Dez Wells was a borderline teenager when he finally stepped onto the Lions Park basketball courts in northeast Raleigh, N.C., and beat his mother, an all-American in college, in a game of one-on-one.
Pamela Wells was a three-time all-CIAA player at Saint Augustine’s College, one of just four Lady Falcons ever to achieve that feat. She never relented on the basketball court, blocking her son’s shot all the time. She drilled him to rebound and be tough, like she was as a 6-foot-1 forward, because winning only comes from hard work.
So when Wells finally bested his mother, it was like Christmas. He was either 12 or 13 years old, he said. Maybe he hit a floater to win it. He’s formed so many new basketball memories since then, it’s hard to keep track.
“Once I beat her, she always told me, if I can beat her, I could beat anybody,” Wells said. “I always kept that as motivation. That confidence that can get us over the hump, going out there as a team and believing nobody’s better than us.”
Ever since Wells announced his much-ballyhooed decision to transfer to College Park late this summer, he’s served as a de facto leader for the Maryland basketball team, pumping them up in pregame huddles and steering his teammates through stormy weather, even as his eligibility status remained in limbo. Once the NCAA granted his waiver appeal two days before the season opener against Kentucky, Wells immediately was slotted into Maryland’s starting lineup, and has taken off ever since.
He had a sub-par performance against Kentucky and what Coach Mark Turgeon has called one of the worst games of his career against Georgia Southern, but has since turned in two stellar outings this past week. During the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Northwestern, Wells exploded for a then-career-high 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting in a 77-57 blowout win.
“He’s a good player. He was a good player coming in,” Turgeon said. “He’s just feeling more comfortable. A week ago, Saturday against Georgia Southern, he was about as bad as can be, but he flipped the switch, got more aggressive, got some open looks early, had eight points right out of the chute. He had a great week.”
Sunday afternoon against George Mason in the BB&T Classic, playing in the arena where former Word of God Academy teammate John Wall makes his NBA home with the Washington Wizards, Wells notched a new career best with 25 points, shooting 11 for 17 from the field and directing Maryland to a 69-62 win.
“It makes us a very different team, how big of a threat he is,” Maryland guard Nick Faust said. “Gets his easy scoring a lot. He’s playing right now at a very high level, definitely helping out the team a lot.”
Wells drilled two early jumpers and scored the Terps’ first eight points of the afternoon, and also stuck a three-pointer just before halftime, but the majority of his buckets came from knifing layups, displaying the toughness and desire for contact honed against his mother back home in Raleigh. He’s never seen tape of her. Just pictures.
“That’s just how I play,” Wells said. “She never babied me at any point. She always wanted me to outwork people and just grind. That’s how I’ve been my whole life. That’s my upbringing that allows me to play like that. The way I play and everything I do is just a reflection of how great my mom is.”
As with any player on his young roster, Turgeon tempered his praise with a caveat. Wells committed five turnovers against the Patriots. Through seven games, he’s tied for fifth in the ACC with 21 giveaways.
“I told him he’s on pace to set a record. He looked at me and said, ‘For turnovers?’ ” I said, ‘Yeah.’ “
Then again, Wells is 14th in points per game, 16th in assists per game, 14th in steals per game, seventh in effective field goal percentage and 10th in win shares, a metric estimating the numbers of wins contributed by a player thanks to his play on both offense and defense.
He’s most exciting on the fast break, even away from the ball. As he streaks up court, a teammate like Pe’Shon Howard or Seth Allen pushing down the other sideline, you get the feeling that, at any moment, Wells could launch himself and throw down another vicious alley-oop. With 11:06 left Saturday, the score knotted at 43, Wells absorbed the contact from George Mason’s Sherrod Wright, twisted his body into position and threw up a prayer that finally dropped through the net.
It was a once-in-every-15-games shot, one helped by the “basketball gods,” Wells later said.