nothing special up front and good guards and big men and no King-like player at small forward to bring everything together.

And now he has King and a collection of gunners who consider anything in Prince George's County a reasonable shot. He has the sort of team of which ulcers - not national champions - are made.

Now and then Billy Bryant, who may be more naturally gifted even than King, will take on an entire team, as he did Georgetown on Monday night in the Tip-Off tournament, and come out the winner. But not regularly.

Bryant is immensely strong and agile, and with enough mean that the ball seems to drop into the basket after his in-traffic gyrations out of fear of what would happen if it did not.

Bryant was not put on earth to bring the ball up against pressure - and Maryland was forced to call time the two times Georgetown unfettered its full-court press. Undoubtedly, Bryant will be the only point guard in America who has twice as many rebounds as assists this season, and his freelance moves will be foolish more often that inspiring.

In truth, it is possible to argue that King was the third most talented athlete in the fine final a depressing number of customers chose to ignore - behind Bryant and Craig Shelton of Georgetown.

Unlike his first two games, King became an early factor against Georgetown, with several long jumpers from the side, allegedly one of his weaknesses. He was smiling much of the game - and he was smiling afterward.

King was reminded that so much of his life has been spent in playground games where individualism is stressed. So how did he become so team oriented?

"I'm not sure," he said. "But I do want to do whatever it takes to help the team win. Yes, I was not so nervous tonight."

For the game, King took 19 shots from the floor and scored 22 points, grabbed six rebounds, had two blocked shots and two steals. And hardly was passionate on defense.

Why King chose Maryland is not entirely clear. Garfinkel, for one, insits there is a benefit King never considered at the time about Driesell - and for a reason possibly more significant than anyone might immediately consider.

"Lefty is the perfect coach for his well-being," Garfinkel said, "and also for his potential as a pro because he will protect him. A lot of coaches would use him to swell their own egos, seek the press because of him.

"Lefty's just the opposite. He cools him, keeps him down. He won't exploit him."

King was playing international basketball at age 15, so he may be one of the special few freshmen capable of a smooth transition from high school to serious college basketball.

This is the world where coaches woo players until they're signed - and then immediately try and lure better ones. King has endured the hustling longer than most - and it is nice to see him still smiling. CAPTION:

Albert King casts off between Georgetown defenders Ed Hopkins and Derrick Jackson. By Larry Morris - The Washington Post