If what we now assume becomes fact a tick after midnight Saturday, if James Worthy sells himself to the National Basketball Association and Ralph Sampson does not, each decision will be a wise one. And cheered by everyone not convinced that God is a Tar Heel (or Dean Smith), including the loser of next week's NBA coin flip between the San Diego Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.

Hurray for Ralph, if he stays at Virginia. Bravo for looking past basketball, to a degree, to another year of helping teammates throw a Cavalier official into a motel swimming pool, if that seems necessary, before settling down to the serious business of being a millionaire.

Very likely, Sampson has become wiser in two years than many of his elders, those of us who counseled him publicly to grab Red Auerbach's overstuffed wallet and get on with his life's work after his freshman season. Celtics and Cavaliers were angry at each other at the time, but both since have done nicely on their own.

Although Sampson has been exasperating to many by either not announcing his pro conclusions, or not reaching them, until the last possible moment each year, Virginia Coach Terry Holland says he leaves clues. One of them surely came March 19, the afternoon after Virginia lost to Alabama-Birmingham in the semifinal round of the NCAA Mideast Regional.

While others still were in mourning, Sampson's face was alive with mischief. A Virginia publicity aide had somehow sinned sometime earlier, and a conspiracy of players had chased him, caught him, hoisted him and plopped him--fully clothed--into the courtyard pool at the team's headquarters.

Earlier, Sampson had said it was too early to consider his future, the sting of defeat still too painful; that bit of playfulness suggested otherwise, that he realized a fellow could have basketball and fun a little while longer, and still earn a whole lot more money than he'd ever need.

Because a center's legs can be insured at nearly the same rate as a Triple Crown contender's--and the NCAA says it's okay--the risk of a senior season is minimal.

And the Lakers, at worst, might have to muddle through next season with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Mitch Kupchak, Norm Nixon, an already decent bench and either Terry Cummings, Dominique Wilkins, LaSalle Thompson, Quintin Dailey or Clark Kellogg.

Poor guys.

It's like having to settle for a Mercedes when you really wanted a Rolls. And with Sampson also unavailable to the Clippers, if they should win for one of the few times all year and select Worthy, Jerry Buss can dicker for the rights to Sampson in the 1983 draft. If San Diego loses the flip, it might get coin-toss rights to Ralph next year on merit.

Holland has been criticized some for failing to fully utilize Sampson, for not planting him in a 10-foot area near the basket and dedicating his life to finding ways to get him the ball and let him grow. John Wooden's giants at UCLA usually shot from their preferred spots.

They had better supporting players, the counter to that line of reasoning goes. Fine. Why doesn't Ralph? Why hasn't Holland, or Sampson, or both, lured the best forwards and guards to Charlottesville? Although it did make the NCAA semifinals, Virginia has yet to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament with Sampson.

Maybe next season is the one when all the dreams are realized. Maybe Holland has recruited better than some critics sense. Maybe freshmen Tim Mullen and Jim Miller will be matured enough to deflect some pressure from Sampson. Maybe Othell Wilson, injured for the NCAA tournament last season, is even more important than anyone imagined.

It will be good of Sampson to let us find out. The Cavaliers will be much improved, if only because Carolina won't have Worthy, De Paul won't have Cummings and Georgia won't have Wilkins. Those players leaving assures Virginia of being among the two or three preseason favorites for the national title next season.

Probably, some Carolinians are close to boiling here, upset that all the gushing over Sampson's beyond-basketball thinking implies that James somehow is mentally unworthy if he turns pro and at least postpones getting his degree. They're a sensitive gang, as my ACC and NCAA tournament mail showed.

Worthy should take his powerful grace to the NBA now for the same reason Buck Williams did a year ago: his worth, even if inflation dribbles back up, will never be greater. He has reached a level Sampson has only sniffed, a moving performance in the game that won the NCAA championship for his team.

A 7-foot-4 Sampson is judged partly on potential; a 6-9 Worthy is rated almost solely on performance. And what Worthy has done lately, in the NCAA title game against Georgetown, might not be duplicated by a forward for a decade, or longer.

As Worthy probably knows, much of next season could be a slide. He and his team already have done more than Sampson and Virginia. But a Sampson, being more than half a foot taller, almost always will be chosen before a Worthy. To beat Sampson in the draft, avoid him.

Also, Worthy has an experience Sampson has not known: injury. His foot was seriously hurt against Maryland his freshman season, and no amount of insurance eases the fear that something dreadful could happen again soon.

If, or when, Worthy announces his intention to turn pro, he will be the first Tar Heel since Robert McAdoo to leave Smith's nest early. And McAdoo, being a junior-college transfer, did not feel the full intensity of Smith's unique coaching spell.

Until Worthy, Carolina kids did not leave before their time. Not Walter Davis, or Kupchak, Tommy LaGarde, Phil Ford or anyone else whose early NBA careers almost always were superior to their college numbers. If he yearns for it enough, Worthy may well be better than all of them. That was the last impression, the one that also sells in sports.