He stepped onto the floor with a little nervousness, no pressure and explicit instructions to protect the rim like a nightclub bouncer. It had been exactly two weeks since freshman Damonte Dodd last appeared in a game for the Maryland men’s basketball team, so Coach Mark Turgeon worried about how he might respond.
The atmosphere was intense at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the student cheer sheet poked fun at the center for tweeting his thanks to God every morning. The stage was huge, broadcast on ESPN. The opponent was Duke, one final regular season game in the longtime rivalry. And here was Dodd, surprising everyone.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” Turgeon said Monday. “He acted like he was at the park, not playing on national TV against Duke. He was tremendous.”
Positive moments have been limited for Dodd this season, localized mainly to a dunk here or a blocked shot there. His best game came against North Carolina State on Jan. 20, when he scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in 14 minutes. Saturday evening ranks a close second.
His sheer presence below the rim – and often above it when shots floated in that direction – changed Maryland’s fortunes. Dodd was credited with zero blocks, one rebound and one foul in seven minutes, but that stretch gave the Terps something they have been searching for all season: a consistent, shot-altering big man.
“It was a fun experience,” Dodd said, in his first interview with reporters since media day in October. “I was a little nervous when I got in, but other than that it was fun just to be around the crowd, the atmosphere and my teammates in a big game like that.”
Though new NCAA rules have limited the space for potential shot blockers, Dodd has been learning to exploit the concept of “verticality,” something Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert credited for his defensive success in a recent Sports Illustrated article.
Though the verticality rule, which allows NBA defenders to avoid fouls by jumping “straight up and absorb contact from a ballhandler, as long as he establishes a legal defensive position before leaving the ground and remains vertical in the air,” doesn’t exist in the NCAA, the principles still apply to younger, less experienced big men like Dodd. Rather than trying to swat every shot into the rafters, Dodd has learned that simply jumping high can be just as effective.
“Coming from high school and prep school, I was always taller than everyone,” Dodd said. “The ball was right there. … Now you’re playing against guys like Dez [Wells] and Nick [Faust], guys who can jump like that, I learned they’re just as athletic as me. Knowing when to try to block and knowing when to alter it is a big help.”
One particular example stands out from Saturday. When Duke forward Rodney Hood, a probable lottery pick in June’s NBA draft, beat his initial defender off the dribble and penetrated the lane, he encountered Dodd right around the middle. Instead of helping up, Dodd stood his ground and, when Hood lofted a floater, jumped straight up. The shot missed everything except the backboard.
Without former center Alex Len, whose 8 percent block rate ranked 69th nationally last season, the Terps are actually swatting shots at a better clip (11.8 percent in 2013-14 versus 11.2 percent last season) but almost all of that comes from wings like Wells, Faust and Jake Layman.
Even if Dodd can provide 10 mistake-free minutes every night for the remainder of the season, avoiding foul trouble and cleaning up missed shots, then that will be considered a developmental victory during his maiden season.
“He’s a lot more confident, we’re a lot more confident in him today than we were last Friday,” Turgeon said. “That helps. It’s a long season. You don’t ever stop teaching and trying to make guys better, drill working them, drill working them. It’s finally starting to pay off with Damonte.”