SANTA CLARA -- As a very young man with a very healthy ego and a product of the instant-gratification age who has gotten a taste of instant gratification, 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith sits at a precarious period of his career, if not his life.
These potentially volatile conditions are amplified insofar as Smith, 23, is an overnight sensation in the sports/entertainment industry.
And when one considers Aldon's tendency to find unflattering predicaments and unwanted publicity -- the most recent coming last week -- the socially fashionable term "at risk" might be applicable.
Yet the 49ers imply they are not alarmed, perhaps because they realize Smith not only is a spectacular football player but also a bright individual.
Smith, for his part, claims his issues are part of the maturation process.
"I'm growing up," he said this week. "I'm learning from my actions. I'm maturing."
The most recent publicity related to Smith came last week, when he reportedly was implicated in an altercation in Columbia, Mo., where he attended college. There were multiple reports of police being summoned to a Mexican bar/restaurant after midnight Halloween for an incident involving Smith.
This is after the September incident where Smith was a passenger in a one-car accident near his home in San Jose. And the July case in which he was stabbed at a party at his home. And the January case in which he was arrested and charged with DUI
None of the four incidents this year has resulted in reports of serious injury. But how long should anyone tempt fate?
Given Smith's stature, there is the matter of his personal image. How much does he care about it? Is he bothered by the direction it's taking?
"No. I play with some great people and I'm around good people," Smith said Wednesday. "Everybody here is amazing.
"As for endorsements, there's plenty of time for that to come. And with time, it will come. I'm not rushing it. I came here to play football, not to be a (celebrity)."
Football players, especially those who are particularly gifted, are celebrities. It comes with the territory. It makes them a magnet and a target. People want to be near them, and some of those people will have highly questionable intentions.
It can take varying experiences, and various lengths of time, for a great young athlete to fully understand the magnitude of himself and the implications of his actions.
Not all do.
Some, such as Lawrence Taylor, were fabulous players who burned out earlier than they would have. Others, such as Ray Lewis, received the wake-up call that is the prospect of prison. When Brett Favre enters the Hall of Fame, there will be a trail of trials and errors at his back.
I remember a gifted young defensive lineman who played for the Raiders in the late 1990s by the name of Darrell Russell. He was likable and easygoing, a two-time Pro Bowler. But his choices were questionable, and he never fully grasped the concept of little things required to become the best possible professional.
D-Russ was out of the NFL at 28 -- and tragically dead at 29.
Smith has Hall of Fame potential, emphasis on potential. He was built to stalk quarterbacks. He's 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, with a sculpted physique, freakishly long arms and hands big and strong enough that he might need only one to grip and lift the average horse.
His coaches and teammates marvel not only about his physical attributes but also his mind.
"He's got great speed, great quickness and great power," says offensive lineman Leonard Davis, a 12th-year veteran of four NFL teams who occasionally practices against Smith. "And he has great intelligence."
And that's why Aldon has a chance to fulfill his potential. He's smarter than LT, savvier than D-Russ. He's the full package, which is why San Francisco chose him seventh overall in the 2011 draft.
But Smith still is discovering his capabilities. Asked how he perceived his potential, he had a quick reply: "Sky's the limit. I can go as far as I take myself."
No argument here. Smith has the goods to become the best pass rusher to wear a 49ers uniform, surpassing the likes of Fred Dean and Charles Haley and Cedrick Hardman and Cleveland Elam and Bryant Young, largely because he is driven by the need to prove himself.
"All my life, I've been overlooked, from coming out of high school to playing in college to now," he says. "In due time, it will all come out. People know what I have when they play against me, so they'll figure it out one way or another."
Though Aldon has everything he needs to succeed, he must learn and accept the little things required of a polished professional.
Like keeping his ego on a leash while unleashing his intellect, and seeing that his good judgment trumps his swagger.