BEST OF THE BEST

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Antawn Jamison is the runaway choice for national player of the year in college basketball, but putting a finger on the North Carolina forward's game is so difficult, the adjective most people use doesn't really describe his style.

Only its indescribability.

Unique, they call it.

Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins tried to take it a step further but came up only with "most unique."

That makes Jamison one of a kind--and more.

There's his ability to run the floor, so fast and so hard the whole game. And there's the power of his dunks.

But most of all, there is that shot, that unpredictable quick-release, let-it-go-from-the-hip-or-elbow shot that will be on display at the Final Four in San Antonio this weekend.

"He catches the ball and shoots it probably as quick as anybody in basketball," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said.

One trip downcourt, it will be a wheeling shot from the hip in the lane. The next, it's a leaning, close-in jumper released about a foot to the right of his shoulder.

"The 'Twan' shot," North Carolina center Makhtar Ndiaye said. "They're going to start teaching it to the freshmen next year."

The people listening broke up at that, and Jamison's ear-to-ear smile was brighter than the top of his shaven head.

Teammate Ademola Okulaja gave explaining Jamison's shot a half-hearted try, too.

"It just goes in. It doesn't matter," Okulaja said. "It can be pretty or ugly, but if it goes in. . . . We don't even try to describe it."

Frankly, even Jamison has a hard time putting what he does in those split-seconds into words.

"If I have any one move, I guess that's it, but it's not one move and it comes from any kind of angle and it's really quick," he said.

If Jamison's game defies description, though, the numbers tell the story just fine.

He is on the verge of becoming the first North Carolina player to average a double-double--at least 20 points and 10 rebounds--since Billy Cunningham did it in 1965.

James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, Brad Daugherty--none of them ever did.

"He's the national player of the year because he can do everything," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

"It's obvious he loves to play and compete. He has an unusual style to go along with his incredible ability and competitiveness. He's a tough guy to defend, because you haven't defended anybody like him.

"He's so instinctive, and they allow him to be instinctive. His shot is unique. You hear people talk about the quick release, but where is it from? He has a quick release, and it comes from everywhere. He's a different and incredible talent. I love watching him play."

With his performance against Connecticut in the game that sent North Carolina to the Final Four for the second consecutive year, Jamison, a 6-foot-9 junior, set a Tar Heel single-season record for field goals with 309. And he is three rebounds from breaking Cunningham's record of 379 in a season.

Lennie Rosenbluth's scoring record of 895 points in a season, set in 1956-57, is probably safe. With no more than two games left, Jamison has 808. But that makes him the only other North Carolina player to have scored more than 800 points in a season.

"He rates up there with our best, and I don't want to mention who our best are," North Carolina Coach Bill Guthridge said.

Jamison remains an unspoiled superstar, one who wears a little guardian angel pin to remind him of his grandmother and doesn't get upset if people pronounce his name the way it's spelled instead of the way his family meant for it to be said, more like Antwahn.

"A lot of guys in my situation tend to go away from the person they were," Jamison said as he sat amid TV cameras last week. "I'm proud and happy to be the person I am. I get tired of kids saying, 'It's really draining,' or, 'I don't want to do this or do that.' I'd rather be sitting at a microphone talking than sitting in my room. I enjoy this."

Jamison is the Tar Heels' best player, but hardly their only option. Vince Carter, another junior, is more spectacular with his amazing dunks, and senior guard Shammond Williams scored 42 points in a game against Georgia Tech, the most by a North Carolina player since 1970.

Three years ago, Carter was the most heralded rookie in Jamison's class.

"I kind of felt sorry for Vince because the projections were that he was the next great player, and that's a whole lot of pressure," Jamison said. "With me, not too many people knew who I was. I was left to develop myself. It made me drive even harder, to try to prove to everybody I do belong at Carolina and can play at the college level."

Whether Jamison will stay at the college level is the next question.

Shortly after the Final Four, he will sit down with former coach Dean Smith, like so many North Carolina players since Worthy, and decide whether it is time to turn pro. Smith has usually recommended that players go if they figure to be in the top five in the NBA draft, and Jamison looks like a top-three pick. You can read his thoughts both ways.

"I know the most difficult thing would be trying to say goodbye," Jamison said. "I do kind of envision myself in an NBA uniform."

But he says he will talk to recent players who stayed a fourth year. "Guys like Tim Duncan and Keith Van Horn," Jamison said, and he'll talk to the Tar Heels who left early as well.

"All it comes down to is, do I want to stay or play pro basketball next year?" he said.

But he does worry about the prospects of labor problems in the NBA, and says with what sounds like sincerity that he enjoys getting up and going to class.

"If I do leave, I'm still going to graduate on time with my class," said Jamison, who could do it by attending summer school.

If Jamison doesn't come back for his senior year, the coaches in the NBA will be the ones trying to get a handle on his indescribable game.

There's that shot, the way he moves without the ball, the way he runs the court, and another thing the coaches talk about--his constant awareness of where the basket is.

"I've never seen a player with the sense of his presence on the court that Antawn Jamison has," Wake Forest Coach Dave Odom said. "Where he stands, in relation to the court and the basket itself, the presence and the feel and the sixth sense he has for that is unprecedented in my mind.

"I think you could almost spin him like a top and blindfold him, take the blindfold off, throw him the ball and he could shoot without looking. He has that kind of sense about where the basket is.

"You can say he's quick, you can say he runs, you say he has good size, you say he has great touch, and all of those things are not arguable. But his sense of presence is what really ties it all together."

What would really tie it all together is a national championship.

The Tar Heels play Utah on Saturday for the right to advance to the final, and last season they lost in the semifinals to Arizona, 66-58, in a game in which Jamison scored only 11 points and Williams went one for 13.

"To be that close, and play fairly well early and then in the second half, to fall apart--I think the thing that happened with us and Arizona was, we made it and were just happy to be there," Jamison said. "With Arizona, it was, whatever happens, happens. This year, we can win. We've got to stay focused and just do what we've been doing all year.

"We want to win this thing so bad," Jamison said. "We want to try to prove we're a great team."

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