Despite five-star status, Jalen Smith begins college career under the radar at Maryland

The landscape of college basketball has changed dramatically since Joe Smith came to Maryland a quarter-century ago as a relatively unknown prospect and left after two seasons as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

The perception of the Maryland program has also changed since Diamond Stone became a Terp three years ago after a celebrated high school career and left after one season, winding up a second-round draft pick and not making a dent in the NBA.

Somewhere in between the immediate out-of-nowhere stardom of Smith and the rapid fall to oblivion by Stone are the expectations accompanying the arrival of another big man who Maryland fans are hoping will change the fortunes of their team.

Despite finishing his career at Mount Saint Joseph as the No. 10 overall player in the country and No. 3 power forward, according to ESPN, Jalen Smith is closer in terms of hype to Joe Smith than he is to Stone.

Put it this way: he didn’t get a single vote to be Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

“I do think he’s embraced the situation,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Tuesday at Media Day. “For a McDonald’s All American and a top-10 player, he’s very humble. … I don’t think it will be quiet for very long. Once he puts up his first double double, which could happen the first night we play, the national attention will come."

None of that seems to bother the 6-foot-10 forward, long known as “Stix”.

“I’m not really a big hype guy,” Smith said Tuesday. “I’d rather just be quiet and go under the radar and people not notice me, then they start noticing my play.”

Smith credits the way he was raised for his low-key personality.

“My parents suppressed that by keeping me humble and making sure I’m not all out on social media like all the other top players,” Smith said.

Turgeon jokes that Smith is “scared to death” of his mom.

“He doesn’t make mistakes, but if he does, ‘Don’t tell my mom’ always comes up,’ ” Turgeon said.

Said Smith: “She calls me every morning before class to make sure I’m in class. That’s a great feeling, but it’s scary as well.”

While Stone benefited by playing his only year with Robert Carter Jr., Turgeon believes Smith won’t have teams trying to manhandle the still skinny freshman because they’ll also have to contend with Bruno Fernando.

Although Fernando rarely played together with 7-foot-1 senior Michal Cekovsky while making the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team a year ago, it appears as if Turgeon will start Smith and Fernando together.

“Him and Bruno have really developed a nice little chemistry, and I think they’ll play well together,” Turgeon said.

Fernando, who showed more potential the second half of the Big Ten season after being limited by ankle problems early in his freshman year, said that Smith has already demonstrated that he is more than ready for the college game.

“I think he’s far ahead of where I was at that time,” Fernando said Tuesday. “For him, we had the opportunity to go to Italy [for a summer tour] and practice earlier, so it makes things a lot easier, which helps the whole team.”

Smith, whose nickname was derived from his long and lanky frame, has added around 20 pounds since coming on campus in June. It’s apparent in his shoulders more than in his chest.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to use it correctly,” said Smith, who is now listed at 215 pounds. “It’s not the same as playing as a slim big [man].”

Unlike Stone, who was the only freshman to play for the Terps during the 2015-16 season, Smith is part of what is the largest — and potentially best — freshman class Turgeon has had during his eight seasons at Maryland.

“It’s been great because all the freshman had a great connection even before we all committed here. We all talked a lot,” Smith said. “I talked to Aaron [Wiggins] and Eric [Ayala], and then Trace [Ramsey] and Ricky [Lindo Jr.] came in and it just made it even better.”

Longtime Mount Saint Joseph coach Pat Clatchey, who last year watched another of his former stars, Darryl Morsell, make the transition to Maryland, said this week that the lack of buzz surrounding Smith does not surprise him.

On top of that, it might be better for Smith in the long run.

“I think that hype can be a dangerous, negative thing because people start to believe it,” Clatchey said Monday. “The second thing that has to be deciphered is, ‘Where’s the hype coming from?’

“Jalen is a guy that’s gotten better and better every single year, and he's been able to do that because he’s focused on that and that’s important to him and that’s why he's steadily improved every year.”

Clatchey acknowledged that Smith is solidly on the NBA’s radar, possibly as soon as next year’s draft. Given what happened to Stone, especially toward the end of his freshman year, Maryland coaches need to shield Smith better than they might have Stone.

“It definitely can be a distraction,” Clatchey said. “I think it’s all how you handle it. I think he’s got a really good support system around him with his parents and the people at Maryland. It's the people outside the circle trying to make the noise. Those are the people you have to be aware of and leery of.”

Morsell said that the hype hasn’t changed Smith since they were coming up together in Baltimore and then played together for three years at Mount Saint Joseph.

“Stix is just a great kid. He never complains, you never see him argue, you never see him down,” Morsell said Tuesday. “He comes in willing to work every day. That makes him a pleasure to have around. He's always been that kid. He’s grown to become a better basketball player because of that but he still has the same mentality.”

Longtime Maryland fans remember the splash another under-the-radar skinny big man made 25 years ago. The addition of Joe Smith and highly-touted fellow freshman Keith Booth to a group of sophomores became the catalyst for two straight Sweet 16 teams.

Booth said it would be unfair to compare anyone with Joe Smith, who was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection as a freshman and National Player of the Year and ACC Player of the Year as a sophomore.

“That’s a lot. Don’t put that on the young man,” Booth said Monday about Jalen Smith. “That’s a lot of pressure.”

Still, Booth has watched Jalen Smith play since he was in the seventh grade and can understand the excitement among Maryland fans. When he met up with Smith this summer at a local basketball camp, Booth was impressed at how much bigger he already looked than he did in high school.

“He’s made tremendous strides of just getting better every year,” Booth said. “You can see his body developing, it’s obvious he’s shown he’s a kid who’s putting in the work. He grew two inches since the last time I saw him in high school. Potentially, the sky’s the limit.”

NOTES: Turgeon was asked at the end of his news conference about the allegations made last week by a government witness at the trial in New York looking into college basketball corruption that a Maryland booster asked the guardian of Silvio De Sousa for the $60,000 the guardian said the booster had given him after the player signed with Kansas. “Some of the things that came out last week, it was the first time I heard about it,” Turgeon said. “I'll just say we’ve cooperated fully with the FBI investigation. Let’s leave it at that.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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