After testing the NBA waters, Melo Trimble and Jake Layman returned to school and found evolving team roles awaiting them.
Mark Turgeon still had a bounce in his step when he poked his head from the basement-level locker room and walked into a cold cement hallway at Madison Square Garden.
“Okay, do we got everybody?” the Maryland men’s basketball coach asked at the end of a successful business trip to New York.
Turgeon, his staff and the half-dozen remaining players boarded the large cargo elevator around 12:20 a.m. The Terps had just topped a formidable Connecticut team on national television, putting together one of their most convincing wins to date. Sophomore Melo Trimble, again the night’s star, was seemingly lost in an elevator of oversize basketball players and roller-bags. The 20-year-old guard stood silently in one corner wearing sweats and a pair of headphones as the Terps ascended.
MARYLAND'S MARCH: About this series: The Maryland men's basketball team faces high expectations as one of the nation's top-ranked squads. Washington Post reporter Rick Maese and photographer Toni L. Sandys go behind the scenes this season to see what makes a high-level program tick and what it takes to fulfill potential.
Senior Jake Layman was already outside, chatting with friends on a New York street corner. The box score seemed to reveal another modest offensive outing, but coaches were again particularly pleased with Layman’s effort and defense. For the moment at least, he looked content.
The college basketball season is a suspenseful drama divided into three parts: early competition, conference games and tournament play. As Maryland made its way through the first act of its season of great expectations, coaches knew more than ever how much the team’s fate was tied to Trimble and Layman. This past spring, the program was in danger of losing both.
After the Terps’ surprising success last season, both Trimble and Layman decided to test the NBA waters. Trimble was coming off an impressive first season of college ball, but he kept assuring Turgeon he would return for his sophomore year. At times, Turgeon pushed him to at least see what feedback the NBA and its draft evaluators might provide.
“He’d say, ‘Okay, okay, but I’m coming back,’ ” Turgeon recalled.
Melo Trimble tries to get past a Saint Francis defender.
Trimble talked with his parents and Eric Moses, his former AAU coach, and they reached an easy consensus: “We all agreed that one more year would definitely help him,” Moses said.
Layman was a different matter. As a junior, he had shown his versatility: an ability to play the wing, shoot the three and post up in the paint. There was a period during which Turgeon felt certain Layman was gone. Though it was important to Layman to earn a bachelor’s degree, he felt tugged by the possibility of a pro career.
“He has that attitude about him: 'All I do is win.' He reminds me of me in that regard.”
—John Lucas, former Maryland point guard and No. 1 overall draft pick, speaking about Trimble
“At times, I was definitely swaying towards leaving,” he said recently.
Turgeon generally feels it’s unwise for any player to leave school early unless he’s assured of being drafted in the first round. The coach feared Layman was getting bad information, so when the Layman family asked Turgeon for some help, he was eager put them in touch with some of his trusted NBA contacts.
“In the end, they got right information and realized the best thing for him to do was come back,” Turgeon said. “My whole thing with Jake was, I want him to make the right decision. I would’ve felt bad if the decision was wrong.”
Turgeon was at the Final Four in Indianapolis when Layman called. It was a critical stretch for the program. Trimble announced his plan to return. Diamond Stone, a five-star recruit from Milwaukee, had committed. The Terps already had transfer Robert Carter Jr. on campus and soon would add former Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon as well. In many ways, Layman was the first piece of the puzzle — the team’s only three-year starter — and also the last. Turgeon already had heard from another player that Layman was going to stick around but didn’t have to fake his excitement when he got the news officially.
“I was relieved as much as anything,” Turgeon said. “I thought we were building something that had a chance to do something special.”
In the early parts of the 2015-16 season, both Trimble and Layman had to accept new team roles while still trying to accomplish goals laid out last spring when each learned what it might take to play at the next level. Layman had transformed his body. Trimble had expanded his game. The result: Despite a tough loss at North Carolina, the Terps were cruising through their nonconference schedule. Layman kept finding new ways to contribute, while Trimble had established himself as an indispensable player, perhaps the key to the Terps’ entire season.
On a chilly New York night in early December, fans had been ushered out of the arena shortly after the Terps’ win over Connecticut. A couple dozen of them were huddled in the cold on the corner of 33rd Street and 8th Avenue, where the hot dog and pretzel stands had long ago called it a day. Layman’s mother, Claire, had stayed for a postgame hello but then quickly hit the road back to the family’s Massachusetts home. Kim Trimble was still outside waiting for her son when he emerged from the Garden’s double doors.
“Hey, how are you?” she said, wrapping the Terps’ prized point guard in her arms.
“Good, good,” Trimble said in a near-whisper, yanked away seconds later by fans eager for hugs and photos.
Soon Layman said his goodbyes, passed Trimble and headed to the bus. “That was incredible,” a fawning fan told Trimble, who silently grinned and stared down at his feet. He shared another brief hug with his mom before Nima Omidvar, the team’s director of basketball operations, bellowed, “Let’s start heading to the bus. Time to get back.”
Jake Layman and Melo Trimble talk on the Terrapins bench.
Close to home, but no free time
One of the nation’s most dynamic college basketball players can’t drive a car. Trimble tried twice for his license. The first time, he forgot to put on his seatbelt. The second, he forgot a turn signal. There hasn’t been a third.
“I don’t know where I’d even drive to if I had my license,” he said. “Maybe the barbershop?”
Trimble gets his hair cut every other week or so when his mom picks him up in College Park, and they drive together to his barber in Brandywine. He especially likes to have his hair cut right before big games. Not only does he get his fade fixed, top trimmed and color corrected, he gets a few minutes with his mom, their only real chance to catch up on school, the team, girls, and everything that’s going on back home.
