NCAA

Maryland's Jalen Smith is gaining national recognition in midst of dominant stretch

NCAA

All of a sudden, Jalen Smith looks like one of the best players in college basketball.

The rare five-star big man returned to school for a sophomore season and has seen his game come together in the last month in a way it never has before. The result? An out-of-nowhere All-American campaign fueling a midseason turnaround for a top-10 team in the country.

Since January 14, Smith has scored fewer than 18 points in a game only once, and it came in a 14-point, 15-rebound, six-block effort against an elite Rutgers defense. Since December 4, he has hit 22 of his 43 three-point field goal attempts. His 51.3% three-point field goal percentage in conference play leads the Big Ten, a remarkable feat for a 6-foot-10 power forward.

He’s also riding a streak of five straight double-doubles, with 13 on the season. Smith has fallen just one rebound shy of a double-double three other times.

These numbers highlight not only how terrific Smith has been this season, but how utterly dominant he’s been as of late. The player teammates affectionately refer to as “Stix” has been the central figure in the Terps’ latest rise to a top-10 ranking.

 

Awards watch lists have taken notice as well, with Smith being named one of 20 finalists for the Wooden Award for National Player of the Year, and one of 10 finalists for the Karl Malone Most Outstanding Power Forward award.

So, if he’s been this good, and everyone around him is taking notice, why hasn’t he risen higher in NBA mock drafts? As of a few weeks ago, Smith found himself projected as a late second-round pick by ESPN.

It’s possible some outlets simply haven’t caught up to Smith’s hot streak yet. Typically, a stretch like this suggests Smith has made a leap as a player and higher draft projections are sure to follow.

There are also a handful of questions surrounding Stix’s all-around game. His three-point shooting wasn’t strong as a freshman or early in his sophomore year, so is this simply a prolonged hot streak, or a sign of a young player figuring it out? NBA scouts have also noted his ball-handling and body frame as other potential knocks against him.

Defense was another point against Smith early, as his strengths as a help defender can sometimes be countered by smaller, quicker forwards when pulled out from the post. It’s an area that may be magnified when he is forced into a forward position at the NBA level as opposed to playing center for Maryland.

Still, his one-on-one post defense has been terrific for much of the season, and his counting stats remain high. Smith is currently top-three in the Big Ten in both rebounding and blocks, which doesn’t account for the countless shots he alters without blocking near the rim.

Some mock draft sites have caught up to Smith, with a number of recent updates sliding him into the 22-30 range of the first round. There’s a long way to go until the summer, but it’s hard to argue with him on an upward trajectory given his recent play.

Opposing coaches who are forced to gameplan for the talented sophomore aren’t surprised by his rise either. Brad Underwood, coach of the Illinois team poised to face Smith and the Terps in a battle for first place in the Big Ten Friday night, wasn’t shy with his praise on Thursday.

Most players in conversation as potentially the most talented in the entire country are considered locks to be selected in the first round of the draft, so this opinion doesn’t line up fully with mock-draft consensus.

Now that football season has come and gone, the country’s annual focus on college basketball is right around the corner. If Smith keeps playing the way he has, it’s hard to imagine he won’t continue seeing his name rise in both the national consciousness and in the eyes of NBA scouts everywhere.

For now, Smith’s focus remains squarely on the Maryland Terrapins and their fight to win the best conference in college basketball. Terps fans will love cheering for him night in and night out in the NBA, but the greatest legacy he can leave in College Park is still whether or not he can continue to dominate in the month that matters most: March.

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