Former Maryland center Jalen Smith, who recently declared for the 2020 NBA Draft, says he was “highly confident” his team would make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, but he’s now focused on staying in the best shape possible while awaiting clarity about this year’s draft.
Maryland finished the season 24-7 overall and 14-6 in the Big Ten, but didn’t play a postseason game due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Terps lost three of their final five games, but beat Michigan, 83-70, at Xfinity Center to close out the regular season. Senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said the win showed that “everyone was starting to get their groove back,” and Smith agrees.
“I was highly confident in us,” Smith said on Glenn Clark Radio April 30. “We were just coming to a breakthrough at the end of the season. We saw things started to click for us, but everything came to an abrupt end. It was kind of heartbreaking, but I was highly confident in us making a huge run in the NCAA Tournament.”
The Big Ten tournament was canceled March 12, the day the Terps were set to get on a flight to Indianapolis for their first game. The NCAA Tournament was canceled later that day. And just like that, the best Maryland season since 2009-10 was over, as were the college careers of Cowan and Smith.
Smith said he came to grips with the truncated season about a week later and was thankful they had an opportunity to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship on senior day for Cowan and walk-ons Will Clark and Travis Valmon. It also marked head coach Mark Turgeon’s first conference title (regular season or tournament) at Maryland.
“It was surreal, just knowing that we got Coach Turgeon’s first conference championship and Maryland its first [Big Ten] championship,” Smith said. “And then we had the seniors go out with a win. They’re always going to remember their last game, being on their home court and cutting nets. That’s a memory that can’t be erased.”
Smith declared for the draft in April. A consensus five-star prospect out of Mount Saint Joseph, he took his game to a new level as a sophomore at Maryland. The 6-foot-10, 225-pound Smith averaged 15.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game for the season, breaking out during conference play.
Maryland put together a nine-game winning streak from Jan. 18 to Feb. 18 behind the play of Smith, who posted a double-double in each of those contests. He had some particularly memorable efforts during that stretch, including 25 points and 11 rebounds at Northwestern, 29 and 11 at Indiana, 18 and 14 against Iowa and 22 and 19 against Northwestern.
Smith is considered a late-first or early-second-round prospect. Jeremy Woo of SI.com pegged Smith to go 34th in his most recent mock draft.
“Coming into the season I wasn’t really thinking much of it,” Smith said. “It was just the thought of getting better and improving, and then toward the end of the season you started to hear talks. My name started getting thrown around a lot. Then just knowing that the epidemic was going on — the tournaments started getting canceled – I started to realize, ‘Hey, maybe this was actually my last game here.’ That was a surreal moment.”
The NBA Draft is scheduled for June 25, but it’s unclear when that event will actually take place. The NBA is looking into restarting its season sometime this summer, which would presumably push back the offseason calendar and alter the pre-draft process.
But as for now, Smith is focusing on staying in shape.
“It’s tough not knowing the date [of the draft], but it doesn’t really affect me working out,” Smith said. “Ever since the season ended — I’d say I gave myself like three days off and got right to work and just started to work out. So I’ve been working out ever since — on court, lifting, working with a nutritionist and just continuing to keep my body intact for when everything starts to pop up.”
Smith is not only looking to join former Terps like Bruno Fernando, Kevin Huerter and Jake Layman in the NBA, he’s also aiming to be the next Baltimore-born basketball star to make it to the league. Active NBA players from Charm City include Reggie Bullock (New York Knicks), Will Barton (Denver Nuggets), Rudy Gay (San Antonio Spurs) and Damion Lee (Golden State Warriors).
Smith was one of three Baltimore products on the Terps along with Clark and high school teammate Darryl Morsell, who was another one of the team’s key contributors. Morsell averaged 8.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and was Maryland’s top perimeter defender. Morsell hit the game-winning 3-pointer against Minnesota Feb. 26.
Smith couldn’t help but give his good friend, a career 27.3 percent 3-point shooter, a hard time about the shot.
“I was actually going for the rebound because I thought he was going to miss because, I mean, we all know Darryl’s not one of the top 3-point shooters in the world,” Smith said. “But that game he just clutched up for us. We always talk about him making big plays for us, and I was just happy for him, knowing how hard he played and helped us get back into that game.”
Smith also touched on several other topics:
On fans’ criticism of Mark Turgeon:
“It’s frustrating. Of course social media’s going to have its own [opinion] about our coach, and it’s frustrating knowing that we can’t really say nothing to defend him or back him up because it affects us and our team. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been coached by. He’s always there for you. He takes a lot of heat for us even though we’re the ones that did it wrong and he’s just the coach. He’s just that protector for us. He’s always been that guy that we can go to anytime we had a problem. He was more than just an on-court coach. He was an off-court coach as well, just helping us with life. … People kind of forget to realize that Coach Turgeon is human, too. They want him to be perfect, not knowing that everyone’s going to have their flaws no matter what. But you have to be able to stick with us through all the good and the bad.”
On his favorite moment as a Terp aside from the obvious ones:
“I’d probably say it was the Oakland game [in November 2019]. That wasn’t one of my best games, but at the end of the game all the walk-ons got on – Will [Clark], Reese [Mona], Travis [Valmon] — and they all scored. If you replay every moment of that game when I was on the bench toward the end, you can see me just jumping around, pushing referees and just jumping in front of cameras and just going crazy for them.”
On if he knew what it meant to Baltimore hoops fans to see him succeed, especially at Maryland:
“You kind of get that sense. Starting in high school, people start to recognize you a lot more and then start to put Baltimore by your name. And then once you go to the state college, especially with Darryl [Morsell], we know that we had a lot of Baltimore support. Pretty much everyone from Baltimore was wishing us good luck and wishing the best for our team. Just knowing that we had that link and connection with Baltimore, it was amazing.”
On how far Morsell has come as a player throughout the years:
“Darryl has tremendous work ethic. I remember the last time I was in College Park, every time I’d be working out late at night, he’d be at the other end working out. And just seeing him putting up shots and making moves and stuff like that, it just shows how much he cares about basketball and how much it meant to him. Just knowing that I got to play with him for more than four years and have that bond with him, he’s my big brother, pretty much. It’s just amazing to see how far he came and how far we came together.”
For more from Smith, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox