It's fitting that Antonio McDyess' nickname is "Dice."

The Phoenix Suns gambled that the third-year power forward would quickly become a franchise player when they acquired him from Denver in a three-way trade with Cleveland on Oct. 1.So far, the 6-foot-9 McDyess hasn't exactly been a bad bet, but he certainly hasn't produced a jackpot. Before rebounding in the past few weeks, he struggled with his shooting and defense.

And the real risk comes this summer when McDyess, rebuffed by the Nuggets after seeking a $100 million contract extension, becomes a free agent.

Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo already has his poker face on.

"It's a league rule that we can't discuss free agents until July 1, so I won't speculate on how negotiations will go," said Colangelo, who swung the deal to get McDyess. "But I will say we're very happy with the trade and we anticipate Antonio will be a longtime fixture with this organization."

Phoenix, in a rebuilding mode after going 40-42 in the first season without Charles Barkley, got off to one of its best starts ever at 9-2 this year.

But McDyess, making $2.8 million and wearing Barkley's old No. 34 plus a rubber band on his left wrist like the former Sun, wasn't a big factor.

Besides a 17-point, four-block debut in the Oct. 31 season-opener against the Los Angeles Clippers, McDyess was invisible at times.

Fans were beginning to wonder if the Suns had squandered their future by trading Wesley Person, Tony Dumas and four draft picks for the 23-year-old forward.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself right from the beginning. I wanted to play good not just for the fans, but to make the organization look good," McDyess said. "When you do that and have one bad game, the pressure keeps continuing and you continue to play bad."

A turning point came in early December, when Phoenix began a five-game road trip.

The Suns - loaded with consistent double-figure scorers in Kevin Johnson, Rex Chapman, Danny Manning, Cedric Ceballos and Jason Kidd - were hoping to get McDyess firmly into the mix.

McDyess scored a season-high 23 points Dec. 15 in Chicago. Three nights later in Dallas, he had 14 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks and three steals.

Over a nine-game stretch, McDyess hit 59 percent of his shots to crack the NBA's top 10 in field-goal percentage.

His slicing moves to the hoop and soaring dunks were back. So was his ear-to-ear smile.

"I'm relaxing more, feeling better about my game, getting a little more confidence," said the soft-spoken McDyess, who also ranks among the league's top 20 in blocked shots with 1.5 per game. "I've worked hard on my defensive game, and I stopped thinking about shots I missed."

McDyess also is getting more comfortable in the Suns' system, Colangelo said.

"He's showing the talent and skills that made him a premier player the last two years in this league," he said. "There's so much upside to his game that he can only get better."

People have been trying to measure McDyess' potential ever since he and his 42-inch vertical leap left Alabama after his sophomore year.

The Clippers took him with the No. 2 overall pick of the 1995 NBA and immediately dealt him to Denver.

McDyess posted some of Denver's best rookie numbers - 1,020 points, 572 rebounds, 114 blocks - and had 537 rebounds, 126 blocks and an 18.3 scoring average last season.

The Nuggets were ready to negotiate a contract extension, offering a six-year deal for up to $70 million.

One problem: McDyess and his agent, Arn Tellem, wanted at least $30 million more.

"I guess they had no choice but to trade me," McDyess said. "They called me at 8 o'clock in the morning that day and told me I might be traded. I woke up at 1 or 2 that afternoon and they said I was going to the Suns."

After the season, McDyess said he plans to return to his hometown of Quitman, Miss., (population 2,736) and decide his future.

This much seems certain: He won't consider re-signing with the Nuggets, as a Denver newspaper recently reported.

"That's the biggest fib I've heard this year. I don't think there's any possible way I would go back to Denver," McDyess said. "I like it here in Phoenix.

"I just want to play and I want to be here."