COLLEGE PARK — Jamel Artis thinks back to his well-traveled high school career and knows he could have easily ended up playing for Maryland. After leaving Dunbar High before his junior year, Artis was one of the first recruits a newly hired Mark Turgeon brought into his office at Xfinity Center.
Turgeon and his staff hesitated on making an offer to Artis, partly because of an uncertain academic record — he eventually reclassified and spent an extra year at Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts. Artis landed at Pittsburgh, and played in two victories over the Terps as a freshman.
Then Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten.
When Artis saw that the Panthers would be coming to College Park for their ACC-Big Ten Challenge game against Maryland on Tuesday, the 6-foot-7, 215-pound senior couldn't have been happier. It will mean that nearly two dozen relatives and friends from Baltimore — including former Pitt teammate Durand Johnson — will be at the game.
The one person whom Artis would love to be there is his fraternal twin brother, Jamaal Artis, who has spent much of the past seven years in jail after being arrested in Baltimore in October 2009 for attempted carjacking. He served five years and then shortly after his release was arrested on a new armed robbery charge as well as for violating terms of his probation.
Jamaal Artis is currently serving a 12-year sentence and is incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
"All through my high school career, he was in and out of jail," Jamel Artis said. "I'm doing this for him and for me."
According to their father, Kevin Artis Sr., Jamaal could have been in a similar position as his slightly older twin. Though several inches shorter, Jamaal was a promising football player who his father said had offers to play at Calvert Hall and Mount St. Joseph.
Instead, he went to Lake Clifton, like his father, who ran track there in the mid-1970s.
"I kept him involved in sports, but I couldn't follow him around 24 hours [a day]" said the elder Artis, a U.S. postal carrier in Baltimore.
Jamel admits that he hung around with some of the same friends as his brother when they were in middle and high school.
"I also hung around people I shouldn't have hung around with, but I knew right from wrong," he said Monday. "He hung around them much more than me, and of course that will catch up with you in the long run."
The two are still close, and Jamel sends his brother money whenever he can. Jamaal has tried to follow the Panthers on television.
"He's watched a couple of games, and he's told me, 'Shoot the ball more,'" Jamel said with a laugh. "We just have our conversations about basketball, life, period."
COLLEGE PARK —
Jamel wears a tattoo honoring his late mother, Pamela Artis, who was estranged from the family since he and his brother were toddler. Their father said that that his ex-wife drifted away because of substance abuse problems that might have contributed to her death last year.
Kevin Artis helped coach his son's AAU team, the Baltimore Stars, and aside from being a proud father is also one of his harshest critics.
"I don't think he's even touched his full potential because of his work ethic," Kevin Artis said. "He hasn't tapped into his potential because natural ability has taken him where he wants to go. If he went to the NBA, he'd compete, because he'd do the work that other people around him are doing, but he doesn't have the fortitude to do the work himself."
The younger Artis is trying to transform himself into a college — and potentially pro — point guard. After the graduation of four-year starter James Robinson, new coach Kevin Stallings wasn't sure who was going to play point when he took over after longtime coach Jamie Dixon left for Southern Methodist.
At the team's media day in late September, Artis pronounced himself the new starting point guard.
He was only half-kidding.
"To put me at point guard was the best idea for this team because of size, leadership and having the five best guys on the floor at the same time," he said Monday. "Point guard is not a hard thing for me. I could always dribble, make shots and create for others. I would say it's natural for me to play the point guard position."
Said Stallings, "I think as I looked at it, we didn't have a clear-cut guy for the position. We either had freshmen or guys that didn't have a lot of experience. I think the decision for me just came down — here's the guy that's the best passer on our team and he can handle the ball well. He's very versatile in terms of his ability."
Six games into the season, Artis seems to be accurate in his assessment. He is averaging a career-high 19.3 points, to go along with 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
After averaging 2.4 turnovers per game a year ago at small forward, Artis is down to 1.7 so far this year. In back-to-back victories over Marquette and Yale, he didn't commit a single turnover in a combined 64 minutes.
"The biggest challenge for me is taking care of the ball and making the right decisions instead of the home run pass and things like that," he said. "You definitely need to a balance, you just have to find the time to be aggressive. On my team, Coach wants me to shoot the ball. Probably second half [of games] I'm aggressive. I need to do that from the tip. I think he wants me to do that from the tip, more than just a pass [first]."
Along with senior forward Michael Young, who is averaging team-highs of 23.3 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 58 percent from field, Artis is the biggest reason why the Panthers are playing better than many expected from a team picked to finish near the bottom of the ACC.
"He's done a really nice job defensively and offensively; he's just a very gifted player," Stallings said. "He scores it pretty easily. He can score on the block, he can score pulling up, he can shoot it from 3. He's taken real good care of the ball. We're just trying to put him in as many positions as we can to take advantage of all that he brings to his team."