With his team trailing 53-51 with less than a minute to play, Rutgers guard Caleb McConnell had an open path to the rim. McConnell took one dribble, gathered the ball and jumped off of foot one, as if he were going to attempt a game-tying lay-up. But McConnell didn’t shoot.
Jalen Smith emerged from under the rim and stepped forward, preparing to block the shot. McConnell altered his plans in the air and fired a pass to the corner. The pass was off the mark and rolled out of bounds, propelling Maryland to victory.
McConnel was clearly intimidated by the presence of Smith, and why wouldn’t he be? After all, the 6’10” forward had just registered his career-high sixth block a possession before.
“After the Iowa game, coach told us we have to get back to our defensive principles and the way we play defensively,” said Smith. “Pretty much every time I saw a shot go up I tried to block it or alter it. It just led to the six blocks.”
Smith, or “Stix” as he is often referred to, has blocked 11 shots in his past two games and is third in the Big Ten at 2.5 per game. But the question remains; how did the scrawny power forward transcend into one of the league’s best shot blockers?
It started with a position change. Last season, Smith played the four next to Bruno Fernando. The latter departed for the NBA and Smith slid up to the five. Head coach Mark Turgeon said he’s gained 35 pounds since his arrival on campus, which has given Smith the ability to guard centers.
“The whole team has trust in him,” said junior Darryl Morsell, who was high school teammates with Smith. “We leaving him on the block one-on-one and he’s holding his own with everybody in the Big Ten right now.”
While Smith’s rise on the defensive end may come as a surprise to some, those who know him well saw it coming. Senior Anthony Cowan witnessed it in pick-up games this summer. Well before those pick-up games, Smith was a prolific defensive center at Mount Saint Joseph high school in Baltimore.
“Shot blocking has always been there, The term rim protector personifies that and that’s what Jalen has been,” said his high school coach Pat Clatchey.
Smith has done an excellent job not getting in foul trouble, allowing him to stay on the court. This is a trend that has continued since high school where Smith played “physical without fouling”. Smith has yet to foul out of a game this season and has picked up four fouls only twice.
Clatchey said that Smith has natural instincts, but he is also a smart shot-blocker. As Clatchey pointed out, Smith’s rejections stay in bounds, allowing his teammates to grab the rebound. On Tuesday, his sixth block against Rutgers was swatted directly into the ground so Morsell could snatch the rebound. On the final possession in a one-point win over Indiana, Smith tapped a Hoosier miss towards the sidelines as the clock expired.
“Jalen has always been a really good shot blocker. It’s discipline. He’s staying down on shot fakes and that’s hard to do,” said Turgeon. “He’s just playing really smart. As long as I can keep him fresh and help him when I need to help him, his defense has been really good.”
The Terps are on a five-game win streak and Smith has played over 35 minutes in each win. With the departure of Makhel and Makhi Mitchell, Maryland has needed every minute Smith has given them.
Smith’s defense on opposing centers has been equally as crucial as his offensive burst. In the Indiana win, he held Trayce-Jackson Davis to seven points. He contained Purdue’s Trevion Williams to 4-10 shooting in a victory over Purdue as well.
His presence has left a mark on the Big Ten, but his teammates are still not scared to challenge him.
“I’m not gonna lie to you I’ve caught him a few times on a putback. Few times, more than once,”said sophomore Aaron Wiggins with a smile. “I won’t go if he’s going up to dunk it… I’ve caught him a few times. He won’t tell you that though.”
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