COLLEGE PARK — Has Nick Faust finally turned the corner between being a talented but erratic player who has been as fun to coach as he has been infuriating?
Has the junior guard from City finally found a role he can thrive in, rather than being forced to play out of position (at point guard as a freshman and for some of last season) and often out of sync?
Has a player who third-year coach Mark Turgeon needed badly when he took over the Maryland program finally started to live up to his promise, after coming off the bench for the first prolonged stretch of his career?
Turgeon and the Terps are hoping all three questions can be answered in the affirmative as they resume Atlantic Coast Conference play Saturday at home against Georgia Tech.
After a slow start at both ends of the floor this season, Faust has suddenly started to show signs of the consistency Turgeon was hoping for from one of his most experienced players.
“Nick was terrific,” Turgeon said Tuesday, after Faust tied a career high for points (19) and came within one rebound of his second double double as a Terp in helping Maryland to a 70-56 win over North Carolina Central.
Asked whether there’s less pressure on Faust with the return this week of sophomore guard Seth Allen, Turgeon said: “There’s less pressure on everybody.… I think Nick’s just going out and doing what he’s been taught to do, and he’s doing it well right now. I’m really happy for him because he didn’t shoot it well early in the season. Now he’s starting to shoot it, and it’s really helping our team.”
To say Faust wasn’t shooting well is an understatement from a coach known to be quite blunt about the failings of his team, both collectively and individually — including his own.
While Faust didn’t take as many bad shots the first month as he did in a 5-for-18 performance (including 3-for-10 shooting beyond the arc) in a season-opening loss to Connecticut, he didn’t make many, either. He started the season shooting 5-for-32 on 3-pointers.
Against North Carolina Central, Faust hit his first shot (a 3-pointer) and wound up 5-for-11 overall, including 3-for-6 on 3-pointers, and made all six of his free throws.
A player who has more than occasionally tomahawked dunks hard off the back rim also had one of the best dunks of the season for the Terps, an over-the-head, one-handed throwdown in the second half.
Usually low-key about his play, Faust was disappointed Tuesday about not getting the double double, but said pretty accurately: “I did a great job tonight coming in and boosting the team with energy and defending, and I did solid on offense.”
Asked whether he feels like a different player coming off the bench than he did as a starter, Faust said: “No, I wouldn’t say I feel like a different player.”
After saying last week that he didn’t have to take a different mindset, Faust conceded Tuesday that he had.
"I would say there was an adjustment, just getting in the groove coming off the bench," he said. "You start off in warm-ups, and then you’ve got to come out and come in back hot again. You have to stay in the mindset of coming back locked in.”
Since being sent to the bench four games ago when Turgeon decided to put freshman Roddy Peters at the point and move junior Dez Wells to the wing, Faust has averaged 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in a little more than 25 minutes a game. He has more assists (eight) than turnovers (six), which is not typically a given with Faust.
Coupled with a 13-point performance against Tulsa, during which he hit three of five shots and all five of his free throws, it might be the most efficient back-to-back stretch of games Faust has played at Maryland.
Faust also played a major part in holding North Carolina Central guard Jeremy Ingram, the nation’s third-leading scorer, to a season-worst 11 points — more than 13 below his average — on 4-for-19 shooting.
“Nick is a good scorer. Nick can do a lot of things with the basketball,” Wells said. “He’s just starting to come along. He’s working really hard, he’s doing extra workouts and stuff like that.
"Going into ACC play, we all know we have to raise our level of play, and he’s doing a great job of that. We know we all have to support him and make sure his head is on straight and he’s in tune with everything we’re doing, and we’ll be fine.”
Turgeon said earlier this season that Faust’s defense had suffered while he was struggling to find his shot. Now it seems as if Faust’s defense has improved as his shot has started to fall recently with more regularity.
His shot selection has also improved, both in terms of what shots he takes and when he is taking them.
“Today I would say I played good defense," he said. "Maybe it did rub off on my offense, maybe it didn’t — I don’t know. I just try to play hard at both ends."
Has Faust finally turned the corner?
We’ll see once ACC play begins again Saturday, but it looks like he has taken a major step in that direction.