After Jalen Smith's uneven start to freshman year, stoic 'Stix' beginning to roll for Maryland

Jalen Smith isn’t quite sure exactly how old he was, or who his Amateur Athletic Union team from the Banneker Community Center was playing. All the Maryland freshman can recall, quite vividly, was what his father told him when he talked trash after blocking an opponent’s shot.

“When I was younger, I used to taunt [an opponent] every time I scored,” Smith said after practice Thursday. “He came to me and he said, ‘Why you taunting? Just play like you did it before, like it’s nothing new.’ That’s how I’ve always been [since].”

That’s where the stoicism the 6-foot-10, 215-pound forward has demonstrated throughout his first college season started. Given that his off-court personality is nearly as reserved, it’s doubtful that Smith will suddenly turn into Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green.

Recently, the player who’s long been known as ‘Stix’ has been demoralizing opponents with his talent, not his taunts. He goes into Friday night’s matchup with No. 22 Indiana (12-3, 3-1 Big Ten) averaging a shade over 17 points and six rebounds in the past three games for the Terps (13-3, 4-1), all wins.

Included in that stretch was Smith scoring 15 points in a 74-72 victory over then-No. 24 Nebraska last week, with the game-winner coming on a floater in the lane with 3.8 seconds left that punctuated Smith scoring his team’s last seven points.

It was during the game against the Cornhuskers that Smith heeded another piece of advice — this time coming from Maryland coach Mark Turgeon — when he started slowly after missing his team’s win over Radford with a 24-hour virus.

“He took me out of the game and he said I’m too good to be taking a back seat to other players,” said Smith, who is averaging 13 points and 6.9 rebounds this season. “He told me to step up my game and it gave me all the confidence.”

Smith followed that up with a team-high 16-point outing in a 77-63 win at Rutgers last Saturday and a career-high 21-point performance in Tuesday's 82-67 victory at Minnesota. Smith hit 20 of 32 shots in the three games and is shooting 54.4 percent (74 of 136) for the season.

The process of taking over games — and living up to the reputation he built in becoming a McDonald’s All American as a senior last season at Mount Saint Joseph — is more a “mental process,” Smith said Thursday.

“Basically telling myself that I can do it and making sure I’m doing things to help my team as well,” he said.

Smith’s play was inconsistent over the first month of the season. He went from scoring a career-low one point in a foul-plagued 12-minute stint against Loyola Chicago at Royal Farms Arena on Dec. 8 to getting 20 points against Loyola Maryland three nights later.

It is not by accident that Maryland’s best stretch of the season — with four straight wins overall and three straight in the Big Ten — has coincided with the emergence of Smith as one of the best freshmen in the league.

“Since we came back from Christmas, we’ve tried to do some things to get him more involved,” Turgeon said Thursday. “We had to, and now he’s playing with more confidence because of it. … He’s really doing a lot of good things. It’s good to see.”

Asked if Smith’s low-key personality requires more prodding than other players, Turgeon smiled.

“I think early on he was taking a back seat a little bit, ” Turgeon said. “I think he’s beginning to realize how important he is. Now he was real aggressive the other night at Minnesota. … He’s just getting more comfortable. We all know how good he is. As long as he continues to make the right plays, that’s what’s important.”

Lisa Smith said that her son has always been a little difficult to read by those outside his family and close friends.

“As my husband will explain it and tell all the coaches, he’ll run through a brick wall,” Lisa Smith said last week. “He’ll do literally what you ask him to do. We don’t think he understands how good he is at this, and maybe as he matures, he will.”

The Smiths have prepared for this moment. Their pediatrician told them when their oldest child — they also have a daughter — was only 2 years old that he was going to be at least 6-9. Since Lisa Smith is 6 feet and has several relatives a lot taller, she wasn’t surprised.

As their son got older and grew more quickly than his friends — he was taller than his teacher by the time he “was 6 or 7” and was nearly 6 feet by the time he was 11 — the Smiths told him that it didn’t matter whether he played basketball.

