With Strawberry, It's a Point of Contention
From the acclaimed point-guard institute that educated John Lucas, Brad Davis, Steve Blake and that Class of '67 peacenik, Gary Williams, comes a converted small forward?
D.J. Strawberry is being asked to change how he sees and plays the game because, well, Maryland has no comparable point guard at the moment. It is a seat-of-the-pants, nightly experiment, sometimes ending in no-look turnovers and other times resulting in some of the prettiest penetrate-and-distribute basketball at the Division I level.
"There's no free agency here," Williams, the Maryland coach, said last night in College Park, explaining how the son of former major league outfielder Darryl Strawberry had no choice but to accept the task. "We are where we are this year."
Strawberry's four-to-three assist-to-turnover ratio was not indicative of how he helped the Terrapins take out sixth-ranked Boston College, 73-71. For every safari adventure he embarked on bringing the ball upcourt against pressure, there was a timely deflection or a disruption of the passing lanes. At 6 feet 5, he has a pterodactyl wingspan that makes it so difficult on itty-bitty point guards from other schools.
But can Strawberry, along with relief from Sterling Ledbetter and Parrish Brown and even combo-guard Chris McCray, compensate for the lack of an experienced floor leader? It's only the biggest question for Maryland this season, the one that determines whether the Terps can return to some semblance of Williams's Final Four teams from a few years ago or depressingly wait for that call from the NIT like last year.
Nothing -- not the absence of a legitimate center, a grueling ACC schedule, nothing -- will determine Maryland's fate more than whether Williams's gamble at the point blossoms or combusts.
Can he teach a 100-mph athlete like Strawberry about pace, rhythm and timing? Or will he live with the shaky ball handling and decision-making because Strawberry and his wiry frame can slither through mounds of muscle and break down a defense like few guards in the college game?
"We're asking him to do a lot, to move over two positions instead of one," Williams said. "It's a big job, but I'm comfortable enough with what he does defensively to see how it works."
If there was ever a year in the ACC Williams might be able to get away with a deficiency at the position, this might be that year. Chris Paul, Jarrett Jack and Daniel Ewing all migrated to the NBA, leaving Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and even No. 1 Duke with a lot less experience at the point.
Maryland played a rugged, persevering game against BC, knocking off its first ranked team of the season after falling to Gonzaga in Maui and George Washington at MCI Center last week.
The Colonials executed the perfect game plan against the Terps: Rattle Strawberry and the rest of the back court, and see Maryland roll over offensively. The Terps grew impatient, indecisive and, ultimately, got caught up in GW's tempo instead of forging their own.
"Sometimes coach will yell at me about a turnover or something," Strawberry said. "He'll start saying 'Calm down, calm down,' and I'll try to make the best decision the next time."
Strawberry was asked if he had ever played the point guard position before at any level. "AAU, I did," the candid kid said. "But AAU I'd just go out and score. It's nothing like this."
Williams said over the weekend that any school watching the George Washington tape would understand why pressure and more pressure works against his team. You almost got the sense the former Maryland floor leader was throwing out a challenge, mentally testing his point guards until they gained a sense of composure with other guards closing in.
Even a year later, it's hard not to feel some pangs of loss when it comes to John Gilchrist. The enigmatic point guard of the prior two Maryland seasons never amounted to the player who tore up the ACC tournament in March 2004. You wonder how good he could have become if those little voices from afar did not get in his head and tell him he was ready for the NBA before his time. You put a determined and realistic Gilchrist on this Maryland team, and you're looking at one of the top five teams in the country, hands down.
In a college landscape almost devoid of bona fide big men, this kind of run-and-shoot club could go unbeaten at a raucous place like Comcast Center.
But such whimsical thoughts do nothing for Williams's club today. It's up to Strawberry to do the best job at the point he can and up to Ledbetter and McCray and Brown to give the Terps enough good minutes so Strawberry can rest and learn the position that his coach and others played so naturally at Maryland.