The two Mount Saint Joseph High School teammates left the court arm in arm with tears in their eyes.
It was early March 2017. Darryl Morsell, a senior guard, had just played his last basketball game for the Gaels. He had his arm around junior forward Jalen Smith as they watched Gonzaga College High School (Washington, D.C.) hoist the 2017 Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament championship trophy — the trophy they were supposed to win.
“Winning that tournament was a goal, not just for them, but for our program,” Mount Saint Joseph head coach Pat Clatchey said. “Coming up short was a frustrating and disappointing time for them.”
The Gaels had lost just three games all season behind Morsell and Smith’s stellar play, winning both the Baltimore Catholic League and the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference title. But despite holding a lead entering the fourth quarter against Gonzaga, they collapsed late and fell, 82-70.
“It was a tough moment for us. We’d grinded the whole year. We won everything in Baltimore,” Morsell said. “We went to Alhambra with a chip on our shoulder to prove everybody wrong.”
It was the last time Morsell and Smith — best friends since they met during Smith’s freshman year at Mount Saint Joseph two years before — would share the court in high school.
At the moment, neither was thinking about his future.
“Darryl went back to the locker room and I followed him and we just cried the whole time,” said Smith, then a highly-rated five-star forward, who would have one more season with the Gaels.
Morsell, a consensus four-star combo guard, had committed to Maryland in November 2016, the first Baltimore-based player to do so under head coach Mark Turgeon and the first Mount Saint Joseph player since Dino Gregory (2007-2011) to play for the Terps.
“After the game, we knew that was our only chance, our last go-round,” Morsell said. “Little did I know we would be right back together.”
“This Is My Family Right Here”
Smith can recall when he and Morsell first bonded off the basketball court.
It was early in Smith’s freshman year at Mount Saint Joseph. Clatchey took his team to an overnight team camp in Richmond, Va. During the down hours, Smith and Morsell stayed up late into the night cracking jokes and playing music.
It was in those moments that Smith thought, “This is my family right here.”
Morsell, though roughly six inches shorter, is the big brother, giving the younger Smith someone to talk to about anything.
“That’s kind of the person I’ve always been. I’ve always tried to take younger players under my wing and just try to help them out,” Morsell said. “Even before [Smith] got to Mount Saint Joe’s, I was checking on him to make sure he was good. And then when he came there, our bond grew closer.”
Morsell says that’s just how he was brought up. His parents, Duane and Carolyn, raised him to care for others and to look out for the people he cares about.
Tragedy brought Morsell’s family closer together. When Morsell was 8, his older brother, Terrell, collapsed on a basketball court and never regained consciousness. He died at a local hospital about two weeks later.
Morsell doesn’t often speak of that time but said it is part of the reason his family is so tight-knit. His parents come to every game, home and away. His father has done that since Morsell’s AAU days, even flying to a high school tournament in Hawaii.
“Through all that stuff we kind of leaned on each other a lot and we got closer,” Morsell said.
Smith’s family has a similar makeup. His parents, Charles and Orletha, played a major role in his college recruitment process. The distance didn’t matter as much as Turgeon being the best coach for him, Smith said.
His mother preached the importance of academics in addition to basketball. He said he gets his seriousness from her. The jokes come from his father.
“It means a lot,” Smith said of the impact his parents have on him. “It shows that my family raised me right.”
“They come from the same background, two hard-working parents,” former Team Melo recruiting coordinator Dwayne Wise said of Morsell and Smith. Morsell played AAU ball for Baltimore-based Team Melo, and Wise is a veteran of the Baltimore hoops scene. “Both of those kids, they play with a chip and they play with a fire that you can’t teach these days. A lot of these kids don’t have that extra gear.”
Duane Morsell said it took time for his son and Smith to forge a close friendship, through grueling practices, long road trips and close games.
“They’re tight now,” he said. “They’ve been through a whole lot of stuff together.”
Now, more than five years after they bonded in that Richmond hotel room, Morsell describes his relationship with Smith as “crazy,” the type of sibling relationship that would have them arguing on a walk home from class and playing Fortnite with each other an hour later.
“He’s there for me regardless,” Morsell said.
“We Don’t Need You. We Good”
Smith committed to play at Maryland in June 2017, three months after the Gonzaga loss and well before the early signing period in November.
He flirted with a few other top programs, including an official visit to Villanova, but Maryland was always his top choice. He was from Baltimore. His father was a huge Len Bias fan. And of course, Morsell was there.
Smith dominated his senior season at Mount Saint Joseph, averaging 23 points, 12.5 rebounds and three blocks per game, and was named the Baltimore Catholic League Player of the Year for the second year in a row. As a freshman at Maryland, Morsell made an immediate impact, playing in all 32 games and leading the team in offensive rebounding.
They weren’t playing together anymore, but he and Smith, also known as Stix due to his lanky 6-foot-10 frame, kept in constant contact the entire year, Morsell said.
“He’s pretty much my big brother. I always know that if I have problems I can go to him and he will uplift me and I will uplift him,” Smith said.
Smith would text Morsell endlessly, peppering his former high school teammate with questions about life as a college freshman. What’s the university like? Are classes difficult? How is the college game different than high school?
Morsell, who never misses an opportunity to crack jokes, would text Smith after Terps wins.
“I would text him, like, ‘We don’t need you. We good,'” Morsell said with a laugh.
“That would pull me to come here even more because it would annoy him,” Smith of the goading texts.
Smith arrived at Maryland as the jewel of Turgeon’s top-10-rated 2018 recruiting class. He was the No. 16 player nationally in his class and No. 1 in the state, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.
