As Maryland forward Jalen Smith walked off the court at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., after Maryland’s 69-67 loss to LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament, a reporter who covered the Tigers had a question.
Watching Smith’s gut-wrenching reaction to the last-second defeat, tears falling nearly from the moment the buzzer sounded after Tremont Waters scored under the 6-foot-10 forward’s arms, the reporter assumed Smith had played his last college game.
“Is he a senior?” the reporter asked.
“No, he’s a freshman who thinks he just caused his team to lose the game,” he was told by a counterpart who covered the Terps.
That played out in the team’s dressing room long after the game.
Smith talked more about the free throws he missed than the 3-pointer he made to tie the game at 67, as well as the block he failed to make as opposed to the career-high five he recorded.
While Smith couldn’t give a definitive answer then about his plans on returning for his sophomore year or seriously exploring a one-and-done jump to the NBA, his words and body language seemed to indicate he would be back.
It became a reality Monday, when Smith announced he would return to College Park for his sophomore year to “advance my education as I continue to develop both on and off the court with my teammates and coaching staff,” he said.
Here are three takeaways from Smith’s decision to return:
1. As statistically solid a freshman year as he had, there are still some holes in Smith’s game.
An NBA scout said early in the season that if Smith averaged “11 and 6” — points and rebounds — he would likely be a one-and-done, and if not a lottery pick, he would go “between 20 and 30” in the June draft.
Smith averaged 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds, but there are still some questions about his game — mostly regarding his motor and the position he would play on the next level. As a result, some wondered whether he would have slipped to the second round.
The player everyone calls “Stix” is never going to be as emotional and high-energy as Bruno Fernando, whom many around Maryland expect to turn pro after being a first-team All-Big Ten selection and one of the most improved big men in the country this season.
In reality, even without flexing his biceps (which got noticeably bigger over the course of the season) or personally pumping up the crowd (which still seems unlikely), Smith has a chance to be even better as a sophomore than Fernando was this past season.
Smith should use his performance in the NCAA tournament, first against Belmont and then against LSU, when he averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in the two games, as a launching pad for his sophomore year.
If he shoots more consistently from 3-point range, where he shot 26.8 percent, he will get to that point average without much trouble. Given that he will likely put on a few more pounds during the offseason, his rebounding numbers should go up as well.
2. Not going to the NBA draft combine could wind up helping Smith.
While the final image of Smith’s freshman year was not reacting decisively enough on the drive by LSU’s Waters — to Smith’s defense, he stopped when the Tigers guard picked up his dribble and then continued — what he did before that raised his NBA stock more than a little.
Playing against fellow freshman Naz Reid, as well as other tall and athletic Tigers, Smith was clearly the most talented big man on the court, including his own teammate Fernando. Reid, by the way, just declared for the NBA draft.
Going to Chicago would have certainly helped Smith get an idea of what NBA scouts and front-office types want him to work on next season. Just as Fernando did, he could have used that information as a blueprint of things to work on as a sophomore.
But if Smith had not shot, tested or played well at the combine, it might have been a setback, as it was for former Maryland star Melo Trimble the two times he went through the process.
Two other former Terps big men had a similar fate along with Trimble after the 2015-16 season.
As well as Robert Carter Jr. played in Chicago after his redshirt junior year, the combine exposed more of his weaknesses and it led to him going undrafted. The same could be said for Diamond Stone, who slipped into the second round.
Another year will also give the 19-year-old Smith, who might be the most introverted player on the Maryland roster, a chance to become a little more comfortable talking with those outside his inner circle as he will have to do at the combine.
3. Exactly how Terps coach Mark Turgeon will use Smith next season is still to be determined.
Assuming Fernando leaves after his sophomore year, Turgeon will have to decide whether he is going again with two big men and three perimeter players or using Smith as a small-ball center surrounded by a bunch of shooters and slashers.
Given the current options at center — rising sophomore Ricky Lindo Jr., who could be called “Stix Too,” or incoming freshman Makhi Mitchell — Turgeon would have to lean toward Smith as his lone big, at least until Big Ten play begins.
A lot also has to do with how NBA scouts envision Smith at the next level.
For now, many see him as stretch four — a power forward who is a weapon from 3-point range.
Despite having trouble for much of the year finding consistent outside shooting, Smith’s mechanics appear pretty sound. Seeing that last 3 go in against LSU after missing his first five that day should help his confidence.
Unless Turgeon finds a graduate transfer who can be both a rim protector and a high-volume rebounder — and the pickings seem slim now that Bucknell’s Nate Sestina committed to Kentucky — look for the Terps to be more of a 3-point shooting team.