At around 12:15 p.m. on Friday, more than seven hours before Maryland tipped off against LIU-Brooklyn at Comcast Center, Dez Wells wandered into Coach Mark Turgeon’s offense and felt a massive weight lift off his shoulders.
Ever since Wells arrived at Maryland, announcing his decision to transfer from Xavier via Twitter in early September, the ensuing buzz coincided with heightened self-imposed pressure from the sophomore swingman. He trended locally when the initial decision was made, and then nationally when the NCAA ruled him eligible just two days before the season opener against Kentucky.
Fans expected the high-flying YouTube sensation to not only contribute immediately, but to push the Maryland basketball team from the NCAA tournament bubble squarely into a March Madness powerhouse. The outside world anticipated greatness; Wells wanted even more from himself.
What ensued was a shaky opener against the Wildcats and a much-improved second act against Morehead State on Monday. But Wells felt out of his skin, so to speak, still unlike himself.
Until Turgeon sat Wells down and talked with him. “I think you’re putting way too much pressure on yourself,” Turgeon said. Wells agreed. “You don’t have to be the guy every night for us to be successful,” Turgeon went on. “You just have to be Dez Wells.”
And so Wells, at once inspired and relieved, delivered 33 minutes of electric basketball against LIU-Brooklyn, shooting 7 of 11 from the field for 15 points, adding eight rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals. Wells teed up two of the rejections from half-court, soaring through the lane and swatting away a shot that really never had a chance to even sniff the rim.
During that meeting, Turgeon told Wells to stop worrying about the pressure. “I’ll take it all,” Wells recalls his coach saying. “Just do what you do, play hard, and be a basketball player.”
An emotional leader for these Terrapins, Wells became a vocal presence from the second he arrived in College Park. He leads team huddles and preaches accountability. As Turgeon has insisted on allowing his players to work through the kinks themselves, Wells has marched at the forefront of that movement.
“People were saying he’s hyper because all he’s been through,” guard Pe’Shon Howard said. “No, that’s just how he plays. He wants us to do so well, that’s how passionate he is. As long as we understand that, we really appreciate it.”
Wells knew it would take time. The key was relaxing and waiting, not pressing, for his breakout game. As a child growing up in Raleigh, Wells’s mother, Pamela, always told him to study hard for tests. Preparation relieves pressure, she said, to create a knockout performance.
Just like Friday night.
“This is the moment I’ve waited for,” Wells said, “to be on a stage with a great team like mine. It came when I was supposed to.”