POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- The Marist basketball team has just finished limbering up before practice and Drafton Davis leads his teammates into the gym, past an indoor soccer game. As Rik Smits runs by in his size-18 1/2 sneakers the goalie makes a diving stop. Smits doesn't even notice.

Six years ago he probably would have stopped to watch, but as his senior year rapidly draws to a close the 7-foot-4 center has only one thing on his mind -- basketball.

It's been that way since he first picked up a basketball in his native Eindhoven, a city of more than 350,000 people in the Netherlands, about an hour's drive southeast of Amsterdam.

"My mother was playing basketball, I think then it was only her first year," recalled Smits, who is expected to be a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft. "Her club team just started a junior team and one of the coaches that was starting it asked me if I would be interested in it. So I came to practice and I kind of liked it. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be playing basketball."

He was only 15 at the time and a mere 6-10, not sure whether his sport was soccer (he was a goalie), rugby or judo. (His father Ad, a 6-7 judo expert, and mother Marga met in a judo class). But he soon found that basketball provided an escape from an everyday world that wasn't always kind.

"I used to be really shy," says Smits, who towered over his playmates even in nursery school. "People used to laugh at me because of my height."

Although at first basketball was nothing more than a lark for Smits, he began playing for a club team and soon learned of the opportunities the game affords the most-gifted players in the United States. And after playing for the Dutch junior national team against Hofstra the following year he decided to go west.

"I played pretty well," said Smits, who sleeps in a custom-built bed at school but gets no special accommodations when Marist is on the road. "I figured, if this is Division I basketball, I want to play Division I basketball.

"I got the address of the ABAUSA {Amateur Basketball Association of the United States} and wrote them a letter saying that I was looking for a school," added Smits, who has grown an inch in the past year. "And {LSU Coach} Dale Brown called -- he was coming over to Holland, anyway, to look at some players -- and he saw me play. But because I didn't have too much experience, he said maybe I should go to a junior college.

"I was all set to do that until my friend told me about the Marist coach {Mike Perry} coming here, so I went to him," Smits added. "I introduced myself and told him about myself. He asked coaches who were at the game the same night about me and he offered me a scholarship."

Without even seeing him play.

It was probably just as well, though, because Smits really didn't know how to play. But there were signs of brilliance -- right from the start.

"I saw him play the first three games of his college career," said Marist Coach Dave Magarity, an assistant at Iona at the time. "I scouted him against Fairfield, saw him play Villanova the year they won the national championship, and the third game they were playing down at our place and the kid hits a shot to put the game in overtime. He made three or four great plays. In three games he just looked better and better and better. And then he went on to have a decent freshman year and I think people realized then that he was more than a big, gawky kid."

Improvements have come rapidly for Rik Smits because, like all aspiring stars, he is in love with the game he plays, a veritable court rat.

"The kid loves to play. He just enjoys being in the gym all the time," Magarity said. "Early in the preseason we had just had double sessions one day and later that night we were in here doing some recruiting work. And I'm leaving, and I look out in the gym and he's fooling around with some students from the dorm."

Smits began to think of playing pro ball at the end of his sophomore year, when he averaged 17.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots a game. And when he thoroughly outplayed Georgia Tech's John Salley, scoring 22 points in 27 minutes before fouling out in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the scouts sat up and took notice.

His junior year began on a sour note when the NCAA declared him ineligible for Marist's first nine games because of recruiting violations that occurred during his freshman year. Without him, the Red Foxes went sour, losing six of those games. But when he returned the team won its last 14 and made the NCAA tournament for the second straight time.

With Smits at center the Marist program has soared. Prior to his arrival, the Red Foxes had a 40-44 record in three years of Division I play. However, since he began playing in 1984 Marist has won a pair of ECAC Metro Conference regular season titles, two conference tournament championships and made consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.

After Thursday's loss to Monmouth they were 15-9 overall and 10-3 in the conference. That would normally make this time of year exciting. But as the season winds down the players don't have much to look forward to because Marist was placed on probation for two years by the NCAA before the season began and is ineligible for postseason play.

It has made Smits' senior year somewhat different.

"I'm playing for myself now, and I'm playing for the pride of the team, too," said Smits, who thought seriously about jumping to the NBA before deciding to finish his education. "But it's not the same anymore. The last two years we could afford to make mistakes during the season as long as we played well and peaked at playoff time. Now, every game is as important as the next one."

There are but three games left in Rik Smits' college career. Through last week, he was averaging 23.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocked shots a game. Modest totals, to be sure, but he is still a raw talent.

"I know I'm not ready for the NBA," says Smits, who, because of the conference he competes in hasn't had the chance to play often enough against the nation's top talent. "It's going to take a couple of years."

When the pro scouts see Smits play, they see his strengths -- great hands, an incredible shooting touch for a player his size, how well he runs the floor. And they see his weaknesses -- he needs to become more versatile and more power oriented. Time should take care of those shortcomings.

What the scouts have not observed, however, is perhaps Smits' greatest asset.

"He's been nothing but a joy to coach," Magarity says. "It's important not to have to deal with a prima donna or a kid who you've always got to pamper or motivate. The more people find out about him, his personality and the type of kid he is, I think the more attractive he becomes. He's been a very good example for the whole team.

"He's a great, great kid. I can't imagine having a better kid."