COLLEGE PARK — Long before Chol Marial became his teammate at Maryland, Eric Ayala was just another competitor trying to figure out how to contain the 7-foot-2 center from South Sudan. Ayala was also an admirer, having never seen a player that tall who was that skilled for his age.
It happened first when Marial was a 17-year-old sophomore at Cheshire Academy three years ago and Ayala was a grade ahead and playing for another Connecticut prep school. It happened again a year later, when they were on different teams at the IMG Academy in Florida and often practicing against each other or playing pickup.
Asked to recall the player he first saw, Ayala said before Marial’s debut Sunday against Bryant: “I’m going to leave that up to y’all to see. It’s indescribable. You can imagine a 7-footer being mobile, being able to block shots. Being able to step out a little bit [to shoot]. Just having that whole paint his."
Though the level of talent increased during their time together at IMG, Ayala smiled at the memory of what it was like to go up against a player with an 8-foot wingspan.
“The little time he played there, it was impressive,” Ayala said. “He had fun blocking shots. That’s what he does. He gets a little mojo from it.”
During the team’s media day in October, Marial joked that he has “been tall since I was a baby” and said of his ability as a shot blocker, “I was born with it.”
Having dropped from as high as No. 3 in the country last month and out of the top 10 after back-to-back defeats at then-unranked (now No. 21) Penn State and Seton Hall, the No. 15 Terps got some much-needed mojo from Marial in Sunday’s 84-70 win over Bryant.
Marial wound up playing 14 minutes, finishing with six points, five rebounds, an assist and one blocked shot. It was similar to what he has shown since he started practicing a little over two weeks ago — flashes of his potential mixed in with evidence of his prolonged stretches off the court.
"His timing is not here yet,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Saturday. “Two weeks ago, guys were trying to score on him in practice and they’re not being able to do that quite as much now. He’ll have one or two blocks at practice and you’re like, ‘Whoa, he’s coming.' I don’t want everybody to be like, ‘He’s 100%, this is where he was when he was 16.' He’s not that kid yet. But he’s healthy.”
A long road back
The game Sunday was the latest step in a six-year odyssey that began when Marial was a much-celebrated eighth-grader playing on a high school team in Orlando, Florida. He became one of the top three prospects for his class two years later before recurring shin splints nearly derailed his promising career.
“It took a toll on him,” Zy Owens, who became Marial’s guardian when he moved to Arizona two years ago, said in a telephone interview last week. “He was very discouraged, very frustrated to the point that we would cry. He didn’t know he would ever be healthy again.”
Said Marial: “It was really hard for me seeing all the people that were playing that I used to play [against], and I’m not playing. I want to, but I can’t because it hurt too much. It just made me sad. I just ask myself, ‘What did I do wrong? What happened to me?’”
Owens said he learned a lot about the teenager’s background and emotional makeup during their daily 30-minute drives to and from AZ Compass Prep, the Gilbert, Arizona, charter school that his mother, Ronda, founded and where the 39-year-old Owens serves as the director of operations. It is where Marial spent much of the past two years, playing in just “seven or eight games” last winter, according to one of the team’s coaches.
Owens learned how Marial was one of 16 siblings and that his father, a 7-footer himself who everyone back home calls “King Beny," had once killed a lion with his bare hands. But most of their discussions centered around Marial’s adjustment to living in the U.S. and his growing anxiety about his inability to further his burgeoning basketball career.
“We just talked and built a relationship, I’m more like his big brother,” said Owens, whose two young children consider Marial their big brother as well. “We built an honest friendship when he was in his rough times. I was always there for him, assuring him that he was going to be good, that he was going to go through this process and I’d always be with him, I’d never leave him.”
Said Marial: “I’m grateful to Zy. He helped me, his mother helped me. It is just God’s plan that I have two people on my side.”
Eventually, Owens sensed how motivated Marial had become after he dropped from a consensus five-star prospect rated as high as No. 2 in the country by 247 Sports to No. 129 when he signed with Maryland in May.
“He knew that he was better than a lot of people who were making McDonald’s All-Americans, guys that are being offered by these big-time colleges,” Owens said. “He still to this day he believes he is better than all of them.”
Sitting outside the training room at Xfinity Center after Saturday’s practice, Marial can picture the player he was before the injuries kept him off the court. It was a player who grew up watching not only NBA stars such as Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, but countrymen such as Bol Bol, whose father, Manute, was “like our hero” to young players from their once war-ravaged country.
“I feel like I still can [become a top player]. That’s my goal now that I’m back and healthy,” Marial said. “If I’m not there now I’m going to try to work on it every day.“
Said Ayala: “He’s unique, how mobile and put together he is to be that big. Now he’s getting his strength back in his legs. He’s moving at a different pace now. It’s impressive to see the things he can do.”
Marial credits his coaches at Maryland as well as teammates, in particular sophomore forward Jalen Smith, for helping him raise his game every day in practice.
“They really want to work hard, they push me, they support me,” Marial said. “They’re like, ‘You’re doing good, man.’ They’re optimistic and that helps me a lot.”
It has helped Marial recover not only a part of his game, but his personality as well. Since coming to Maryland, a constant smile has returned to his face. When he was introduced to a few reporters at his first postgame interview Sunday, Marial’s face lit up.
“Hello,” he said with a big smile.
