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Going into his sophomore year, Maryland’s Jalen Smith working on his game, his body and his mind

Bruno Fernando, left, comforts teammate Jalen Smith after LSU beat Maryland, 69-67, to oust the Terrapins from the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. "He feels like the last play was his fault," said sophomore guard Darryl Morsell of Smith. "He played his tail off."
Bruno Fernando, left, comforts teammate Jalen Smith after LSU beat Maryland, 69-67, to oust the Terrapins from the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. "He feels like the last play was his fault," said sophomore guard Darryl Morsell of Smith. "He played his tail off." (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

The image remains clear seven months later, if only for the sheer emotion of sadness and mental anguish Jalen Smith showed leaving the court after Maryland’s 69-67 defeat to LSU in the second round of last season’s NCAA tournament.

Smith, who would have been the hero had the Terps advanced to the Sweet 16, instead thought he had cost his team the game by allowing Tigers guard Tremont Waters to slither past the 6-10 freshman on his way to a game-winning scoop shot.

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With one of his massive forearms wrapped around the seemingly inconsolable Smith, Bruno Fernando helped his young teammate to the locker room. There, Smith shed more tears as reporters asked questions between sniffles and snippets of monosyllabic answers in which the former Mount Saint Joseph star blamed himself.

Comforting words from his other teammates, as well as from Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and members of his staff, helped Smith move on.

“The coaches told me that I played well and pretty much the reason we got there was because of how hard I was playing,” Smith recalled Thursday afternoon after practice. “I’m always going to think, ‘Oh, I could have blocked that shot’ but things come and go and I gave everything I had. I was happy with myself.”

Smith and his Maryland teammates — minus only Fernando, who is now an NBA rookie — are using the way last season ended as motivation for the 2019-20 season set to begin Tuesday night at home against Holy Cross. And Smith seems like a different person, not just physically, but emotionally as well.

“I would say I’m the same guy, but there were some things I had to tweak about myself like my maturity and pretty much my work ethic,” Smith said. “I just worked a lot harder and focused a lot more on basketball and school. Being able to take criticism, being able to understand that I’ve got to learn from my freshman year and move on from that.”

Lisa Smith sees a huge jump in her 19-year-old son’s maturity level from his freshman to sophomore year, even when he comes home to Baltimore for a visit.

“In how he interacts with his sister, who is 16, you can see the difference,” Smith’s mother said Wednesday. “He’s becoming a man. That’s definitely one of the things we’ve noticed. How much more mature he is. How much more assertive he is. He understands what he has to do. Nobody has to tell him or force him or nudge him. He knows what he needs to do and he’s taking it seriously.”

Smith’s first season at Maryland was certainly more than respectable — he averaged 11.7 points while shooting close to 50 percent from the field overall, to go along with 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots a game. It was good enough for him to be named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team.

A rollercoaster freshman year

But the talent he showed in a handful of games as a potentially dominant player also disappeared on more than a few other nights when Smith simply faded into the background. Asked to describe his freshman year, Smith said he had a “great season” and then quickly corrected himself.

"Not a great season, I had a good season, a lot of ups and down,” Smith said. “That comes with [being] a freshman. I was still learning. I did everything I could to help my team win and get to where we had to go.”

It took the NCAA tournament, where he averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocked shots in two games — including a career-high five blocks against LSU and hitting 8 of 9 shots in a 79-77 first-round win over Belmont — to show Smith what he wanted to do on the college level on a nightly basis.

“I think it just has to be a consistent effort, pretty much going out there and doing everything I can do during that 40-minute time period, and pretty much giving it my all no matter and not trying to back down,” he said.

Smith said playing in his first NCAA tournament factored into his performance.

“I think the idea of March Madness brought out something inside of me,” Smith said. “Knowing that I didn’t want to go home now. Just playing my game and good things happened.”

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Turgeon, whose team is ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press preseason poll, said recently that he hopes Smith uses his performance in the NCAA tournament as a launching pad for the 2019-20 season.

“It gave him a lot of confidence, he played at a high level, and he was consistent for both games,” Turgeon said. “I think one of the reasons Jalen struggled last year at times was going from a dominant 5-man [center] in high school to a perimeter defender in college. Bruno had the block [low post], he [Smith] didn’t have the block.

“Trying to become a better perimeter basketball player — even though he could shoot 3s already — and just all the things that come with that. Passing. Understanding. He wasn’t a great dribbler to be honest with you. It was just the work that he’s put in. … He’s just so much more comfortable and confident.”

