Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus previews Maryland's men's basketball season and the key players to watch. (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)
COLLEGE PARK — Nearly since the moment he arrived amid controversy and confusion as a transfer from Xavier, Dez Wells has been the leader of the Maryland men's basketball team.
Initially, that was based more on his impressive athleticism than true basketball savvy. It was also Wells' alpha personality that took the spotlight off quieter teammates like Alex Len and James Padgett and away from others who craved it, most notably Nick Faust and Pe'Shon Howard.
While that seemed to work for most of his sophomore year, when Maryland won 25 games, beat Duke twice and reached the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament, it unravelled last season with a 17-15 team that was both dysfunctional and hugely disappointing.
Asked to characterize his first two seasons at Maryland, in which he led the Terps in scoring each year and had more than a few memorable performances, Wells hedged.
"Incomplete," Wells said last week after a practice at Xfinity Center. "I'm a winner, and that's what I want to be remembered as — a winner. To do that, you have to be consistent. I feel personally that's something I need to work on."
Going into his senior season, which begins Friday against Wagner, Wells is clearly more comfortable in his role. He is surrounded by a group that appears to mesh with him better, a mix of talented freshmen who seem mature beyond their years and a more grounded group of upperclassmen willing to follow the 6-foot-5 guard into the Big Ten Conference.
"I've always felt I've been a leader, because that's how my mother raised me to be," Wells said. "It was always a natural thing for me to be a leader because of my personality and the influence I have over people. But it's easier to lead when you have people who want to be led."
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he has seen "tremendous growth" from Wells over the past two years, with the biggest spurt coming in the past few months.
"He's come a long way lately. He's really matured. He's been fun to coach," Turgeon said. "I think a lot of that has to do with that he's more at peace with everything going on in his life."
Just as Maryland is putting six decades in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the past, Wells is doing the same with the past three years.
The lawsuit he filed against Xavier and its president — after he was expelled from the school following a sexual assault claim that was ruled unworthy of prosecution — was settled out of court in the spring.
"I feel like I'm in a better space mentally," said Wells, who was an all-freshman selection at Xavier. "In the past, I was frustrated with other things going on, and now I can just focus on basketball. Nothing else plagues my mind at this point. Sad to say, time is running out [with my college career]. The sense of urgency is at an all-time high for me and our team."
The departure of five scholarship players who transferred in the spring coincided with the arrival of a top-10 freshman class led by McDonald's All-American point guard Melo Trimble, as well as another newcomer in senior transfer guard Richaud Pack.
Wells doesn't blame his former teammates for the team's regression last season. Despite being named third-team all-ACC, Wells accepts a great deal of responsibility for it too, knowing that he could have been a better teammate and, ultimately, a more effective leader.
His coach can empathize with what Wells went through.
"I don't like to talk about last year, but it was hard to lead for all of us," Turgeon said. "I do think he's a better leader. More positive things come out of his mouth. He's more of a teacher. He does have a group that looks up to him and respects him and wants to do all the right things."
Junior forward Jake Layman sees the same.
"His leadership has grown with the way he approaches me and with these new guys that are here now," said Layman, the only player other than Wells who remains from Turgeon's 2013-14 rotation. "He's done a great job of taking them in and showing them how to do things the right way."
LeVelle Moton, a family friend who has been the strongest male influence for Wells for much of his life, believes that Wells was put in a precarious situation when he first transferred to Maryland.
Initially Wells was going to sit out a year as a transfer, but he was granted a waiver by the NCAA to play immediately because of the circumstance which forced him to change schools.
"It was a difficult thing coming into a program and instantly becoming the best player, especially when you didn't know if you were going to play immediately," said Moton, the head coach at North Carolina Central. "It propelled him into a leadership role, and I know if it was my team, it would shake things up."
After spending time with Wells this summer back home in North Carolina, Moton senses that the 23-year-old player is ready to bring a sense of calm where there once seemed to be chaos on the court.
"He had to mature," Moten said. "He's an emotional kid, which is good, but you have to be able to tame that. People want to follow someone where they know what they're going to get. I think he really has his emotions in check. Hopefully he can learn from the mistakes that were made, the lack of leadership that was there before and just to get guys to buy in for the sole of one purpose."
Having talked for more than a year about leaving his legacy on a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2010, Wells seems poised to finally do it.
Not that he is thinking about having his jersey number — switched from 32 to 44 to honor a former Amateur Athletic Union teammate who died a few years ago in an automobile accident — hanging someday from the rafters.
"You worry about your legacy after you're gone," he said. "That's something I've learned. You can't get too far ahead of yourself. ... You can't really predict the future. You have to focus and stay with your team right now."
Wells knew that he had to change his game for Maryland to reach the NCAA tournament, so he spent the summer reshaping his body, refocusing his mind and refining his game.
With the help of Kyle Tarp, Maryland's director of basketball performance, Wells dropped nearly 20 pounds (from 224 to 205) and more than 10 percent of his body fat (from 18 to 7). He also worked on better controlling his breathing during games.
"I don't have to play in spurts," said Wells, who has been known to disappear for long stretches early in games, often due to foul trouble, and then dominate in the second half. "[I'm] watching film and being more locked in to when I should be aggressive and not just say I have to be aggressive at all times."
With the help of Chris Paul, who has become something of a mentor since Wells played on an AAU team in Winston-Salem, N.C., sponsored by the Los Angeles Clippers star, Wells hopes to be more under control as a player.
As for what he picked up from Paul and others he worked out with this summer, Wells said, "I feel like I have a lot more pace to my game. At times I still go a little bit faster than I need to. That's just me instinctively being aggressive. It's going to take time."
Turgeon points to the way Wells has played facilitator both in practice and the exhibition games.
"His decision-making continues to get better," Turgeon said. "I see things in practice where he plays with pace. He just doesn't put his head down and run over people. It's coming."
There is certainly part of Wells' game that is a constant. He is one of the most dynamic players in the country taking the ball to the basket, and he has become a high-volume free-throw shooter who finished last season making 46 of his last 51 from the line.
Wells has worked all summer with former teammate John Auslander, now a graduate assistant coach, on the mechanics of his jump shot as well as his range.
Wells knows that if he wants to take that next step and someday play in the NBA, he must also improve his defense and his ballhandling. If those pieces come together, Wells is considered a potential second-round pick next June.
The best way for Wells to get noticed by NBA scouts will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time since his freshman year.
"I'd rather play on a great team than average 23 points on a team that's not winning," he said. "There's no respect in this game for somebody that doesn't win but averages a lot of points. That's selfish, and that just shows a lack of leadership. I'd rather be on a winning team and be part of a winning culture."