Imagine, if only for two seconds, that you’re Dez Wells.
You were expelled from Xavier on Aug. 3, 2012, amid sexual assault allegations later deemed unworthy of prosecution in court. A dizzying tornado of re-recruitment landed you at Maryland, where Coach Mark Turgeon’s program offered a second chance. You grinded through the preseason, regaining fitness and shaking off the ghosts of Musketeers past, all the while slogging through the NCAA appeals process to gain eligibility for your sophomore year. The first waiver was denied. The immediate future looked grim.
Then, two days before the Terrapins’ season opener, a marquee matchup against Kentucky on ESPN at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the decision comes down from high above. High above meaning the NCAA Division I Legislative Council Subcommittee for Legislative Relief. They overturned the initial decision. The long shot struck a bull’s-eye. The emotional burden is lifted.
Now, go play a basketball game.
Wells shot 2 for 12 in Maryland’s three-point loss to the Wildcats, the last time the Terrapins were in New York before this week’s NIT semifinals. Since then, arguably no Maryland player has come further than Wells, who upon arriving in College Park became at once a star player, a locker room leader and the face of a program.
Here is Dez Wells on a banner, arms folded above a Comcast Center entrance tunnel, pumping up Maryland basketball. Here is virtual Dez Wells, popping up on Maryland athletics Web site, thanking fans for their support, or the real live version, speaking for the group during media sessions. Again, all this after transferring from Xavier, where Wells played a silent third fiddle his freshman year.
“You have to understand where he came from at Xavier,” Turgeon said. “He had two guys who totally dominated the ball and he would shoot wide-open threes or throw lobs to him or score on the break. Now you’re asking him to score, shoot jumpers guarded, because we didn’t really have a lot of guys who could break it down besides him. He had to learn a new system. Just took over a young team, as a reluctant leader. He didn’t want to lead. He’s new. He got here in August. So there was a lot on his plate.
“So it’s funny. You go through all these players, and you keep saying it’s a long year with certain guys. And they’ve all improved. They’ve all matured. So much more fun to be around in practice day to day. I’m happy for Dez. I think he just kind of figured it out. He knows what he can do within this team, and I think we still as a coaching staff are figuring out the best way to use him. Hopefully we have him for a couple more years, too.”
The way Wells has played in recent weeks, the Terps may soon begin fretting about his future. He’s reached double figures in 10 straight games, attempting at least 10 shots per game in that span, which included a 30-point bomb dropped on Duke in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. He bounces around in pregame huddles and gathers the starters around the scorer’s table for meetings. His three-point accuracy has improved (47.4 percent over past 10 games) while maintaining the elite finishing ability that has him shooting 57.5 percent inside the arc this season.
“I’m a lot more comfortable with Maryland and my teammates,” Wells said Monday in New York. “That makes a world of difference, for how I play with my teammates and how we click with each other.
“It was a lot. It was a lot of stress, just a lot of things I didn’t want going on with me. A lot of buzz that was around me, and people forgetting that our team was coming to play. Not just me.”
He’s still a walking And1 motivational poster – “The will to win can take you to places you never knew you could go.” – and, in his best moments, can carry the Terps through offensive lulls. But Wells has always deferred to the collective group. He’ll praise teammates after wins but sours after losses, accepting personal blame in a manner unbefitting of a typical sophomore.
“I can’t really change a program around,” Wells said. “I can be a piece that helps change the program around. Everybody who’s a fan has their own limited piece of helping us change this program around. There’s a lot of pressure in the beginning, but Coach Turgeon told me just to relax. It was around for a while. But I had to be comfortable in my own skin, just play and do what I can do.”