Maryland freshman guard Serrel Smith Jr. talks or texts with his mother and older sister before and after almost every game. Their conversations differ, but Smith listens to what they have to say.
“I get on him about his energy and effort all the time,” Tamika Coley, Smith’s mother, said Monday. “And she talks more about his shot selection.”
Smith respects their opinions, and for good reason.
Before becoming a respected high school, Amateur Athletic Union and now junior college coach in her hometown of St. Petersburg, Fla., Coley was the best player in the history of the women’s program at Central Florida.
More than two decades after leading the Knights to their first NCAA tournament as a junior in 1994-95, Coley remains the school’s all-time scorer with 2,006 points and leader in rebounds with 1,211.
His older sister, Kamika Idon, played at Florida International (2011-12 to 2014-15), where their cousin, Jerica Coley, was the nation’s leading scorer as a junior in 2013 and later played briefly in the WNBA.
Asked what it like to learn the game from his mother, Smith said after practice Monday, “It was different. A lot of people didn’t really learn everything they know of basketball from their mom. I just took everything that she gave me, all the advice, all the workouts. That’s [why I’m] where I’m at today.”
The 6-foot-4 shooting guard is at Maryland in large part because Andy Kennedy resigned in February midway through his 12th season at Mississippi, where Smith had committed early in his senior year at St, Petersburg High.
Smith, the No. 13-ranked combo guard by 247Sports who as a senior scored a career-high 42 points against No. 4-ranked Oak Hill — a year after putting up 39 points against the perennial national power — signed with Maryland in April.
“We were under the impression that Kevin [Huerter] would be there,” Tamika Coley said of the Atlanta Hawks rookie. “He knew he was coming to a program that was guard-heavy, but he wanted to be in a place where he would grow and develop around other strong guards.”
Though Smith got off to a shaky start shooting the ball — missing 12 of his first 15 field-goal attempts, including 11 of his first 12 3-point tries (he’s now 11-for-38 on 3s) — Smith is beginning to show signs that he could become a valuable two-way backup for the Terps this season.
Going into Tuesday night’s game at Minnesota, Smith is coming off his most productive — and longest — stint in college. In Saturday’s 77-63 win at Rutgers, Smith played a season-high 21 minutes and finished with 11 points, including seven straight during a 33-6 run that helped Maryland open a 40-19 halftime lead.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, which we love,” junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said after the Rutgers game. “Hitting a lot of shots, which we need him to do. He’s also being a pest on defense.”
Smith finished his own mini-run at Rutgers by making a steal and going in for a monster one-handed dunk. After missing a similar attempt in last week’s home win over then-No. 24 Nebraska, Smith was fouled hard by the Scarlet Knights and made both free throws. He finished the game shooting 3-for-5 from the field and 4-for-4 from the foul line. He also had two steals.
A little over a month after looking more than a little overwhelmed during his first Big Ten road game at Purdue — attempting two field goals and missing both, and committing two turnovers in 10 minutes of a 62-60 loss to the Boilermakers — Smith appears to be settling into his role.
When a reporter told Smith on Monday that he looked nervous at Mackey Arena in the Dec. 6 game, Smith said: “I wouldn’t say nervous. It was the road game, had a different environment to it. Now there’s a lot more trust from Coach [Mark] Turgeon in me. When my number’s called, I go on the court and do what I have to do.”
Acknowledging Monday that he thought of redshirting Smith when he first signed, Turgeon said: “You’ve got to give all the credit to him. He’s locked in, with the scouting reports, with everything we do in practice defensively. He really wants to please defensively.
“And then offensively, he’s really learned to trust his teammates. We all know he can score. He hadn’t shot the ball [well] in league [play] until the other day. Every now and then he gravitates to chasing the ball a little bit [to get a shot]. From June until now, no one has improved as much on our team as Serrel has.”
Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) was on the floor during Smith’s burst in Piscataway — “he was out there having a blast,” Morsell said with a grin — and wasn’t surprised by Smith’s productivity.
“Serrel’s a competitor. He competes every day in practice. I see it here,” Morsell said Monday after practice. “Not just toughness, I say Serrel brings kind of like a swagger to this team. When he comes in, we know he can get going at any second. He’s just a confident individual. Every shot he puts up he thinks is going to go in. Everybody he’s guarding he has confidence he can guard."
Asked whether his first-half burst against the Scarlet Knights was the most comfortable he has felt since coming to Maryland, Smith said Monday: “Just really playing my game. Trying to lock in defensively, try to get as many stops as I can. And [the offense] started coming to me."
The defensive component has been the most important addition to his game. What helped him prepare was trying to guard both Cowan and fellow freshman guard Eric Ayala in summer pickup games and preseason practices.
“It’s a big challenge trying to guard Anthony and Eric,” Smith said Monday. “I know there’s a lot of players in the Big Ten that are just like Anthony and Eric.”
It’s then that he hears his mother’s voice in his head, telling him to use his length and quickness to stay in front of whoever he’s guarding. Smith also hears her voice on the offensive end.
As she watched Saturday’s game on television from her Florida home, Coley saw that her son was heeding her words. He sandwiched the four free throws around his only made 3-pointer of the game.
“I say to him, ‘Do easy shots first, go to the basket, get a free throw,’ ” Coley said. “ ‘Once you get a free throw and see the ball go in, from there you’re so much more confident.’ ”
It is inevitable that Smith will talk or text with his mother, and probably his older sister six years his senior and now working as an accountant before — and after — Tuesday’s game.
“I think that’s a lot of the conversations we’ve had about him understanding [his game], I think sometimes he wants to put himself in the category as a shooter, really I think he’s a scorer,” Coley said. “We talk about working on his midrange [game].
“I think a lot of it is just getting comfortable with your environment, being clear what your expectations are with your coaches and teammates. Once you define that and wrap your head around that, you relax and go with the way the game is going.”