Terps Trio: Alex Len at No. 1, 2014 hoops class, Andrew Gray and Ohio recruiting

Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus and editor Matt Bracken weigh in on the three biggest topics of the past week in Maryland sports.

Is Alex Len better off not being the top pick in the 2013 draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers and instead going a few spots down to Charlotte, Phoenix or New Orleans?


Don Markus: Being the No. 1 overall pick certainly carries a status that follows a player through an NBA career and could ultimately carry a stigma if things don't go well.  Consider the last former Terp star who left after his sophomore year as the top selection.

Joe Smith was the reigning national player of the year in 1994-95. He was considered by NBA scouts a great all-around college player. The only knocks against the 6-10 Smith were his lack of bulk and the fact that he scored most of his points around the basket.


Many figured he would put on weight and develop a mid-range jump shot once he reached the pros. The player known in college as "The Beast" put on a little weight, but never played at more than 225 pounds. He got more comfortable facing the basket, but was never considered a great outside shooter.

Though his career with the Golden State Warriors started well – he was on the All-Rookie team and averaged better than 15 points in each of his first three seasons, including a career-high 18 points in his second year – Smith was never more than a second or third option.

Eventually, Smith became a journeyman in a long but fairly unspectacular 16-year career in which he averaged a shade under 11 points.

Always considered a good teammate -- he was a favorite of Kevin Garnett in Minnesota and LeBron James in Cleveland -- he played on 12 teams before retiring with the Los Angeles Lakers two years ago.

While not thought to be the biggest bust of No. 1 picks, Smith has been mentioned (a bit unfairly, I think) on many short lists, along with LaRue Martin, Kwame Brown and Joe Barry Carroll. While Smith could have used his last two years to develop his body and his face-up game, there's no thought that his career would have rivaled Tim Duncan, who played in Smith's shadow in the Atlantic Coast Conference during their first two years in college.

But Smith was clearly more NBA-ready than Len is or just about any of the other big men in this year's draft. Knowing the albatross that Smith carried through much of his NBA career, I think he would have been viewed differently had he not been the No. 1 overall pick.

Most fans, including many who follow the Terps, thought I was crazy to even mention earlier this week that the Cavaliers were considering Len for the top pick. One of them called me a "moron" and I'm not even doing the picking.

I know how important it is for Maryland coach Mark Turgeon to tell recruits he helped develop the No. 1 pick in the draft, and I know that Len would work hard to live up to the expectations that come with being the top selection. But given the options, I think it might be easier for Len – at least until he gets stronger and a little more comfortable in the post-up game – to go a little lower in the draft.


Before talk surfaced recently of Len potentially supplanting former Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, I thought it would be great for Len to be taken by the New Orleans Pelicans at No. 6 playing alongside Anthony Davis and former Terp star Greivis Vasquez, or even dropping to the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 12, and learning in practice against the likes of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.

It now appears that the lowest Len could go is No. 4 to the Bobcats, who recently hired former Knicks star Patrick Ewing as their associate head coach. There would be little pressure there for Len, given how bad the team has been and how much pressure is on majority owner Michael Jordan. But given Jordan's history of bad draft picks – Brown comes immediately to mind – Len would have to prove he is not just another one added to a list.

I still think there's a possibility that the Cavaliers could trade the pick, but if they don't and wind up drafting Len, here's hoping that King James is on his way back to Cleveland after leading the Miami Heat to another championship next season. That alone could be the difference between Len having a great start to his NBA career or becoming another Joe Smith.

With the commitment earlier this week from Jared Nickens, how will Mark Turgeon finish recruiting for the incoming class of 2014?

Don Markus: I think it's apparent that the Terps are done recruiting guards and wing players, meaning that local star Phil Booth Jr. (Mount St. Joseph) is the odd man out unless one of the other prospects decommits or someone on the current roster leaves before the summer is over.

Turgeon believes that a 2014 class led by highly rated guards Dion Wiley and Melo Trimble – and bolstered by Nickens – puts the Terps in good stead heading into the Big Ten. It will give the Terps plenty of shooters and add to what Turgeon has in place already.