A positive head game

Along with the time he has spent in the gym trying to improve his consistency and in the weight room to put mostly upper body muscle on his 225-pound frame, Smith — whose nickname is “Stix” — is now also working on his mind.

Since the spring, Smith has met regularly with Dr. Michelle Garvin, one of two full-time sports psychologists Maryland employs to work with its student-athletes.

“I was a little nervous about it because I didn’t know who the person was and this was my first time [working with a sports psychologist],” he said. “When I first got there, pretty much a lot of things opened up that I really didn’t know that I knew about. It started to help me cope.

"I have a lot of expectations on myself this year. It helps me take some of the pressure off myself and makes me realize that I’ve just got to play every game. There’s just a certain method just to keep myself happy no matter if I’m doing good or bad. Try to limit outside distractions.””

Lisa Smith said her son had spoken to her and her husband, Charles, about what he had been feeling during his freshman year.

“He had expressed the anxiety he was feeling,” she said. “We wanted him to focus on school and focus on basketball, but that’s easy for us because we’ve never experienced anything like he’s going through. We don’t understand it. He’s now been equipped with how to better deal with it.”

Garvin is prevented from speaking about Smith individually but in general what she does is geared to improving performance through visualization, goal setting and overall positive feedback.

“There’s a lot of different pressures that these athletes are under,” Garvin said Friday. “One of the things we worked toward with the athletes is helping them perform the best they can in whatever domain they’re in, how they can be fully focused on their sport when they’re in that moment.”

Smith, who is being mentioned in NBA mock drafts as everything from a lottery pick to going early in the second round, said he thinks he will be able to block out the criticism on social media as well as whether his stock takes a hit after a bad game or skyrockets after a good one more than he was able to last season.

“I’m actually doing a lot better than I did,” he said. “Probably at the beginning of my freshman year, it would all be in my mind, ‘I could go to the NBA’ [after this year], but during the season, it was like, ‘I may need more time here.’ I really just push it aside. I’m here right here so that’s the only thing I have to worry about it.

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“I know people criticizing my game is always going to happen. At the end of the day, I know that they don’t affect my future, I affect my future. The NBA’s always going to be at the back of my head. At the end of day, I’m here at Maryland right now; it’s what I can do here right now.”

One NBA executive said recently that because of his frame, Smith will likely have to be a stretch 4 — a power forward who is a reliable 3-point shooter — in the pros. Smith shot just 26.7 percent last season, but showed flashes of being a capable 3-pointer, including a big late 3 against LSU. After shooting well in preseason practice, Smith missed all three 3′s he attempted in Friday’s exhibition win over Fayetteville State.

“I told our guys that I think his ascent to success will be based on his ability to shoot,” the executive said after watching a recent Maryland practice. “In college, he’s going to be able to post [inside] and have a matchup because he’s bigger and quicker."

Smith said he hopes to become a more consistent player on the inside, where he was one of the Big Ten’s top offensive rebounders and scored on 56 percent of his 2-point attempts.

Asked where he thinks he has improved the most, Smith said, “I’d probably say [my] inside game. Since Bruno was here last year he would do all the [work] inside, I wouldn’t have to do the inside work. But now that he’s gone, I’m going to have a lot of that load on myself."

Turgeon believes Smith has made as big a jump on the defensive end.

“He’s gotten so much better defensively, he’s just been terrific defensively," Turgeon said Friday night after Smith blocked four shots, contested a few others and challenged shooters coming off ball screens. “Post-defense he’s still got some work.”

Whether Smith emerges as the team’s go-to guy will become apparent in the next few months. Smith understands that he doesn’t need to be dominant, just a more consistent and mature version of his freshman year.

Though Turgeon joked at Big Ten media day in Chicago that the extra 30 pounds Smith has put on since high school merits calling him “Logs” — which is quickly countered by Smith, who said Thursday, “I’m always going to be Stix" — Maryland fans should see a different player than last year when the season begins Tuesday.

“Really it was about February when he realized how hard you have to work to be successful,” Turgeon said. “There are so many things that we can get better at with Jalen between now and March. His disposition, his worth ethic, his confidence. He’s just totally a different kid, which is fun to see.”

Season opener

HOLY CROSS@MARYLAND

Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: BTN+ Radio: 105.7 FM

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