After nearly five months coaching James Padgett, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon says he’s not entirely certain the Terrapins power forward wouldn’t step on an ant. But Turgeon suspects as much, struck by Padgett’s impeccable manners, soft-spoken nature and general courtesy.
They are qualities that make Padgett a pleasure to coach. But they are also qualities that, from Turgeon’s perspective, have tended to hold Padgett back once the ball is tipped.
“I feel like if he had his way, he would play a lot more complacent,” Turgeon said Friday. “I feel like you always have to bring [aggression] out of him.”
Such is the role of any coach: Learning the personalities of his players and figuring out what buttons to push to coax the best possible performance from each.
With the 6-foot-8, 225-pound Padgett, Turgeon’s challenge has been overcoming his innate kindness and cultivating the toughness and aggression the Terrapins’ front court has needed so badly.
At 16-11, 6-7 ACC, Maryland has paid dearly for its lack of toughness at critical moments — manifested far too often in a failure to protect leads late in games or the inability to battle back from deficits.
Padgett’s tough-nosed play was critical to that victory, with the junior muscling inside with less than two minutes remaining for a putback and subsequent free throw that reclaimed the lead for Maryland. He finished with 16 points, tying his career high, on 6-for-8 shooting and pulled down six rebounds.
Padgett is the shortest among the four players in the Terrapins’ front-court rotation, which includes 7-foot-1 Alex Len, 6-10 Berend Weijs and 6-9 Ashton Pankey. But he is best positioned to stand up to the pounding of the ACC’s big men, with a particular knack for hammering the offensive boards. His 3.5 offensive rebounds per game are second in the ACC to North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller, who averages 3.9.
And Padgett continues to work on heeding Turgeon’s advice, which he said he has heard for years. But it’s not his natural instinct.
“I hear it from a lot of people. They tell me I’m too nice — ‘You have to go out and play more aggressive,’ ” Padgett said. But “what I noticed: I tried it, and it doesn’t work for me. I have to play basketball the way James plays basketball. When I try to step out of my character, I start thinking too much. I get too aggressive and take bad shots.”
So he’s trying to strike a balance, asserting himself under the rim without forcing things. And Turgeon has taken note.
“He has formed better habits as far as playing tougher as the season has gone on, but it’s definitely not his makeup,” Turgeon said. “I don’t have a problem with that. I tell guys all the time: ‘You can be the nicest guy off the court. That makes my job a lot easier. But when we get between the lines, [we need] a different person.’ ”
Padgett’s progress will be put to the test Saturday, when the Terrapins take on Georgia Tech (9-18, 2-11) at Atlanta’s Philips Arena, site of this season’s ACC tournament.
The Yellow Jackets are mired at the bottom of the conference standings and are expected to be without leading scorer and rebounder Glen Rice Jr., who is suspended indefinitely.
But it’s hardly a sure victory for Maryland, which has won just once on the road this season (at Clemson) and shown a troubling tendency to ease off rather than get fired up after a win. In fact, it has been nearly six weeks since Maryland won back-to-back games, defeating Wake Forest on Jan. 11 and Georgia Tech on Jan. 15.
“Sometimes it seems like we are content, and we don’t guard with the same aggression, and it doesn’t seem like we play as hard [after a victory],” Padgett conceded. “But we can’t be content. . . . We need this win coming up.”