There were games Jalen Smith played as a freshman at Maryland — including the last two of the 2018-19 season — when he looked as if he could be a one-and-done, ready to make the leap to the NBA this year.
There were other stretches when the former McDonald’s All American from Mount Saint Joseph got pushed around inside, his longstanding nickname of “Stix” an accurate description of his skinny 6-foot-10, 215-pound frame.
Looking to become the kind of player he was during the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament on a more consistent basis, and potentially help his NBA draft stock rise significantly, Smith announced Monday that he will return for his sophomore year.
"I'm excited to return to Maryland ... and advance my education as I continue to develop both on and off the court with my teammates and coaching staff," Smith said in a statement released by the athletic department. "This past season was an amazing experience and I can't wait to see what the future has in store for our team.”
"I am proud of Jalen's decision to remain in school and develop his game while continuing his education,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said in a statement. “Jalen did so many great things for our program this season and his potential was on full display in the NCAA Tournament. He has the opportunity to take his game to another level as he works with our strength and coaching staff this offseason.”
Smith’s return clears up some of the uncertainty surrounding Maryland’s frontcourt for next season. Sophomore center Bruno Fernando. who is expected to forgo his final two seasons of college eligibility and put his name in the 2019 NBA draft, has yet to announce his plans.
He doesn’t have to rush to be an adult. For us, he’s still a kid. And he also liked the college experience.— Lisa Smith, Jalen Smith's mother
There were several reasons Smith, who averaged 11.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks a game as a freshman, chose to come back for at least another year. Not all of them had to do with basketball.
“When he got to school last year, even though he has all of this hype because he’s a McDonald’s All American and all the rankings, one of the things that got lost is that he liked school,” his mother, Lisa Smith, said Monday.
“He was a really smart kid who happened to play basketball. And he happened to be 6-10. And he happened to be pretty good. The thing is that he was still only 18 years old [when he got to Maryland]. He doesn’t have to rush to be an adult. For us, he’s still a kid. And he also liked the college experience.”
Smith didn’t turn 19 until March 16, five days before he finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds in a 79-77 win for the sixth-seeded Terps over No. 11 seed Belmont in the NCAA East Region first round in Jacksonville, Fla. Two days later, he scored 15 points with eight rebounds and a career-high five blocks in a 69-67 loss to third-seed LSU.
Even though he hit a corner 3-pointer to tie the game with 28 seconds left, Smith blamed himself for not blocking a game-winning scoop layup by Tigers guard Tremont Waters with a little over a second remaining that ended Maryland’s 23-11 season.
“After going to the tournament and everything, it kind of homed in to, next year he wanted to come back and experience this again and go further along,” Lisa Smith said. “He benefited from being so young. If he was older, he probably wouldn’t have had a choice.”
Lisa Smith acknowledged Monday that had her son played most of the season as he did in the two tournament games, he would have likely been projected too high a pick this year to pass up a chance at turning pro.
“We got lucky,” she said.
Lisa Smith said the feedback she and her husband, Charles, had received from NBA scouts is that her son “would have been drafted” had he had made himself available. Many expected Smith to go to the NBA combine in Chicago next month, as Fernando and then-sophomore Kevin Huerter did a year ago.
“All the feedback we got, he was wanted,” Lisa Smith said about her son.
Fernando returned after hearing from most scouts that he needed another year in college; Huerter opted to leave after several teams expressed interest in taking him in the first round. He was eventually picked 19th overall by the Atlanta Hawks and has started most of his rookie season.
Lisa Smith said that her son “knows all the things that he needs to work on.”
One NBA general manager, who requested anonymity, said that Smith’s decision to come back without even going to the combine “shows a lot of maturity on the kid’s part.”
Longtime Mount Saint Joseph coach Pat Clatchey said Monday that he wasn’t surprised by Smith’s decision.
“I think it’s a good decision,” Clatchey said. “I think he’s proven that he’s an NBA talent that’s definitely draft-worthy. But I think playing a year in college and being so young, another year in college gives him a chance to get stronger, get better, maybe have more of a demanding role as a player with a good supporting cast.”
If Fernando leaves, Smith would likely become one of the focal points of a team that returns seven of the eight players in Turgeon’s rotation. The Terps have also signed three players in the 2019 recruiting class and are still looking to add a couple of more before summer workouts begin in June.
Smith’s decision comes nearly three years after Diamond Stone announced he was leaving after a freshman season when he put up similar numbers (12.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game) on a team that reached the Sweet 16.
Projected to be a lottery pick before his college career even began, Stone wound up being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers on draft night after being picked No. 40 overall by the New Orleans Pelicans. He played in seven games and averaged less than four minutes a game as a rookie. Stone has spent most of his professional career in the G League.
Clatchey said Smith’s decision was made with his education — and long-term NBA future — in mind.
“He exemplifies the term student-athlete,” Clatchey said. “He’s a very good student, the education part is important to him and is important to his parents. We’ve read stories about guys who jumped to the NBA too soon and they just got kind of lost in the process. I don’t think that will happen with him.”
Said Lisa Smith: “You have to value your education because you have the opportunity to get it. He was already a smart kid. The whole point is to go and have this unbelievable opportunity to play and earn money to do something you love to do and to be pretty prepared for the adult life before you get there.”