Maryland’s players and coaches first noticed Shaquille Cleare’s gradual improvement in closed practices, as his immense talent finally caught up to the speed of college basketball. They saw the freshman center’s work in the weight room pay off on the court, as he now shrugs off opposing big men with ease. They saw him post-up on fellow center Alex Len, hips driving the 7-foot-1 sophomore out of the Comcast Center paint for easy buckets.
With two nine-day breaks in December, fans and reporters had little opportunity to witness Cleare’s gains manifest themselves in games, but it seems the freshman has hit his stride. Though he’s averaging just seven points over the past two games, Cleare has looked far more comfortable offensively. He’s become more assertive in the paint, spinning like a top around defenders, occasionally bulldozing them, too.
Against IUPUI on Tuesday, Cleare dominated for a brief second-half stretch, like the lane was his personal clubhouse adorned with a big, handwritten sign reading “NO JAGUARS ALLOWED.” With 16:29 left in Maryland’s 81-63 win, Cleare entered. Two minutes elapsed, with Cleare mostly silent on both ends. Then Cleare screened high for Pe’Shon Howard on the secondary break, rolled low, backed his defender onto the block and lofted a soft turnaround hook shot from the right baseline for his first points.
After an IUPUI miss, Howard launched a pass from midcourt that Cleare caught beneath the basket, facing the wrong way. Cleare jabbed to his right, split two defenders and sunk another baby hook, drawing a Jaguars timeout. When Jake Layman missed a corner three-pointer, Cleare snatched the rebound, spun toward the middle and drained a fadeaway jump shot. He finished the game 4 of 6 from the field with eight points.
“He is posting up harder,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “He is finishing; he wasn’t finishing in the beginning of the year. He is getting in better shape, and he is more confident. Guys like Shaq, they like throwing him the ball. He was dominant in practice yesterday. No one likes going against him because when he hits you, he hits you. Shaq liked when big number 11 was out there because he had another body to beat on for them. He was assertive. I was happy for him. As the league goes, and we are playing bigger teams — I don’t know what lies ahead — but I think it will be a better situation for him.”
As much as Turgeon loves this Maryland team’s chemistry, he’s always harbored a special affinity for Cleare and is happy whenever the prized recruit turns a corner. And really, what’s not to enjoy about the affable Bahamian? He held court with reporters after the IUPUI game, backed up in a claustrophobic corner between the lectern and backdrop, cracking jokes in his accent (players don’t dominate, they daw-mee-nate).
It wasn’t Cleare’s best offensive performance this season – he scored 10 points against Georgia Southern and a career-high 12 against Maryland-Eastern Shore – but he certainly bounced back from a two-game lull vs. Monmouth and Stony Brook, when he played just 27 combined minutes and scored two total points.
“He’s had better games than today,” Dez Wells said. “He’s had games with three or four blocks, games with eight or nine rebounds. Shaq is going to be Shaq every night in. You know what you’re going to get from him. He’ll be physical, rebound the ball, block shots. That’s what we need moving forward from him. He’s really starting to blossom.”
Cleare has made a habit of turning opposing shots into seat-bound missiles, but it took some time for his offense to catch up. Even though he’s second among Maryland’s regulars at 61.7 percent shooting from the floor, he has the second-lowest usage percentage (a measure of how much a player is involved in the offense; Howard has the lowest). And yet Cleare has the team’s highest offensive rating — an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions — among Turgeon’s 10-man rotation.
Having a consistent Cleare would do wonders for the Terps come ACC play. Turgeon has been putting Len and Cleare on the same team in practice, forgoing their typical battles to prepare for bigger lineups. With Len likely drawing regular double-teams, Cleare could prove a force on the weak side.
Just know that when the time comes, he’ll be ready.
“I do conditioning every day,” Cleare said. “Game day, days after games. I just go in, practice and do the little things: wedging on the side, being physical, using my hips to box out. Basically I just listen to Turgeon because Turgeon isn’t going to lead me wrong. They want me to be a great player, so whatever he tells me, that’s what I’m going to do.”