After taking over as the leader in the frontcourt for Bruno Fernando, it is the mental part of the game that is still part of Smith’s learning curve in his college career.
“It’s a new role at this level for Jalen," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after practice Monday. “Last year, Bruno was that guy. He’s kind of been reluctant to get to that point. ... He has grown up, but is he willing to take the reins yet? I don’t know if he’s quite there yet, but every day in practice he gets a little bit better.”
Coming off another solid performance in Saturday’s 75-59 win over Indiana, Smith and the 12th-ranked Terps hope his ascension into full-blown stardom continues Tuesday when Maryland (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) hosts No. 11 Ohio State (11-3, 1-2) at Xfinity Center.
It wasn’t just the 19 points he scored or the eight rebounds he collected against the Hoosiers that were impressive, given that Smith came into the game as one of only three Big Ten players averaging a double double.
What some wanted to talk to Smith about afterward was the decisive wraparound dunk he made at the end of Maryland’s 35-8 second-half run. Considering Smith’s penchant for putting the ball on the floor and trying to beat his opponent with finesse rather than power, it was almost out of character.
“I haven’t dunked [in the game], so I decided, ‘Why not get this one real quick and get the crowd hyped up?' ” Smith said jokingly.
Asked if the decision when to dunk is still part of his growth process, Smith said: “It’s just a mindset. Coach Turgeon just tells me not to lay it up and try to dunk everything that goes [inside]. We’re been practicing that every time I get the ball, I try to dunk it.”
Aside from the ferocious dunks that became something of a trademark for Fernando, there’s not much to distinguish the season Smith is having to what the now Atlanta Hawks rookie did as a sophomore last year.
Smith’s numbers — 13.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game ― are comparable with Fernando’s stat line of 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. On the way to 22 double doubles, which led the Big Ten last season and were the second most in Maryland history, Fernando had seven in his first 14 games.
After getting five double doubles as a freshman — including in his debut, with 19 points and 13 rebounds against Delaware, and more impressively in his first NCAA tournament game, when he finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds in a 79-77 win over Belmont — Smith has eight, including four in the past six games.
“Pretty much it just comes with experience,” Smith said Friday. “Last year Coach Turgeon told me I was very inconsistent with my games and I could see that myself. This year I just tried to figure out a way to make myself more productive and just maintain that consistency.”
Said Turgeon: “It’s just a process for him. I think he really enjoys being a college kid and being here. He’s not in any hurry as the process goes, but he’s twice the player today than he was last year at this time.”
It is impressive, considering that Smith is taking the same number of shots he did as a freshman (8.9 a game), third behind senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. (12.1) and sophomore wing Aaron Wiggins (10.4). According to Kenpom.com, Smith’s offensive usage is up slightly from last season, but his percentage of the team’s shots is down slightly.
Because of his personality off the court — “He’s still a goofy kid. I can’t even look at him with a straight face,” said junior guard Darryl Morsell, who played with Smith at Mount Saint Joseph — the player who everyone still calls “Stix” needs to be reminded that the same approach won’t work when his goggles and the lights go on.
“Everybody always tells Jalen to be aggressive,” said Morsell, perhaps Maryland’s most aggressive player. “I’ve known Jalen my whole life, he has that in him. It just takes time and he’s got to have the opportunity to bring it out. … But he’s getting confident, and the more confident he gets, the more aggression and more enthusiasm he plays with.”
No more disappearing acts
Still, Smith’s transformation is becoming more evident. A year ago, if Smith started a game slowly, it was difficult for him to suddenly become engaged. In several games this season, Smith has seemingly grown more confident and demonstrative after halftime, as happened against the Hoosiers on Saturday.
After the Terps struggled again early with their offense, Smith hit a pair of back-to-back 3s to wake up his teammates and the crowd. Eventually Maryland went on an 11-0 run to erase an early deficit. Smith’s play carried into the second half when he hit three of four free throws on Maryland’s first two possessions to build a 28-20 halftime lead into double digits.
As the Terps eventually built their lead to as many as 30, Smith took over. He was fouled as he followed up a shot of Cowan’s that was blocked, flexing the biceps that are noticeably bigger this season. Smith then timed a running tip-in on a missed layup by sophomore guard Eric Ayala and punctuated the performance with the wraparound dunk.
“I think it’s the mental part,” Smith said. “Starting out, I only had one or two rebounds [actually three] in the first half and Coach Turgeon told me he needed me to be more of an inside presence for us to do good, so I just tried to grab every rebound after that and that just led to me playing defense, blocking shots and altering shots in the paint.”
Turgeon would like to see Smith become the force Fernando was on the defensive end.
“That’s what we need,” Turgeon said. "I don’t think he’s been quite the rim protector that I hope he would be, but there’s a lot on his plate. I’ve had multiple people say that to me, like ‘It’s good to see Jalen more aggressive.’ So, obviously he was. We want it to be a little more consistent and we want him to be a little more comfortable with being more aggressive and playing above the rim.”
In truth, the Terps need Smith to play that way nearly every night given the lack of experience — and depth — in Maryland’s frontcourt.
A year after Fernando was clearly a leader on a team that had five freshmen, Smith included, playing prominent roles, Smith has taken to helping Cowan and Morsell lead the Terps by showing this year’s freshmen what is expected.
With the recent departure of twin power forwards Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, Smith has been left mostly trying to guide 7-foot-2 freshman center Chol Marial, who has played in his first two college games the past two weeks after undergoing surgery in early September.
“Just showing our presence in the paint,” Smith said of Marial after Friday’s practice. “Allowing him to come along and just teach him the ways that Bruno taught me, showing him that the Big Ten is no joke and it’s time to buck up and actually play.”
As Marial continues to progress, it should make things noticeably easier for Smith.
“It’s going to help me out a lot, allow me to play a different position for a while,” Smith said of being used more as a stretch four, a power forward facing the basket and shooting from the perimeter. “Just being out on the wing, show versatility and just create offense for my team.”
This week will be a challenge for Smith, especially if the Terps go to the smaller lineup that has worked so well. It will mean that the 225-pound Smith will be forced to play some against Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson, a 6-9 junior who has trimmed down from 270 pounds to 255, as well as on Friday against Iowa’s Luka Garza, a 6-11, 260-pound junior who leads the Big Ten in scoring (22.5) and is second in rebounding (10.1).
“You’ve got to play every game like it’s going to be your last game,” Smith said. “I’m just going into the game focusing and playing the role Coach Turgeon wants me to play.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.