Smith and Morsell started 31 of 33 games together last season. Both were just glad to be back on the court together and to see each other every day again.
“Our bond got a lot closer,” Smith said.
Morsell became the team’s lockdown defender, while Smith had an up-and-down season — at times proving why he was given a five-star rating from some recruiting sites and at others showing inconsistencies. He finished the year on a high note, leading the Terps in scoring in both of their NCAA Tournament games and earning a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team.
All-In On Morsell
During the first five years of Turgeon’s tenure at Maryland, the number of Baltimore-based players on his rosters could be counted on one hand: Nick Faust and Sean Mosley — both recruited by Gary Williams — and Jonathan Graham, a Penn State transfer. That’s it.
Turgeon was effective at recruiting players from the region more broadly — such as Melo Trimble (Upper Marlboro, Md.) and Anthony Cowan Jr. (Bowie, Md.) — but he seemed to fall short when it came to getting players from Maryland’s most populous city.
“I always felt like we could get a kid out of Baltimore. It was just really putting the effort in and targeting someone,” Turgeon said.
In March 2017, Turgeon was in the crowd for the ACIT championship game at Frostburg State University. His son, Will, was on the victorious Gonzaga team, but he was also there to watch Morsell, his first true Baltimore recruit, whom he had signed five months prior.
“Darryl was the first one we went all-in on,” Turgeon said.
Smith, whom Turgeon had been targeting since Smith was in eighth grade, would come next.
“Stix was a highly-rated kid coming out of high school. He had them all coming after him and to pick Maryland was huge for us,” Turgeon said.
Wise, the former recruiting coordinator for Team Melo, called Morsell and Smith’s commitments to Maryland “monumental.”
“Even though Stix played with [D.C.-based AAU program] Team Takeover, we still wanted to see him and Darryl both representing the Baltimore area,” Wise said.
Morsell and Smith recalled Turgeon, a Kansas native, telling them about his own decision to stay home and play for the University of Kansas in the mid-1980s.
Turgeon’s story resonated with them, they said. He told them about a massive, rabid fan base — with many supporters who appreciate a local kid staying close to home — cheering for players for four years and loving them for the rest of their lives after they graduate.
“It hit me in my heart,” Morsell said. “He talked about all the greats. Keith Booth, Juan Dixon decided to stay home and have a great career here. He just wanted me to start his pipeline of having Baltimore and local kids. Hopefully, we could get more Baltimore kids to come through down the line.”
Thankfully for Turgeon, Smith’s decision was made a little easier because of his friendship with Morsell.
“No question about that,” Duane Morsell said.
“I’m From Baltimore”
In early November 2016, Smith was one of the dozens of friends, family, students and current and former coaches who packed into a room at Mount Saint Joseph for a news conference, during which Morsell surprised some by choosing to sign with Maryland over Notre Dame.
“I’m from Baltimore. Growing up watching Maryland, I always had a feel for them because they’re the hometown school,” Morsell said during the event.
Morsell comes from a rich tradition of basketball talent, Clatchey said. It was his versatility that made him attractive to college coaches.
“Maryland is high-level. … Not every kid is going to be able to play at that level,” he said. “He’s a high-level athlete who can defend multiple positions. He can rebound. He can handle the ball. He can pass. And he came from a winning background in high school.”
When Smith announced his commitment to the Terps a year later, it couldn’t have been more different. He simply tweeted that he had committed.
Smith said everyone has a news conference or posts a video to announce their commitment, but “I don’t want to be like everybody else.”
“That’s definitely Stix,” Morsell said. “He’s not into the glitz and glam and all the bright lights and stuff. He’s just someone who wants to work and get better.”
Though Smith avoids the limelight, Clatchey and Turgeon both said they saw Smith’s potential at an early age.
“I think he’s always been an outstanding young man,” Clatchey said. “And from a basketball standpoint … to witness and watch it and be a part of it to where he is now has been an impressive journey and a pleasure to watch.”
When the 2019-20 season begins, Morsell and Smith will once again be the focal point of a team with high expectations. It’s like high school all over again, Turgeon said, but this time Morsell and Smith are surrounded by talented, high-major players.
“At Mount Saint Joe, Darryl and Stix were clearly the best players on their team,” he said. “Their roles were significant. Here their roles are significant, but they have really good players around them.
“We do need Darryl and Stix to be great for us to be great like Coach Clatchey did. But if they aren’t having a good night, we can still win because of our talent around them.”
Turgeon credited Morsell with maturing a great deal throughout the past year. With Cowan as the lone senior leader, Morsell is relishing the opportunity to be more vocal.
“He’s always had leadership qualities, but he’s not been one to overstep his bounds,” Duane Morsell said. “He waits his turn to be the leader.”
Darryl Morsell calls himself an observer, watching how certain teammates respond to feedback. Some can handle “hollering,” as Morsell calls it, while others respond better to a quiet word in private.
Smith, for example, doesn’t respond to yelling.
“You can pull Stix to the side and motivate him,” Morsell said. “But Anthony [Cowan], you can get in his face and he’ll respond.”
Smith has seen Morsell grow as a leader, too. At times he can be the goofiest person in the room, but when it’s time to get serious, “he’s all about the business,” Smith said.
“He always pushes everybody to be better,” Smith said. “He focuses on what he has to improve, but he will always hound you on what you need to improve.”
This is the next step in Morsell and Smith’s relationship. From adolescent pals staying up late on road trips to wildly successful high school players, they’re now grown men, Smith said, taking advantage of their deep connection as they attempt to return Maryland basketball to prominence.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 258: October 2019