If there were such a thing as basketball grades for the freshmen at Georgetown, Patrick Ewing would be carrying an A into his final exams: the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Everybody else would get "incomplete."
Ewing remains the most precocious young center in America; the others in the most heralded recruiting class in years--Anthony Jones, Bill Martin, Ralph Dalton and Elvado Smith, have had very little impact this season. Yet one judgment seems valid: the hundreds of schools who sought them so intently a year ago would be no less interested now.
The others, Patrick's playmates, or however they are destined to be known during their Hoya years, are not doing nearly as nicely as they might have dreamed several months ago. But Jones and Martin are progressing faster than anyone who looks no deeper than box scores and statistics might believe, and Dalton has been injured the entire season.
All four are seeking clues to their sporting fate, whether their choice of Georgetown was a wise one, whether they will be as successful among the elite college players as they were in high school. All but Smith still have reason to be grandly optimistic.
More than two months ago, as the Hoyas were returning to Washington after winning the Rochester Classic, Coach John Thompson pulled Martin aside and told him: "I see the fire coming back in your eyes." That, Martin said, was when he knew he belonged at the highest level of college basketball.
That realization hit Anthony Jones two weeks later, during a tough road victory over Seton Hall. "I played a lot (16 minutes), got involved in all aspects of the game," he said. "I scored and rebounded, got some steals."
Most Washingtonians assumed a lot of playing time for Jones would be double 16 minutes, that such an extraordinary athlete would move directly from being arguably the best small-forward prospect in the country at Dunbar to at least a starter with the Hoyas.
That has not happened, partly because Eric Smith is so vital to Georgetown at Jones' high school position and Eric Floyd is close to peerless at Jones' ultimate college position, shooting guard. Still, there are times Jones seems frightfully uncomfortable.
"That's consistent with his being a freshman," Thompson said. "It changes. Both he and Billy have their (good and bad) days, when they're relaxed and when they're not."
If Jones and Martin sometimes are frustrated that the transition from high school to college has not been smoother, Thompson knows they have escaped the sort of pressure that could have ruined them by now. Being denied the athletic spotlight too long is not nearly as bad as being pushed into it too soon.
Jones against Missouri was a classic example. Off the bench, he missed his first five shots. Had there not been exceptional depth on the team, Thompson would have been forced to keep playing him. The misses would have compounded, and Jones' already uncertain attitude might have been destroyed.
"They've been protected," Thompson said of his two glittering preseason stars. "They've been in the shadows, but they've also had room to develop and move in at an intelligent rate. Next year (when Floyd and Smith have graduated), they'll be under the gun. The cover will be taken off."
Thompson talked as though the less publicized Dalton would have made a greater impact more quickly. But a foot injury suffered in the Blue-Gray intrasquad game has kept the 6-foot-9, 230-pounder on crutches all season.
"Off preseason, I thought he'd be the biggest surprise," Thompson said. "He'd been playing extremely well, and what I'd planned to do was play two post men (Ewing and Ed Spriggs) and rotate Dalton. Martin would have played more on the perimeter. With Dalton hurt, I could send in only one big, bulky man (Spriggs)."
All the freshmen began to grasp Georgetown's system before they officially arrived at the school. In addition to playing on the same summer-league team with Dalton, Ewing, Martin and Jones were part of Thompson's East team in the National Sports Festival in what they quicky discovered would be hostile territory, Syracuse.
Reality hit them early. Picked to finish first among the four regional teams, they were last.
"I'd gotten by with natural ability in high school," Martin said. "I was lacking in some fundamentals, had never even used a jab-step before. I wasn't quite prepared for the whole load when practice started. I was lost out there early, and he (Thompson) knew it."
"I'm trying to develop a quicker release," Jones said. "And I like guard a lot."
Jones has been averaging about 19 minutes in 29 games, shooting 48 percent from the field and averaging seven points and three rebounds. He has about a dozen more turnovers than assists. Martin has averaged about 15 minutes per game, six points and half as many rebounds. Guard Smith has seldom been seen.
As a class, they had all the positions covered. Most schools that take basketball seriously would have welcomed them en masse, Smith and Jones at guard, Dalton and Martin at forward and Ewing at center. They could have made any horrid program happy in a hurry.
Thompson is hoping it was better for each of them to move at his own pace, on campus and on the court, rather than be forced to cram both places. It always is possible, of course, that Jones and Martin would have become instantly successful if they had been forced to play more.
The seniors and freshmen have helped carry each other about as far as they should have gotten so far, winning 21 of their last 25 games, with only the road loss to Providence being close to inexcusable.
"We all stick together pretty much," Dalton said. "And it is known that we are freshmen. Small things. Freshmen have to carry the (extra) bags . . . Yeah, even him (Ewing)." Like the rest of us, Dalton knows his class has the potential for an NCAA championship.
"But that's all it is right now," he said. "A nucleus." He chuckled, adding: "And more talent is going to be brought in.