Darryl Morsell has always kept an eye on Jalen Smith.
Toward the end of his news conference at Mount Saint Joseph two years ago to announce his signing at Maryland to play basketball, Morsell was asked if he was going to start recruiting his tall and talented teammate in the back of the room to play for the Terps.
Gesturing toward Smith, Morsell said with a smile: “Stix [Smith’s nickname] already knows. He’s next.”
Toward the end of their first college season together, Morsell and Smith remain as close as they were back in Baltimore and nearly as important to their team’s success at Maryland as they were in high school.
“Pretty much, coming into college, it’s a process of learning new people,” Smith said. “But Darryl just brought me in with a crowd of people he hangs around with, and I got used to that. It allowed me to branch out with other people.”
Asked what it has been like to help Smith in his transition to college, Morsell said: “It’s been great. I knew when he came in, everyone knew he would make an impact on the basketball court because of his talent and his skill set and everything he brings to the table, but he’s also made an impact off the court.
“He’s a great kid to be around. He’s outgoing. He’s got a great personality. When he came here, it was like an automatic click, because he has the personality to match with anybody. Once he got here and found his comfort [zone], it just clicked.”
Going into this year’s Big Ten tournament, which begins Wednesday in Chicago, Morsell has settled into his role as Maryland’s defensive stopper. Smith, like most freshmen coming in with the expectations of a McDonald’s All American, is still trying to find a balance between deferring, disappearing and dominating.
“I’m proud of Jalen,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Monday on a Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “A lot of expectations coming in. Had to play a little bit out of position. He was kind of a little bit of a center in high school … He was always the biggest guy on the floor.
“Having to play with Bruno [Fernando] was a big adjustment. Having to guard guards [on ball screens] was a big adjustment. Getting used to playing the way we play was an adjustment. I think he kept adapting to it … Hopefully the game he had the other night is going to give him confidence.”
In Maryland’s last regular-season game Friday, a 69-60 win over Minnesota at home, Smith had one of his best games of the season, getting his fourth double double and second in the Big Ten with 19 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. He was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Week on Monday.
Asked how Smith can find consistency at both ends of the court, Turgeon said Friday: “It’s up to him. He’s got to be aggressive, he’s got to play with toughness, which he did tonight. He’s got to act like he’s one of the best players on the floor, which did tonight. It’s all there. We need him. He knows it.”
So does Morsell.
Playing together in high school and coming here, we’ve built on that bond. Whenever I do something wrong, I know he’s going to be on me for it.
Terps freshman Jalen Smith on teammate Darryl Morsell
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Ever since he arrived at Maryland along with Fernando last season, Morsell has brought an aggressive style and some much-needed toughness to the Terps defensively. But the fearlessness has also led to being careless with the ball, something Morsell said that he and Turgeon talked about in recent weeks.
Along with scoring 10 points against the Gophers and holding Minnesota’s leading scorer, Amir Coffey, to just six points in the first half as the Terps took control of a game they would lead by as many as 22, Morsell also had three assists and no turnovers.
It gave him seven assists and no turnovers in the past two games.
“He’s making better decisions in the lane, it’s great,” Turgeon said Friday. “He made a 3 today, which is great. He’s not taking bad shots. He gets it. Darryl started to work harder the last six weeks and it shows in his game.”
“Last year was difficult because I was out of position and people were getting injured, stuff like that,” said Morsell, referring to him playing power forward when Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender suffered season-ending injuries. “Throughout this year, I’ve seen what I’ve had to do to help the team win and what I’m doing now, I’ve clearly accepted that because all I want to do is win.”
Their on-court roles might still be evolving for the Terps, but off the court their personalities have stayed the same.
“I would say that me and Darryl are the complete opposites,” Smith said. “Even though I can be outgoing when I’m around people [he knows], he's more open with his emotions. I can keep them to myself.”
Smith’s low-key personality that includes postgame quotes that are typically more nibbles than usable sound bites has been more a blessing than a curse, since it allows him to move on after games when he is barely a factor, as well as when he is the team’s star.
“I would say if I was more emotional it would be harder, because I would take things seriously to heart,” Smith said. “You’re going to have a bad game, you’re going to have losses, you’re going to have wins. It’s just basically how you compose yourself, act like you did it before.”
In trying to help Smith navigate his first college season, Morsell said that he is playing the kind of role guard Anthony Cowan Jr. took on last season when he was a sophomore and trying to guide both Morsell and Fernando.
“I had Anthony to lean on, because Anthony had been through it,” Morsell said. “He has me to lean on because I went through it last year. We all know it’s going to happen. We know it’s going to happen as a freshman in college, no matter how good you are.
“You’re going to come to a point where you hit this road block. It’s all about just staying confident, staying in the gym, stuff like that and just overcoming it. When I hit mine, I got down on myself but Anthony was there to pick me up.”
Morsell’s support of Smith was no more evident than when ESPN analyst Dan Dakich was critical of what he viewed as a lack of intensity by the freshman, especially when compared with Fernando, perhaps the most emotional Maryland player since Greivis Vásquez.
Statistically, Smith is having just as good — and promising — a year as Fernando did as a freshman. Smith is averaging more points (11.5 per game to 10.3) and rebounds (6.7 to 6.5) and has nearly as many blocks (34) as Fernando did (37).
Despite being named Monday to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team, as Fernando was a year ago, there are some who think Smith hasn’t accomplished as much as many thought he might, given his stature coming out of high school.
“Coming into college, I pretty much knew I was going to have a big target on my back because I was one of the top recruits,” said Smith, who was ranked the No. 16 overall prospect by 247 Sports.
“People might have expected to score like 30 points a night, but that’s just not me. I play within a team system. If I have 10 points one game, if I have two points, I try to figure out something else. I’m doing whatever I can do to help my team win.”
This is where Morsell has played a big role in helping his longtime friend and teammate.
Smith said that it goes back to where they grew up. He and Morsell now represent the first pair of former Baltimore stars teaming up for Maryland since Keith Booth and Rodney Elliott did back in the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons.
“We always had a great bond,” Smith said. “Playing together in high school and coming here, we’ve built on that bond. Whenever I do something wrong, I know he’s going to be on me for it. If I'm ever down, he’s going to have my back and it’s the same way for me when he’s in that position.”
What happened during their three years playing together at Mount Saint Joseph is not that much different than this season. They started winning together when Morsell was a sophomore and Smith a freshman, culminating with a three-championship sweep in Morsell’s senior year.
“Me learning how to win with our high school coach, Pat Clatchey, it’s something we value,” Morsell said. ”We brought that kind of tradition and that mindset here to Maryland.”
Before each home game, Morsell and Smith have heard their names introduced with one major similarity — the words “from Baltimore, Maryland”. Morsell admits that he hadn’t given them much thought until mentioned last week by a reporter.
“It’s just great to be able to come out of that city and play for the hometown university, and to be able to start and have success, that’s just great,” Morsell said. “And to be able to do it with a kid like Jalen, that’s great, too.”