For the past ten years or so, the Maryland Terrapins have had incredible luck with big men. This isn’t revisionist history, either. Alex Len, James Padgett, Jordan Williams, Landon Milbourne, James Gist, Bambale Osby, Ekene Ibekwe, Jamar Smith. Every single one of those players has either been drafted into the NBA (Gist, Williams, Len, and Ibekwe), or has had/is having a successful overseas career (everyone else). In many respects, the Terps have been spoiled.
Teams go decades without finding a single competent big man who can protect the rim and score effectively. They tinker with their offenses and run four-guard sets, or bring in tons of three point shooters to compensate for the lack of a big. Look at a team like Villanova, who has had to rely heavily on guards because they haven’t had many competent big men come into their hands (save for Dante Cunningham, who is a wing player). They play small ball and forget the center position.
The Terps, for the past decade or so, just haven’t had that problem. They’ve gotten solid production at the power forward and center position for nearly a decade, and oftentimes had overlapping talents (Gist and Milbourne, Milbourne and Williams, Padgett and Williams). When they came into college, most all of those players were thought of as projects, where it was Gary’s masterful coaching that tutored them into success. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s probably hyperbole.
Gary Williams was, more than likely and to his credit, a strong foundation for players to become successful. I doubt any of the players themselves would deny that. But I doubt any of the players would say they didn’t work their tails off nonstop to supplement all that Gary taught them, and that’s probably a major reason why most of Maryland’s bigs have successful careers elsewhere. I think the two go hand in hand, and the fact that the player had the talent to begin with suggests to me it wasn’t 100% Gary like many people suggests. These were good, raw, talented players who learned the game of basketball and worked hard enough to make it. It wasn’t just Gary being Gary, though he was an absolute monster at finding diamonds at a sewage plant.
But as with most things in life, having success means making sacrifices. Perhaps Maryland was almost too good at finding big men; the Terps constantly found and produced quality PFs and Cs, so they were sought after items. Jordan Williams felt like the culmination of that fact. Williams figured, at the time, that his draft stock was high enough that he could get taken early in the first round of the 2009 NBA draft. Of course, it turned out to be a tougher draft than he imagined, and ended up falling to the second round. Had he stayed another year, things might have changed.
What’s funny is that it was the big man who came after Jordan Williams, Alex Len, who was the culmination of that success. The Ukrainian seven-footer made life easy for Maryland, easier than they’d have it without him at least. Williams and Len would have benefited from one another so much that it is hard to envision a scenario where that front line didn’t dominate most in the tournament. The NCAA tournament. Of course, Len ended up a lottery pick regardless because of his potential that has yet to be fully scratched, so it didn’t really matter with that guy.
But two early departures from elite big men is enough to decimate a Maryland Terrapins team that has been reliant upon major luck in that department for the last decade. The best laid plans, as they say. Losing Williams was a major hit (to go along with the head coach who was a big man guru), but losing Len early too is enough to set your program back a few years. It’s insanely difficult to find big men like that, even when you’re at elite programs. Instead of getting eight years between the two of them to soften the blow and allow bench bigs to develop, Maryland got four.
Imagine if Len could have sat behind Williams for another year, and Cleare could have sat behind Len for one more season, and Dodd behind Cleare, and eventually Trayvon Reed behind Dodd. That was the plan, of course; to continue the trend of having a stable of big men and not have to worry about the position. Bring in a bunch, because eventually one of them has to develop into a force, right?
Len’s departure sped that up though (and to be clear, there’s no blaming Len for anything). Shaquille Cleare was asked to be the man from day one despite having some back problems (both statistically in terms of backing up the hype and physically with his discs). When given a larger role that he was ready for, Cleare had a little trouble adjusting to that role. Offensively too raw to draw double teams, defensively too foul prone. The ACC is an unforgiving league, and we experienced what happens to raw bigs this year. Cleare regressed this year in every category now that Len wasn’t around to draw double-teams.
Of course, Charles Mitchell picked up a lot of that slack. In many regards, Charles Mitchell is the next good Maryland big. Consider this: Charles Mitchell has made 4 of his 21 free throw attempts in conference play, and only 23 of his 70 on the season. If he upped the number of makes to something like, say, 64% (which isn’t even a good average, mind you), his points per game average jumps to around 8.5 a game. Eight points and seven rebounds aren’t world-beater numbers, but they’re not intended to be so. It’s the longer-term implications of that which matter.
