Nick Faust balancing shooting struggles with improved defense

(Associated Press)

“You spent a lot of time working on your shot. Why do you think you’re still struggling with it?”

Nick Faust faced the blunt question and shrugged one shoulder, for a split second unsure how to answer. Coach Mark Turgeon raved all offseason about his sophomore playmaker’s improved form, how Faust learned to keep his right elbow inside rather than hoist shots from across his body. Faust finished his freshman season on fire for the Maryland basketball team, and was looking to continue that hot streak as a relative veteran within this young bunch.

Through seven games this season, Faust is averaging 11 points per game, still higher than the 8.9 he averaged in 32 games last season. But he’s shooting just 35.9 percent from the field, third worst among Maryland’s 10-man rotation and lowest among those with at least 21 attempts. Not exactly a gunner in 2011-12 (37.4 percent from the field, 27.1 from three-point range), Faust has seen his numbers dip early, struggling to find a consistent groove.

“I don’t know. Early in the season maybe?” Faust wondered after he shot 3 for 10 from the field in Sunday’s win over George Mason. “I’m not sure. I’m not worried about it. It’ll start falling, as long as I keep staying in the gym. I’ll be fine.”

More to the point, the Terrapins will be fine even if Faust needs a few more weeks to rediscover his stroke. Alex Len and Dez Wells have developed into elite scorers, so the pressure’s off Faust to be that guy.

“Sometimes guys think things that aren’t reality,” Turgeon said Saturday. “The pressure is off him. He’s not shooting the shots I’d like, that’s why his shooting percentage is down.”

By all accounts, Faust has resisted the urge to jack up ill-advised shots ever since the season opener against Kentucky, when he hoisted a career-high 15 attempts, making four. Turgeon and Faust spoke after that game, another one-on-one meeting that eased the self-imposed pressure. Just make the right plays, Turgeon told him, and quit forcing shots.

“I’m trying to make the right plays for my team,” Faust said. “Try to guard, try to do whatever I can to get my teammates better. If guys are hitting, just going to the hot guy, making the right play. I know what coach wants.”

The result? Faust is no longer caught up in scoring, Turgeon said after the George Mason game. He’s caught up in winning.

“That took a long time,” Turgeon said. “We’re finally there.”

He’s still an electric wing player, capable of beating opposing defenders off the dribble with a quick first step or soaring to the rim in transition. His free throw percentage is up to 72.2 percent from 61.9 percent last season, while his perimeter defense has vastly improved.

Faust credits offseason weightlifting with giving him the strength to fight through screens faster and the 22 extra pounds of muscle has helped him body up bigger guards. Guarding players like Wells in practice every day helps too, Faust said.

“We want our practices to be a lot harder than our games,” Wells said. “When [teams I’ve been on] are winning, our practices were really, really tough. It made our games a lot smoother for us on defense. It made us better in practice on defense.”

Especially as his younger teammates like Seth Allen and Jake Layman still get adjusted to the speed of college basketball, Faust will continue to grind out the rough offensive stretches alongside Wells, two wing veterans whose defensive contributions have arguably helped Maryland just as much as their offensive ones.

“Nick was good. We challenged Nick,” Turgeon said. “Nick had a great week. He was good against Northwestern defensively, he had two really great practices. I anticipated he would play well defensively. That’s great growth for him.

“He was reluctant at first, he’s becoming a very good defender. The last two days in practice, he’s been phenomenally defensively. Dez is one of those bulldog defenders, gets up in you. I expected that of him. Nick finally has done it.”

Also on Terrapins Insider

Monday Terps Mailbag: Alex Len's NBA draft prospects, QB situation and Turgeon's honesty