It's not those annual million-dollar offers from the National Basketball Association that are likely to lure Ralph Sampson away from the University of Virginia this spring; he's turned his head from those before. It's those maddening zone defenses that have turned him into one of the country's tallest traffic cops.

Saying simply that he was having too much fun to leave, Sampson rejected the megabucks of oilman Donald Carter of Dallas and the corporate millions of the Detroit Pistons last spring to return for his junior season.

"To some extent, I wanted to see how I'd do without Jeff (Lamp) and Lee (Raker)," he said about his decision last May 1. "I wanted to see how much I could take."

Now he knows and he can't like it.

Starting with a nationally televised opener against Brigham Young, when the sandwiching started and he was limited to 12 shots, it has been a frustrating and relatively unproductive season for this two-time all-America.

His scoring average is down to 16.2 from last year's 17.7, but of more concern, his attempted shots have plunged from 413 in 34 games to only 294, 10.8 a game, this season.

Heading into Friday night's game with Clemson in the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Sampson knows what to expect: a palm pressed into the small of his back, a thigh jammed into the back of his legs, a hand reaching around waving in front of his face from the biggest, strongest player the opposing coach can find. And in front of him, Sampson will have at least one other defender, leaning, pushing, shoving and waving hands to discourage any attempts to get the ball to him.

The pattern has been set and it only will intensify in the postseason because his opponents know, and Maryland's Lefty Driesell proved, that if you stop Sampson Virginia can be beaten.

Witness the Cavaliers' last six games in which they scored more than 56 points only once and three times Sampson was limited to fewer than 10. When he visited Clemson Feb. 13, he got off only six shots and scored seven points in a last-second 56-54 victory. Obviously, the Tigers would play him the same way again.

In two games against North Carolina State, Sampson shot four for 11 and two for five. In Saturday's 47-46 loss to Maryland, he made one shot in five attempts.

This is fun?

"He's foolish to stay another year the way they're playing now," said Rod Thorn, coach and general manager of the Chicago Bulls. "It's only going to get worse next year. He knows now what's going to happen. He probably learned a lot this season, but next year will just be a repeat."

Jeff Ruland, the Bullets' outstanding rookie center, knows what Sampson is going through. He said he faced the same thing his junior year, when he led Iona to a 29-5 record.

"I used to pray that a team would play man to man against me, but it hardly ever happened," the 6-11, 260-pounder recalled. "Everybody played zone and I always had guys hanging all over me. It wasn't much fun."

Sampson has been asked often if he's frustrated by the lack of opportunity to display his skills and has steadfastly refused to complain.

"I don't need the ball all the time," he said after getting one shot, a missed offensive tap, in the second half of a 45-40 victory over N.C. State. "It doesn't bother me."

This is the ideal year for Sampson to apply for the NBA draft for a number of reasons.

Right now he stands a 50-50 chance of joining the Los Angeles Lakers, who own Cleveland's first-round choice. The Cavaliers are a cinch to finish last in the East and, therefore, the Lakers will flip a coin with the last-place team in the West for the No. 1 choice.

The Lakers also reportedly have offered $1 million, a draft choice and maybe even all-star guard Norm Nixon to San Diego for the Clippers' first-round choice. If San Diego remains in last place in the West that would eliminate the coin flip and assure the Lakers of drafting Sampson.

"I've always thought there is only player I would sit behind," Sampson said recently, referring to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "If I had a chance to go to the Lakers, I definitely would consider it."

Abdul-Jabbar will be 35 next month and is struggling through his worst season. His scoring is down three points a game from last year and he is averaging fewer than 10 rebounds a game. Retirement certainly is a possibility when his contract expires at the end of next season.

"Ralph will lose a lot of bargaining power if he stays in school," said General Manager Bob Ferry of the Bullets. "The ideal time for a player to come out is after his junior year. Ralph is going to get his million anyway, but next year he won't have any options."

Certainly the thought of perhaps winding up in Kansas City or Detroit will weigh heavily on Sampson's mind before he announces his decision by the May 15 deadline.

"I may have been ready for the pros last year, but there is a part of me that enjoys it here too much to leave," Sampson said last spring. "When I go to the NBA, I want to have fun. As far as I'm concerned, the money, the glory, the life style are meaningless if you can't have fun."

NBA general managers are puzzled, wondering aloud why Sampson can't have fun if he's making a million dollars a year and doesn't have to go to classes.

"I hate to see any kid come out early," said Frank Layden, coach and general manager of the Utah Jazz. "But if he's ready, why wait? Right now Los Angeles is in a better position to offer him big bucks than, say, Kansas City will be next year.

"There's no guarantee he will get as much money next season and he will have lost a year of earning all that money. By starting a year early, his salary at the end of his career will be higher."

Sampson has protected himself against injury with a paid-up $1 million insurance policy with Lloyd's of London. However, some general managers question how the policy could guarantee, say, 10 years of a million-plus income, in addition to fringe benefits.