Jim Kelly is the sun rising over the U.S. Football League's dark and distant planet.

He is the quarterback of the Houston Gamblers and thrives in an offensive concept called "run and shoot," which is mostly like a game of video asteroids: on any given play, four receivers (two set as slotbacks) run deep down field and the one running back picks up any blitz, then goes on his own merry pass route.

Kelly watches defenses shudder. Then he shoots 'em apart.

Houston Coach Jack Pardee, the former Redskins coach, says, "I've never seen a guy in his second year do what Jim can do. He's doing in his second year what Sonny Jurgensen did in his 12th year. He's doing stuff that Norm Van Brocklin did in his 10th year . . . He's the greatest I've ever seen."

"Jim is made for any offense on any team in the world," said Scott McGhee, one of Kelly's many doting receivers. "He can drop back or sprint out. He's got a super touch. He can throw the dart or the feather."

Sit him down on a cool Arizona evening and Kelly, 25, will talk more dart than feather. Forget the quiet confidence. Kelly will burn you with bravado:

"If Bernie Kosar is worth $1 million," Kelly says of his quarterback successor at the University of Miami, "then I'm worth $3 million."

If you mention the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino, who lit up the Pennsylvania high school skies at the very same time as Kelly in the late '70s, Kelly says, "Ain't no doubt about it; I'm just as good, if not better, than (Marino) is. I know I've got as good an arm. I can read coverages as well as he can. The thing I'm probably better at is quickness."

Marino set a professional football record with 48 touchdown passes last season. So, Kelly was asked, how many touchdown passes would you throw if you were playing for Miami?

"Forty-eight," he said. "No," he added, pausing for clarification, "49."

Then he smiled.

It's been this way for Kelly ever since he signed a reported five-year, $3.5 million contract in 1983. He signed the contract with Jerry Argovitz, the onetime Texas Golden Gloves boxer turned dentist, turned agent, turned general partner of the Gamblers. Kelly also got a reported $1 million signing bonus.

And when Doug Flutie came into the USFL this season, Kelly came into some more money. Kelly's contract stipulates that he must be among the USFL's three highest-paid quarterbacks. New Jersey's Flutie, Los Angeles' Steve Young and Jacksonville's Brian Sipe all had bigger salaries than Kelly.

So Kelly reportedly received an estimated $100,000 extra to push him past Sipe. Easy money, you say?

Perhaps. But here is the bottom line: if everything truly is relative in pro football, then this guy may be worth it.

He passed for 5,219 yards and 44 touchdowns for the 13-5 Gamblers last season, winning the USFL's most-valuable-player and rookie-of-the-year awards. Only Edmonton's Warren Moon (5,648 yards in the Canadian Football League in 1983) and the Dolphins' Marino have had better statistics.

Last year, Redskins receiver Art Monk caught 106 passes, becoming only the second professional player to catch 100 passes in a single season. (Charley Hennigan caught 101 for Houston in the American Football League in 1961.) Last season, the Gamblers had two 100-catch receivers, Richard Johnson with 115 and Ricky Sanders with 101.

Kelly is at it again this year, even amidst the potentially distracting reports of the Gamblers' financial troubles. He is averaging 41 passes and nearly three touchdown throws a game this season. Halfway through the USFL's 18-game regular season, the Gamblers are a first-place 6-3 in the Western Conference and Kelly is on line to level Marino's single-season record for scoring passes (set in the NFL's 16-game regular season) and to become football's first 6,000-yard passer.

The knock you hear most about Kelly goes something like this: "Sure, he's got the numbers, but he's playing in an offense made for big numbers in a league made for who knows what."

Don't believe it.

"I think Kelly's the type who would be at the top of any league," said Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard. "I think he's a legitimate great talent. Gosh, I wouldn't ever belittle his abilities, no matter where he's playing. He can throw, run, he's a leader, he's tough. He'd go well in any system. I think he's comparable to anybody at the top of any league."

Kelly can control a game in a jillion different ways. Take a look at last Sunday night when the Arizona Outlaws removed their middle linebacker and deployed a fifth defensive (nickel) back most of the game. With each snap Kelly took, the Outlaws' two linebackers dropped way back to protect further against the pass.

This is the most common defensive tactic employed against the run and shoot. Why worry about the run against Houston when, entering the game, the Gamblers averaged less than 10 runs per game and Kelly was the team's leading rusher with 82 yards in eight games?

This time, however, the Gamblers ran 18 times and gained a season-high 131 yards. And Kelly kept dropping short passes in front of the frustrated deep-drop linebackers as the Gamblers finessed a 33-17 victory.

Then, against the San Antonio Gunslingers yesterday, Kelly picked the league's second-best pass defense apart, completing 29 of 40 passes for 282 yards en route to a 38-29 victory.

Kelly has paid a price for his USFL fame. He has taken several late hits this season from defenders seemingly searching for the bounty on his royal head. He has suffered bruises to the ring finger on his passing hand and a bruised left knee.

Likely, had it not been for his thick, durable 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame and for his competitive spirit, he would have been sidelined long ago.

And to think he came so close to signing with the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft (12th overall). "If I was playing in Buffalo," he said, "I'd be freezing my butt off."

Kelly said that his attorney, Greg Lustig, was shrewd enough to stipulate in his contract that if the Gamblers move to another city, Kelly would become a USFL free agent. Rumors have circulated across the league for some time that the Gamblers will move or perhaps even fold next season. Buffalo, meanwhile, will retain Kelly's NFL rights for two more years, when he will become an NFL free agent.

He said he isn't worried about any such matters. "My contract is guaranteed," Kelly said, with a smile befitting any millionaire on the rise. He added, "If it came down to either playing for Buffalo or not playing at all, I'd play in Buffalo."