Anthony Cowan Jr., who is Marial’s roommate, said the freshman’s demeanor surprised him at first.
“When you have surgeries on your legs, you would think the person is down all the time, you don’t want to be around him, but he was just the opposite,” Cowan said Sunday.
Marial is aware that some still doubt whether he will ever fully return to the level he once played at, whether it’s because of the rust that has accumulated the past three years or because he might just be satisfied having finally earned a college scholarship.
“I don’t really blame them, because they didn’t see me play for two years like I used to,” Marial said. “I’m just going to prove them wrong trying to do what I can.”
Shaun Wiseman, who coached Marial as an eighth-grader on a state high school championship team in Orlando in 2014, remains skeptical about how much of an impact Marial will make for the Terps.
Though he hasn’t seen Marial on a regular basis since he left to play in Connecticut early in his freshman year, Wiseman has coached several players from South Sudan who went on to play Division I. He sees Marial taking a similar path.
“All of them have panned out, but none of them have been the X-factor,” Wiseman said last week. “They’re all good players and good people, but if you’re talking about being the difference maker at their school? No. I wouldn’t say he’s going to be the savior. If you’re going to [think] that, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”
Wiseman wasn’t surprised that Marial was being pursued by a number of Power 5 schools, most seriously Maryland and Arizona State, even though he had not played much at all or against high-level competition for three years.
“Somebody was going to take a chance on him. ... He can run like a gazelle, he can catch and dunk and be a rim protector,” Wiseman said.
Making his mark
Former Maryland assistant Kevin Broadus, who helped recruit Marial and is now in his first season as coach at Morgan State, thinks Marial can become a beloved player at Maryland if he stays in school long enough.
“He’s going to leave his mark on the program before he leaves, he’s that good,” Broadus said in an interview last week. “He’s that good a player, and he’s a better person.”
Then an assistant at Georgetown, Broadus first saw Marial play as a sophomore at the Cheshire Academy.
“No doubt about it, he was the next coming,” Broadus said. “He was the No. 1 [big man] in the country. He did everything. He was at least 7-feet and dominant at both ends. … Back then, he had all these people leading and guiding him, these handlers. I was just trying to build a relationship with the kid.”
It would serve Broadus well when he got the Terps involved in Marial’s recruiting last winter. Broadus had brought up Marial’s name to Turgeon after the Terps lost 6-10, 250-pound center Schnider Herard, who left to play professionally overseas in the summer of 2018 before the Mississippi State transfer had even played a game at Maryland.
Along with signing Ricky Lindo Jr., Broadus quietly pursued Marial.
At first, Turgeon was skeptical.
“The day I brought his name up, Coach said, ‘[assistant coach] Bino [Ranson] and I looked at him, we tried to recruit him,’” Broadus recalled. “I don’t know how far they said they got, and then I remembered saying, ‘Coach, we would have a shot at him.’ And he said he thought he would go to the blue bloods. We’d go back and forth on it, and then I got out to see the kid and I took Coach out there, and he said, ‘Wow this kid is really good.' He could shoot, because he didn’t do much work when he was hurt. Coach said, ‘I didn’t realize he could shoot like that.'”
According to Owens, Marial impressed Turgeon with his range, in one stretch hitting 10 straight 3-pointers.
According to Marial, Turgeon’s presence in the gym at AZ Compass Prep impressed him.
“When he came to Arizona, that’s when I really felt comfortable,” Marial said on media day.
His official visit in the early spring sealed the deal and Turgeon signed him in early May, knowing that he wanted Marial to undergo surgery before ever stepping on the court. It took some convincing for Marial and his parents, who live in South Sudan, to agree.
Broadus finally called Owens and told him, “If he really wants to play college or pro basketball, he has to do it.”
Said Marial: “I was kind of nervous, but when I think about my future, I cannot play hurt every year."
Owens said that he and Marial had discussed getting the surgery as far back as two years ago.
“We really felt comfortable with Mark and the medical staff at Maryland to help us make the decision,” said Owens, who along with his mother flew East to be with Marial before the surgery. “I think it’s one of the best decisions we could have made. I wish he could have done it earlier, but that’s not how it works.”
Even before he was cleared to practice in late November, Marial had displayed some of the skills that made him one of the most promising big men in the country. In one-on-one sessions with Maryland assistant Matt Brady after the team finished its regular practices, Marial’s soft touch and soft hands were on display.
Broadus doesn’t think Marial’s college career will be a one-season cameo. Broadus believes that he will stay in College Park longer than Diamond Stone, who turned pro after his freshman year in 2015-16. Once considered a potential lottery pick when he was in high school, Stone was the 40th overall pick by the New Orleans Pelicans and was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, for whom he played a total of seven games.
A little more than a month shy of his 23rd birthday, Stone is now considered to be an NBA G League journeyman.
A little more than a month after turning 20, Marial has seemingly been reborn.
“The kid’s very smart, and the people around him are smart, they’re not looking at him as a meal ticket,” Broadus said of Marial. “They’re looking at him like, ‘He can leave a legacy wherever he goes.’ He’s got a lot to learn, not just about basketball but about life.
"I’d be very surprised if he left after this year, even if he has a great second half. … The more time he spends at Maryland, the more he will get acclimated to the game of basketball. He’s been away for awhile. He needs time there. As much as they need him, he needs them as well.”