DeMatha High School all-America senior Jerrod Mustaf remembers the whispers that followed him throughout his junior year. Bothered by an inflamed Achilles' tendon early in the season, Mustaf couldn't give 100 percent and talk began that the 6-foot-10 1/2 center/forward was not aggressive and even overrated.

"People would say I disappeared at times," said Mustaf, one of the most highly recruited players in the nation. "At times, my leg bothered me and I couldn't always get in the flow of the game. I didn't get the ball as much. The chemistry we have this year wasn't there last year."

DeMatha Coach Morgan Wootten, in his 32nd year, also heard the whispers, but knew his top player was hurting.

"He came here as a highly regarded ninth grader, one of only a handful of players who have made the team as freshmen," Wootten said. "After a good sophomore season, everyone expected him to have a superb junior year. But he was playing on an inflamed Achilles' and just couldn't produce as expected in December. People thought he had hit a wall."

Mustaf answered his critics with outstanding play after Christmas, helping the Stags win the Metro Conference title and finish 28-6. He averaged 18 points and nine rebounds per game. Mustaf honed his skills over the summer and came into this season determined to be the Washington area's best player.

"I know people expected a lot of me and I feel I have shown steady progress each year," he said. "Right now, I know I can do more things on the court. I'm playing with more intensity, aggressiveness and confidence. But you have to have the ball to get in the flow of the game."

Mustaf is getting the ball and the Stags are off and running, having won their first five games, including a two-point victory over the nation's No. 1-ranked team, Archbishop Molloy of New York. Mustaf also is off and running, averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds per game.

Against Molloy, Mustaf had 19 points and 12 rebounds. Molloy's all-America (and St. John's-bound) 6-11 center Robert Werdann had 19 points and 10 rebounds.

"I didn't go into the game thinking of a personal battle against him," said Mustaf, who was third team All-Met last year. "He is a big guy. He gets position very well, but he isn't very mobile. I think my shots were more difficult."

Mustaf, who may play small or big forward in college, is an excellent shooter from up to 17 feet. He moves well without the ball, runs the court very well, is a good rebounder and shot blocker and has improved his passing.

"As a freshman, he was a tall, gangly kid with talent. But he has gotten better and better," Wootten said. "He practiced against Danny Ferry {of Duke} every day and that helped his confidence. There's no question he has reached another level and right now he's the player everyone thought he would be."

That includes a number of major colleges. Hoping to keep the recruiting process under control, the Mustaf family sent a questionnaire to the 10 colleges highest on Mustaf's list. The questions included the number of black faculty members on the university staff to the percentage of black students and athletes graduated to the number of blacks on the athletic staff. After examining the responses, Mustaf and his family narrowed his choices to Howard, Georgia Tech and Maryland. It has been reported he is leaning toward Maryland, although Mustaf said he has not made up his mind.

"I believe the questionnaire was very successful and I feel we accomplished what we set out to do," said Mustaf's father, Shaar Mustaf. "That gave us a better idea of what colleges were all about. People have called me and and inquired about the questionnaire so they could use them as a measuring tool for themselves. It makes me feel good that others are interested in our idea.

"The main purpose was to make sure Jerrod was going into a situation where he was comfortable and not just considered a basketball player. I'm very happy with the way things turned out."

Said Howard Coach A.B. Williamson: "Jerrod Mustaf is a super player with NBA potential because he can play three positions. He is in the mold of the new type of player who plays both inside and outside."

Jerrod Mustaf said he was pleased with the final three choices.

"I was surprised at some of the responses, but I'm glad we did it. I'm also glad to get it over with," he said. "Getting down to three schools takes off the pressure and I will decide which of the three I will attend when the season is over.

"Right now, I'm not leaning toward either school. We were all happy with the way the recruiting went and now I can concentrate on the season. We have a good team, we're off to a good start and I'm looking forward to a good season."