Iowa’s Luka Garza is the best big man in the conference. Heck, he might even be the best big man in America. But this past week, it was Maryland’s Jalen Smith taking home honors of Big Ten Player of the Week, not Garza.
Smith’s rise to player of the week has been a slow, but noticeable one. After a hot start in non-conference play, Smith seemed to lose his aggressiveness in December. During consecutive road losses to Penn State and Seton Hall, Smith took just 12 combined shots.
Fast forward to last Tuesday in Evanston, and the Baltimore native looked like a totally different player. He scored a career-high 25 points (21 coming in the second half) on 13 shots. Against Indiana he topped that performance scoring 29 points while laying in the game-winning basket and letting some angry Indiana fans know about it.
“I know what I’m capable of and my team knows what I’m capable of and shots were just falling for me in the second half,” said Smith after the win over Northwestern. “I don’t wanna say ‘take over’ but I was pretty much helping my team get to the point where we needed to be.”
‘Taking over’ a game and exuding emotions are not things Smith would frequently do as a freshman. While he had a quality year, he oftentimes was the second or third option behind Anthony Cowan and Bruno Fernando. After an offseason of added weight, Smith is more equipped to play center in the Big Ten and seems to finally understand just how talented he is.
“There was a lot of pressure on Jalen coming in this year with our team and him and everything. I think it took him a long time to grow into that role and now he’s playing with terrific confidence,” said Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon. “His defense has been really good for a long time, but his offense has been really good here lately.”
Offensively, Smith has been clicking as of late. His leap in three-point shooting has been astronomical. After missing his first 10 shots from deep to start the season, Smith has been consistent from behind the arc as of late making 10 of his last 19 attempts. At 56.7 percent, he leads the Big Ten in conference play in three-point percentage and on Sunday he poured in a career-high four treys in the win against Indiana.
Aside from his increased shooting, Smith has done a better job of asserting himself down low. His freshman season, he attempted 3.5 free throws per game, a poor number for a 6’10 player. He’s increased that total to 5.1 this year. He’s become much better at finishing through smaller defenders by releasing the ball at a higher angle.
Turgeon has made it an emphasis to feature Smith more, telling him “we’re gonna get you more shots.” And the ever so confident Smith responded by saying, “I’m gonna get me more shots too.”
Getting Smith shots will be important Thursday night when the Terps take on Garza and the Hawkeyes. In Maryland’s 67-49 defeat in Iowa City, Smith shot the ball just seven times, despite making five of them. Garza is no defensive slouch. At 6’11, 245 pounds he can bang with Smith inside and make the sophomore uncomfortable. Smith has shown growth in the past month and that will be put to the test Thursday.
“I think he feels comfortable but in the Big Ten this year the bigs are terrific. Each and every night it’s a battle,” said Turgeon. “To me, (Garza) has been player of the year in the league so far and he’s a tough load so it’s another tough matchup for Jalen.”
With both teams sitting at 6-3 in league play, this is a critical game for the Terps long term standing. And all eyes will be on the matchup in the post as the league’s hottest big man tries to stop the league’s best big man.
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