But Maryland needs to add size.

Trayvon Reed, a 7-1 center from Snellville, Ga., said at last weekend's NBPA Top 100 camp that the Terps are on a list that also includes Georgia, Georgia Tech, Miami and Florida State. Reed mentioned the fact that Len becoming a lottery pick in two years playing under Turgeon helps Maryland's case.

Given the way Turgeon wants to play, getting a big man with some athleticism is also going to be part of the recruiting profile. Maryland has offered Top 20 prospect Goodluck Okonoboh, but will face stiff competition from Indiana, Syracuse and Duke.

Also on the list are power forward Chinanu Onuaku, who plays at Riverdale Baptist and plays on the same AAU team as Trimble and power forward Martin Geben, who plays at St. Maria Goretti in Hagerstown. Geben is from Lithuania and Len's development after coming from the Ukraine won't hurt Maryland's chances.

I was a little surprised by Maryland's interest in getting a commitment from Nickens so early, considering that his other schools were Oregon State, Wake Forest and Dayton. But Turgeon and his staff believe that like Jake Layman did two years ago, Nickens' stock will go up during the summer between his junior and senior years.

Considering the way Turgeon and his assistants have recruited since getting to College Park, I'd be shocked if they didn't get one of the big men they are targeting. With the expected development of rising sophomores Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell, as well as incoming freshman Damonte Dodd, the Terps should have a pretty good rotation inside once they hit the more rugged Big Ten.


Maryland landed a commitment last weekend from Ohio tight end Andrew Gray. What can be expected from him, and does his pledge signal a shift to the Midwest for the Terps?

Matt Bracken: The offer sheet for Andrew Gray -- Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo and Louisville -- doesn't really stand out. Nor do his rankings -- a two- or three-star prospect -- from the four major recruiting services. But's Bill Greene, who has evaluated Ohio prospects for 12 years, has a simple explanation for the uninspiring ratings for Maryland's newest commitment.

"It's hard to rank him high for what we do. I've never seen him catch the football," Greene said Thursday. "If he had 60 catches for 800 yards, it would be different. I like him a lot. He probably could play defensive end in a 4-3 set, but i think he'll be a tight end at the next level. He will definitely be an asset in the blocking game, for sure. He's got that part down, for sure. You're not going to have to worry about teaching him how to block or play a physical type of football. Those things are a given. If there's a question mark, it's pass catching because they just don't do that. ... He's a pure football player."

Gray's Chardon High squad, Greene said, is "just a real physical, nasty, hard-nosed Ohio football team. It's old-school football, not spread, not pretty. They look to beat people up -- that's the way his kid plays. He fits the personality of what Chardon wants to do. They run the ball every play, every single play."

Listed at 6-4, 215 pounds, Gray doesn't appear to be one of those high school tight ends that is slated for a move to offensive tackle in college. Greene believes Gray is a college tight end all the way, and he doesn't expect the future Terp to have major issues developing into more of a pass catcher.

"He's just a great football player," Greene said. "He's big and he's fast and he's tough. And he's very athletic. He's just an old-school football player, that's the way I would describe him. He plays hard every single play. You have to see Chardon play to really appreciate it. He's the best player on one of the most physical teams you'll ever see. He plays football the way football is meant to be played. I love the kid."


Gray could be the first of many Midwest prospects Maryland lands as it transitions to the Big Ten in 2014. Ohio State typically has its pick of players in the state, while Michigan and Notre Dame also routinely land significant prospects there, Greene said. More recently, Kentucky has ventured north of its border into Cincinnati, Cleveland and Toledo to land eight Ohio players for 2014.

But with between 150-175 Division I prospects from the Buckeye state every year, Greene believes other BCS-conference schools would be wise to adopt Kentucky's strategy. Could Maryland be one of those programs?

"Absolutely," Greene said. "It makes a lot of sense to me. This may signal a shift to come this way to recruit. It can be done. I think Maryland will have a very good reception. I would think Ohio kids will look at Maryland as a desireable place."