Mitchell, could he hit his free throws and stay out of foul trouble, is a double-double every night guy. Statistics back it up, his play during extended minutes backs it up, everything points to Chuck being the next “big” thing at Maryland. For being a guy who is barely taller than most NBA guards, Chuck is an absurd rebounder. His rebounding numbers per 40 minutes are nearly identical to Jordan Williams, and while his scoring is slightly less, that’s a product of offense and a complete inability to hit free throws or stay on the court.
But Chuck is not a rim protector like he’s being asked to be; he’s a four. That’s why Damonte Dodd is on the roster, why Cleare is on the roster, and why Reed is going to be on the roster. It limits the amount of times a player as aggressive as Mitchell offensively needs to be aggressive in the paint. As a help defender, Mitchell is fine; even as a one-on-one defender, he’s okay. But he will always need help, and he’ll always be less than ideal. That’s okay when you consider everything else he brings; no player is perfect.
There’s also the dilemma of what to do with someone like Evan Smotrycz, who figures into Maryland’s plans but not necessarily fits the team long term. He’s a four no matter how much we try to play him anywhere else, and that’s the same position our “future” power forward, Charles Mitchell occupies. Smotrycz is unique in that Maryland hasn’t had a player like him in a very long time, and now that we do, we have no idea what to do with him. A bad defender who lacks athleticism, but a solid, crafty playmaker and a good stretch four. He’s not Nik Caner-Medley because he’s not as athletic and more reliant on the three ball, but he’s not a big man like Dave Neal despite playing down low more often than not.
Stretch fours have never been the Terps thing; there was Dave Neal, who Smotryz is more like than most would care to admit, but Evan is considerably better than Dave. The biggest problem is, “What do we do with him?” Smotrycz doesn’t score that much down low, and is too poor a defender to play alongside an equally ‘meh’ defender in Charles Mitchell. But Shaquille Cleare isn’t ready, and neither is Damonte Dodd, so you have to play Chuck. But the argument is circular, and goes back to giving up too much on defense to justify it. Instead, your two best big men can’t play at the same time, and if Smotrycz is the four, you still don’t have the center capable of allowing either Mitchell or Smo to play their natural position.
And how is that going to change next year? The Big Ten has just as talented basketball as the ACC, and it’s hard to picture Smotrycz and Charles Mitchell being able to play with one another in that conference as well. I’m not certain Cleare will be ready, either, and still think Dodd needs another year. Meanwhile, Reed is tall, but is going to need at least a year before he’s playable — I’ll just break that to you now, in case you were expecting Mutombo.
So it isn’t that Maryland needs a scoring big man, because they’ve kind of already got that on the roster; rather, they need that shot swatter who can play extended minutes and provide at least something offensively. Part of what made tandems like Williams and Milbourne so effective was that they were sending shots back at an alarmingly high rate. Len and Padgett were doing that well too. Believe it or not, even Dino Gregory was solid at it. That’s grit and determination by those players, not some miracle talent coming into school. Nowadays? Maryland’s guards actually block more shots than their big men, and while the team is definitely longer overall in terms of average height, their big men aren’t swatters. That’s not really a good sign.
How does it get fixed though? That’s obvious, if you didn’t think so already: Cleare, Dodd, and Reed. One of them has to develop into that big man who can do three things: provide at least some offensive help, rebound the ball, and stay out of foul trouble. During limited time, Dodd and Cleare have proven themselves to be poor rebounders and even worse offensive threats. Dodd has been a great shot blocker, but offensively he’s nonexistent to the point where teams don’t need to guard him. Reed is the X-Factor. How quickly he can develop will be massively important to how Maryland adjusts to the Big Ten.
The big man solution is messy, at best, but the talent is there to potentially ensure that Maryland only has a couple years of lacking a big man (read: the Travis Garrison years). Those were the lean years, but it wasn’t long until the Terps got back to their scoring big reliant days. They’ve got the four spot locked down, but it’s that five spot that might give them trouble, as it has with so many other teams. We’ll see if anyone on this roster can stymie that, because as we’ve found out this year, life without a big man is tough.