When the 1990-91 NBA season began, he was a tender 20 years old. Now, three months after his 21st birthday, Seattle's Shawn Kemp is still the youngest player in the NBA, a gifted child in a league of men. But he is a child many say is destined for NBA stardom.

"Shawn Kemp is burdened with unbelievable talent," says Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa. "So everyone expects from the get-go for him to be a dominating force. But right now, he's certainly pointing on that straight path toward being a legitimate player."When the Sonics traded scoring star Xavier McDaniel to Phoenix for Eddie Johnson in December, the wheels were already turning. Although the X-Man was a notable loss, they needed outside shooting and a way to find space for Kemp. The trade accomplished both.

In his first season in the league - which he began as a 19-year-old - Kemp averaged 13.8 minutes playing time, which translated into 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds.

But after coming off the bench early this year, he began to be assimilated into the starting lineup. Once McDaniel was gone, he became a permanent fixture in the lineup and has won raves around the league. His single-digit scoring average has risen to over 15 points. He also has an eight-rebound average and has blocked a team-high 78 shots.

"To project too far ahead can cause a burden on a player," continues Chiesa. "To all guys with extraordinary talent, it's a burden. I always say to promise less, deliver more.

"But Shawn has certain gifts that are natural. He plays like a rocket sometimes. He creates havoc in the air."

In a win last week at New York, Kemp scored 24 points. His performance included two 20-footers, two blocked shots, 13 rebounds and seven dunks. "He has terrific vertical lift to the basket," continues Chiesa. "When guys are coming down (on his jump shot), he's still going up."

Experts around the league are already calling him the next superstar. Though Kemp has spells of inconsistency, he can be devastating. "You've got to remember, he's never done this before," says Tacoma writer Mike Kahn. "He's only 21 years old."

At Concord High in Elkhart, Ind., he was already drawing the attention of NBA scouts. "I pretty much knew I could play in the NBA," he said in an article for Hoop magazine. "I never get intimidated by my opponent. I've been playing with NBA players (in pickup games) since I was a freshman in high school."

After high school, Kemp was regarded as a phenomenal prospect, signing with Kentucky as a proposition 48 player. "He was one of the top five players in the country. That's a lot, top five," says Chiesa.

But his college career was short-circuited when he allegedly became involved in the pawning of stolen jewelry, though charges were never filed. He left UK and enrolled at Trinity (Texas) JC, but never played a game. After a year at Trinity - and rumors that he would transfer to UNLV - he declared himself eligible for the NBA draft.

By entering the league at 19, Kemp joined a handful of players who did so without the benefit of college experience. He was the first to do so since Darrell Dawkins and Bill Willoughby came into the league in 1975.

The 6-foot-10, 240-pound Kemp will have his work cut out for him Sunday when the the Sonics host the Jazz. (8 p.m. MST). His assignment includes matchingup with the Jazz's All-Star forward Karl Malone. While Malone obviously is a better player, some observers point out that Kemp probably has more raw athletic ability.

Whatever the case, people seem to be awed by Kemp's talent at such a young age. He also has a reputation of being good with the media, fans and small children. Writers have called him "refreshing."

"The only time you realize how young he is is when he laughs. He laughs like a kid," says one writer. A kid who could become a man very quickly in the high stakes world of the NBA.

GAME NOTES: Jazz guard Jeff Malone, who missed Friday's game against Golden State, is questionable to play against the Sonics . . . Seattle's Derrick McKey has had a strained hip flexor muscle, but should be ready to play . . . The Jazz went 3-1 against the Sonics last year.