Freshman Jalen Smith talks to reporters during Maryland's Media Day. (Zach Selby/The Left Bench)
Freshman Jalen Smith talks to reporters during Maryland's Media Day. (Zach Selby/The Left Bench)

Jalen Smith leads a freshman class ready to make an impact

Jalen Smith has only been practicing with the other players in his freshman class for about three weeks, but their chemistry was building long before they set foot in College Park together.

“All the freshmen, we have a great connection,” Smith said. “Even before we committed here, we talked a lot. I talked to Aaron (Wiggins) and Eric (Ayala) a lot. And then Serrel (Smith) and Trace (Ramsay) and Ricky (Lindo) came in and it just made it even better.”

Regardless of when their bond began, this freshman class has the coaching staff excited for what this Maryland team’s potential this season.

The Terps are less than two weeks out from their season opener against Lynn University, and the buzz surrounding the team’s seven-man freshman class is causing some to proclaim this Maryland team to be the deepest and most athletic squad in nearly a decade.

“It may be the youngest team I’ve coached,” Turgeon said. “I haven’t looked back over the years but we’re talented.”

After finishing the 2017-18 season without an NCAA Tournament or NIT berth, Turgeon and the Terps are hopeful a freshman class that features three top-100 recruits will revitalize the the team’s culture.

And at the three-week mark of the preseason, Turgeon likes what he sees.

“We continue to grow and get better,” Turgeon said. “We’re excited about this year. I’m looking forward to coaching this team and it should be a lot of fun.”

Smith, one of the team’s two five-star recruits, leads a recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 7 nationally in the spring. Smith is still adjusting his game to match an increased level of competition, but he put on 20 pounds of muscle over the summer and will contribute immediately.

“The best part of my game is my versatility, being able to play outside and inside,” Smith said. “I’m still figuring out how to use (the extra muscle) correctly. It’s not the same as playing as a slim big.”

Smith has not received as much national attention as other five-star recruits, but Turgeon believe that will change soon.

“I think once he puts up his first double-double, which could happen in the first night we’ll play, the national attention will come,” he said.

Outside of Smith, other freshman like Ayala have shown they can be consistent rotational pieces when the season arrives. Ayala’s passing has increased the coaching staff’s confidence in him, and Turgeon said he’s become the “leader of the (freshmen) pack.”

“He’s been a real surprise for us,” Turgeon said of the 6-foot-5 guard from Wilmington, Delaware. “Eric’s our best passer and thinks pass-first. He allows us to be a little more versatile with the way we’re going to play.”

Ayala’s ability as a passer has allowed Turgeon to play him more as a point guard rather than his traditional combo guard position. Ayala says he can play both positions, as he and junior guard Anthony Cowan are anticipated to highlight Maryland’s backcourt.

Playing with a talented scorer like Cowan gets Ayala excited.

“I love playing with Anthony,” Ayala said. “He’s a great point guard. He can do everything.”

Although Maryland lost key pieces to its roster like Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson to the NBA last year, the team is set to have success this season. And a mixture of youth and experience might be what the Terps need to get back to the top of the Big Ten.

“They’re just super coachable,” Cowan said of the freshman class. “They never walk around like they have all the answers. And they’re not just doing it half-speed. They’re doing it to the best of their ability.”