Battling during practice has helped Shaquille Cleare and Alex Len develop together

December 12, 2012

In between working out and going to class, depositing dunks and rejecting opposing shots into the Comcast Center’s second row, Shaquille Cleare has undertaken a new profession. The big Bahamian has become a good-natured neighborhood bully. Pick on someone your own size? Trying picking on somebody taller than you.

Stories about Cleare’s strength will only grow in future weeks, especially as his playing time and potential become aligned. He once benched 185 pounds 29 times, two more than the NBA combine record. In the video, Cleare practically sleeps through the first 25 repetitions, and is aiming for 40 by season’s end. Opposing post players bounce off the freshman like pinballs on an arcade bumper, and guards run the serious risk of sustaining whiplash.

Since arriving in College Park, Cleare had lost 6.9 percent of his body fat as of Oct. 24 and 23.1 pounds of fat. It’s allowed him to develop into a reliable weapon and a shot-blocking field for the Maryland basketball team, not to mention a personal practice bruiser for Alex Len.

“Yes, that is now my new job,” Cleare said. “Whenever Alex goes to the NBA, if Alex forgets me, I’ll be pretty upset, because I made him what he is this season. No one beats up on him like I do. Turgeon bails him out a lot, but I’m going to keep pushing Alex, because I know he has the potential to be great. He didn’t have anyone to beat him up all the time last year. There was no one to push him around. If that’s what I got to do, if that’s what my scholarship has me here to do, then I’ll just beat on Alex for the rest of the year.”

From the practice court, when a single Cleare forearm can halt any forward motion, to the weight room, where director of basketball performance Kyle Tarp will often pit Cleare against Len in hyper-competitive drills and workout sessions, Maryland’s two centers batter and bruise each other, all in the name of personal betterment.

“Shaq just beats on him every day,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Shaq’s just so strong. He can hold Alex with one arm … I think that’s made Alex tougher and better too. When he gets to the games, there’s no one as strong as Shaq guarding him. I know there’s not.”

Len meanwhile has packed on nearly 33 pounds of muscle over one year and dropped two percent body fat, developing from a lean, finesse project into a bona fide NBA talent with constant draft buzz ever since his breakout double-double against Kentucky in the season-opener. He averages team-highs in points (13.9), rebounds (8.7), blocks (2.3) and minutes (25.8), and has become virtually unstoppable in one-on-one situations, flashing heightened agility in transition, probably because such speed is necessary to avoid getting checked into the stands by Cleare.

Cleare, meanwhile, has come on strong in the past two games, dominating down low versus Maryland-Eastern Shore and South Carolina State, two of the biggest cupcakes on the non-conference schedule, an ironic notion given that Cleare cut out fries and sweets in favor of fruits and vegetables to slim down this offseason.

Turgeon will often mix up practice schedules out of sheer boredom, but must drill fundamentals into his four freshmen. Cleare’s biggest improvements, Turgeon said, have come defensively, but he’s developed into a reliable offensive weapon, breaking out a nifty baby-hook refined by shooting over Len in practice.

“You see it in practice first,” Turgeon said. “For these young guys we’ve had to be consistent in drilling them. It’s really helped Shaq. I think Shaq’s actually had opportunities to play, too. Didn’t get any chance against George Mason, then the last two games he’s had a chance. Happy for him, he’s a good kid. He’s coming. He had a great practice yesterday, too.”

The physical gifts were always there. Cleare began weight-lifting at a young age, and is the only player to ever out-lift Tarp, once bench-pressing 325 pounds for three reps. By January, Cleare said he’ll reach 40 reps at 185.

“He’s gifted with an unbelievable body, strength,” Turgeon said. “He has incredible work habits. He does extra all the time in the weight room, conditioning … Shaq gets in there, you see bodies bouncing off him. Teams are starting to flop whenever he gets near. Hopefully people understand it’s a flop as time goes on, and he’ll get the benefit of the doubt as we move forward. Physically, I’ve never had anyone like him. Strength, work habits, conditioning, things like that.”

Indeed, Cleare’s the only Maryland player averaging more than five fouls per 40 minutes, but he also has the highest offensive rating – an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions – of Maryland’s 10 regulars, even though he’s tied for fifth in points per game.

“[Playing hard inside is] pretty fun until you hear the whistle, and you try to prevent looking over at the bench, because you know Turgeon will be like, ‘Shaq, no more fouls.’”

Lately, Len and Cleare have appeared more on the floor together after the Terps have installed more two-center sets, most likely in a high-low scenario. When Cleare first began practicing at Maryland, Turgeon swallowed his whistle on hard contact during post drills, allowing them to duke it out inside. But it’s all spirited competition, with hugs and hand pounds at the buzzer, then trips to the whirlpool and ice baths afterward.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt · December 12, 2012