Dez Wells broke down in Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon’s office when he heard the news: The NCAA had approved Wells’s waiver appeal. At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the swingman transfer from Xavier learned he was eligible to play for the Terrapins, starting with Friday’s season opener against defending national champion Kentucky.
Wells circled the room, engulfing coaches and staff in massive hugs. Then he called Kendrick Williams. For two wordless minutes, Wells sobbed with glee, months of emotion streaming down his face, eventually composing himself enough to say the same excited phrase to his mentor and former AAU coach back home in Raleigh, N.C.
“K, I can play. K, I can play. K, I can play.”
The NCAA had denied Wells’s initial waiver request on Oct. 26, an unsurprising decision according to Turgeon given what he had been told by Maryland’s compliance officers, but one that that nonetheless crushed the sophomore. Wells understood that a favorable ruling — one that would allow him to play right away, instead of sitting out a year as usually mandated of transfers by the NCAA — would be unprecedented, given that Xavier had expelled him amid sexual assault allegations later deemed unworthy of trial by a prosecutor in Ohio.
Less than two weeks later, however, Wells called Williams after leaving Turgeon’s office, the tears replaced by a broad smile. The initial shock subsiding, they admitted that the delay had them worried. Then they discussed the future. Williams had never heard Wells so excited.
In a classroom across campus, Maryland point guard Pe’Shon Howard read the group text Wells had sent to his teammates and later joked about foregoing class to celebrate. At Comcast Center, Turgeon’s anxiety had been replaced by a sense of accomplishment. Maryland’s compliance staff told him that seeing the smile on Wells’s face made all the effort and struggle worth it.
“I didn’t really have much to do about it, except I don’t like the word no and I don’t like to lose,” Turgeon said. “No, I wasn’t surprised, because I was in on the beginning of this, and I believed in Dez, my administration and the NCAA, once they had all the facts. I’d have been surprised if it went the other way, knowing what I knew. I was proud of them for coming to that conclusion.”
It’s a fairy-tale ending of an arduous saga for the reigning Atlantic 10 rookie of the year, who averaged 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per game at Xavier, whose dunks made regular appearances on YouTube.
Wells’s eligibility transforms Maryland from a bubble team bursting with young, inexperienced talent into a bona fide NCAA tournament contender and a legitimate top four ACC team. His presence on the court will give the Terrapins depth and versatility in the back court, March Madness experience and toughness in the locker room.
“He makes us a much better team together,” senior forward James Padgett said. “We’re all excited for him, happy to have him play for us. Everybody was excited. He’ll make great contributions to our team.”
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Wells lit up the Terps’ open scrimmage two weeks ago, hitting all seven shots with an array of dunks and three-pointers that sent the modest Comcast Crowd crowing, building the excitement that inspired Turgeon to call him a “different animal.”
“He’s been so positive the whole time, you wouldn’t even notice that he wasn’t sure he could play,” Howard said. “As soon as he got here, right before we did our Navy SEAL training, he had great leadership. He’ll really fit in the role, and now that he’s playing, it’ll carry over into games on the court.”
Whenever he sensed diminishing confidence from his pupil, Williams quoted a biblical parable to Wells, whose mother raised him on faith, who often told her son that “God will make a way.” In the book of Matthew, below a high mountain, Jesus speaks to his disciples about belief. All that is required, Williams said to Wells, was a faith the size of a mustard seed
“That’s all we had,” Williams said. “I couldn’t admit to him that’s all I had. But that’s all we had. That’s the teaching point. That’s all it took.”
After the NCAA’s initial decision, Wells’s chances at immediate eligibility appeared equally small. But even in the doldrums, hope flickered. Williams’s cellphone rang more often, his conversations with Wells growing longer. Neither Wells nor his mentor deigned to admit their fears, but the notion that Wells would be sidelined for an entire season was a distinct possibility. Still, Williams ended every talk the same way, uttering the same four words to his pupil before the phone clicked goodbye.
“It is not over.”