“He was always expected to do well in school and be able to function like a normal human being,” Lisa Smith said. “Until he went to school, we thought he was a normal kid. He looked normal to us because we were taller.

“When he got around a lot of kids his age and he was much taller than them, it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, something’s wrong.’ My husband loves basketball, but he never pushed him into it. If he had been 6-10 and not played basketball, he would have been cool with it.”

The maturity process is not quite finished, nor is the parenting. Lisa Smith still calls his son nearly every day to make sure he gets out of bed to go to class. And she and her husband Charles point out others — most notably NBA star Kawhi Leonard — who have the same demeanor.

“He drives a beat-car, he lives a normal life, he does all these great things on the court and then he acts like a normal person,” Lisa Smith said of Leonard, now in his first season with the Toronto Raptors.

As for her son, she said: “It’s not an act, that’s who he is. Sometimes, you forget these are kids. I don’t know that he actually understands that he’s 18 years old and he’s a man now. It’s pure innocence.”

Smith came to Maryland with a lot more hype than Leonard, who played two years at San Diego State before being picked No. 15 overall by the San Antonio Spurs in 2011, leading the team to an NBA title three years later.

Though he was overshadowed by others coming into the college game — including Indiana freshman guard Romeo Langford — Smith is considered a likely first-round pick whenever he decides to turn pro.

How high he will go depends on when he declares.

Many NBA scouts believe that Smith, whose 20 added pounds since coming to college can mostly be seen in his shoulders and upper body and not yet in his skinny legs, will benefit from another year at Maryland.

Former Terps star and college basketball analyst Adrian Branch said Wednesday that Smith should pay attention to how teammate Bruno Fernando’s stock has jumped since returning for his sophomore year.

“I would love Jalen to take a page out of Bruno, and take another year, get stronger and get even more confident,” Branch said.

Smith said Thursday that he has noticed how Fernando has elevated both his game and NBA stock.

“I do consider what Bruno did. He came back and he got stronger, and he worked all of his game,” Smith said. “But right now I’m looking at him a little bit and just focusing on me and worrying about my game.”

Part of that is adjusting to the physicality of college basketball and proving he “can bang with anybody, no matter my size.”

Smith did that against Minnesota, as senior forward Jordan Murphy finished with just nine points and nine rebounds and was pushed into foul trouble. Smith thinks his best overall performance this season came in a win over Penn State.

In the Big Ten opener, Smith forced star forward Lamar Stevens onto the perimeter and into a 9-for-24 shooting night while getting 16 points and eight rebounds himself. He could spend some time Friday being matched against Indiana’s Juwan Morgan.

Asked about facing more experienced, stronger players nearly every game, Smith said: “There’s things I can do, there’s things they can do. ... Going into the season, I had that confidence. If I can bang with Bruno, I can bang with anybody.”

Branch compares Smith to two former NBA players, one whom Maryland fans adored during his two seasons in College Park.

“He’s like a Joe Smith body-type, but he hits that 15-footer like Horace Grant,” Branch said. “If you don’t feed him the ball, he still can impact the game, but he needs to have the ball. He’s got soft hands, he’s got a great temperament.”

Jalen Smith tries not to pay attention to all the chatter surrounding him possibly being a one-and-done. He is asked about it when he walks around the campus, and hears it from his friends back in Baltimore as well.

“I’m pretty much focusing on my game and developing myself any way I can,” he said. “If that times comes [to declare for the NBA draft], later down the road, that’s when I will make my decision. Right now I’m just focused on the college game.”

NOTES: Indiana freshman point guard Rob Phinisee, who suffered a concussion against Arkansas State on Dec. 19 and has not played since, has still not been cleared by doctors. The Hoosiers could also be without junior forward Deron Davis, who missed Sunday’s 74-63 loss at No. 2 Michigan with a sore ankle.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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