The kiss was nothing special to Dez Wells, a simple midcourt gesture during his Maryland Madness introduction to Cole Field House meant to honor those legends who came before him. But as Wells bent down by the tip-off circle and smooched the oak floors imported for the one-night-only event, the moment underscored something unique about the junior guard: Just like the evening collided the past with the present, so too did Wells merge memories of old stars with hope for his own future.
Wells has long considered himself a student of basketball, viewing his predecessors as trailblazers, without whom he could never succeed. The history lessons ratcheted up before last season, when Wells transferred to Maryland after being expelled from Xavier in the wake of a sexual assault allegation. (The allegation was investigated by police and never resulted in criminal charges; Wells has filed a federal lawsuit against Xavier seeking damages for what he calls a wrongful expulsion.) He moved back to the East Coast, onto a campus where players such as Juan Dixon and Len Bias once roamed, expected to carry the program into a new era.
“I hope nobody’s comparing me to those guys because I don’t feel like I can live up to that,” Wells said Oct. 8 at media day. “I’m not as good as those guys. different position, different teams. But I feel like I can be great in my own way. That’s what I’m focused on: being the best player in my own way. If that ends up being one of the best players, even in the conversation, is an honor to me and my family. Hopefully the legacy I leave behind will be something that people talk about for years and years to come.”
Wells was sitting at a round table just behind the baseline, a dozen voice recorders pressed in his face. Above him, honored jerseys hung from the rafters. At most, Wells has two years to leave his mark at Maryland. He helped carry the Terps through the postseason last winter, led the team with 13.1 points per game and enters 2013-14 hellbent on serving as a scorer, a leader, a defender, a sparkplug, a historian – really, whatever Coach Mark Turgeon needs him to be.
“I feel like whatever role I have, I’ll accept it and I’ll play as hard as I can, because that’s what I owe this team,” Wells said. “Not going to make every shot, not going to get the ball every time, but all I can control is how hard I play. I can’t let one play affect the next three. Whether I have the ball in my hands or not, that doesn’t mean I can’t score. Great players try to find a way to score. I want to be a great player, so I’m going to try to find a way to score. I don’t need to have the ball to make something happen on the court.”
Most of Wells’s half-hour interview session focused on the past. He watches YouTube clips of the Bias-Michael Jordan matchups from the mid-1980s, way more than he watches footage of himself. Since last season ended with an NIT semifinals loss to Iowa at Madison Square Garden, Wells has seen his career-high 30 point demolition of Duke during the ACC tournament only once. And even then, he focused only on defensive mistakes.
Now, he wakes up every morning at 6 a.m. to shoot before practice begins at 8. He works out after class, hoping to improve his 33.3-percent three-point shooting and cut down on his team-high 109 turnovers. Over the summer, Maryland alumni such as Dixon turned out to Comcast Center for pickup games, and Wells found himself in awe. He tried to absorb something from everyone’s game, cobbling together bits and pieces to finish the puzzle.
Before Wells arrived at Maryland, once the awkward limbo period ended and his future became certain, he issued himself an edict. His mother, Pamela, had talked about the greatness Bias brought to Maryland, so Wells promised he would start thinking about those old players. The great ones, he said, always ask questions and care about how their legacy fits into the bigger picture.
“I’m not sure if Len Bias thought about those things, but he was a catalyst for a lot of things that happen in this era,” he said. “So was Juan, Steve Blake, all those guys. In a way, it’s like paying homage for setting the bar high, setting the tone for guys like me.”
Teammates and coaches see a different Wells too. As a sophomore, the attention engulfed him immediately. He appeared on posters as the face of the program, and was trotted out for countless interview sessions, expected to speak for a team he had only joined mere months ago. This season, he feels more relaxed. He holds young players accountable for their mistakes but, if the situation demands, puts an arm around their shoulder for comfort.
“Totally different,” Turgeon said last week. “I’m really proud of Dez because he’s really matured. Last year Dez had, rightfully so, a chip on his shoulder. He was mad a lot early, I had to talk to calm him down. His leadership has gone to another level. His work habits, his all-about-Maryland-team has been tremendous.”