“It’s very important,” he said.
Trimble is from Upper Marlboro and even though he chose Maryland to stay close to home, he doesn’t have much free time to hang with family and friends. This summer he never got home, and during the school year, it’s impossible to get back for even an afternoon. So his mom comes to him, attending every home game and making a handful of road trips. She flew to Mexico for the team’s November tournament in Cancun, and saw her son only briefly after games. She drove four hours to New York and was grateful for those two minutes on the street corner near the Garden.
Trimble grew up watching the NBA and the Wizards, but always paid close attention to Maryland, especially to Juan Dixon’s teams and later to Greivis Vasquez’s. By the end of his junior year at O’Connell in Arlington, Trimble had a giant red “M” tattooed on his chest and committed to Maryland on his mom’s birthday. As a senior, he was The Post’s All-Met Player of the Year.
He led the Terps with 16.2 points per game as a freshman, and this fall was named the Big Ten preseason player of the year. Through November and December, he somehow exceeded those expectations.
“The more I coach him, the less he surprises me,” said Maryland assistant Dustin Clark.
Trimble is entirely unfazed on the court and rarely stressed away from it. The training staff tracks everything and asks players their mood before each practice. Trimble’s never wavers. He’s always fine, feeling good. Mellow. His biggest performances have come in the Terps’ biggest games: 24 points against Georgetown, 23 at North Carolina, 25 against Connecticut. He had at least 10 assists twice in nonconference games and against Maryland-Eastern Shore, he finished with 18 points despite attempting just six field goals. “Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” Turgeon said that night.
“He has a feel you can’t teach,” the coach said recently.
Trimble is the latest to star at his position in College Park.
“Good point guards are not developed,” explains John Lucas, the Maryland legend who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1976 NBA draft. “They’re born. It’s a feel, a knack and an art — not a skill. Melo has it.”
Lucas played in the NBA for 14 seasons and was a head coach for six. He has watched Trimble closely and calls the young player a throwback of sorts — maybe not the most athletic guy on the court but the one player who’s eager to carry a team entirely on his shoulders.
“He has that attitude about him: ‘All I do is win,’ ” Lucas said. “He reminds me of me in that regard.”
The effort is worth the weight
At 9:15 a.m. before a recent practice, Kyle Tarp burst through the locker room doors and set down four trays of breakfast sandwiches. It was finals week, and players filtered in following their early-morning exams. With no exam scheduled, Layman was among the last to arrive.
“I woke up way too late today,” he said, sitting on a stool in front of his locker.
Tarp, the team’s director of basketball performance, immediately pounced with two bagel sandwiches on a plate. “Crush those, Jake, and then we’ll weigh,” Tarp said, and Layman let out a sigh.
Since middle school, Layman has been tall and lanky, always burning calories faster than he could absorb them. “A constant struggle,” his father, Tim, said of Layman’s weight.
Turgeon recruited Layman when the coach was still at Texas A&M, but Layman didn’t want to play that far from his New England home. When Turgeon and his staff relocated to College Park, it was such an easy sell that Layman canceled trips to Florida, Louisville and Syracuse. Layman came to Maryland 3½ years ago weighing 180 pounds.
Jake Layman eats three bagel sandwiches. The forward is having his weight monitored daily as he works to bulk up.
“We’re gonna put weight on you,” he recalled Tarp telling him back then.“It’s gonna be hard and you’re not gonna like it, but it needs to be done.”
It was hard, and Layman usually didn’t like it. But he had no choice. Tarp says Layman can burn up to 2,000 calories in a single practice. The training staff does whatever it can to replace those calories and pack on more. In all, the goal is for Layman to consume 7,000 calories each day.
“My goal this year was to become a complete player. . . It’s all about, did I play the right way? Did I have a complete game? Did we get a win?”
Many mornings, Tarp personally meets Layman for breakfast to watch him eat, and he’ll always have a post-practice meal ready to go. Tarp’s interns make three protein shakes a day for Layman. They’ll also give him a snack bag packed with around 1,500 calories after each practice. Once, Tarp refused to let Layman leave Xfinity Center to be with his parents until he emptied his bag. Layman sat there and ate in silence while his parents and Tarp watched.
“It was a matter of creating the right habits,” Tarp said. “He was embarrassed, but I didn’t care.”
After Layman heard from NBA talent evaluators last spring, he knew he had no option but to bulk up. At the start of the summer, he met with Tarp. “Whatever I have to do, just tell me and I’ll do it,” Layman recalled.
More than six months later, Layman looked in pain as slowly chewed his way through a second bagel sandwich. Most of the team was already on the practice court when Layman stepped on the scale, as he does every day before practice. An intern recorded his weight — 215 — and ran him through the daily questionnaire about sleep, stress, mood and soreness.
He’s trying to play around 215 all season, where he still has his speed on the wing but has more power if he needs to play with his back to the hoop. Both Tarp and his parents are monitoring his weight almost daily.
“When I call home, that’s usually the first thing my dad asks,” Layman joked.
Actions speak louder than words
When Kim Trimble dropped off her son for his first day of kindergarten, he was inconsolable. He wasn’t comfortable around the other students and didn’t want to be left alone, so she stayed and comforted him.
“Just shy,” Kim said. “Always shy. That was my reason for putting him in sports.”
When he was a little older, coaches would go long stretches without realizing Trimble was in the same room.
Maryland fans pledge their allegiance to Melo Trimble.
“You’d turn around and say, ‘Whoa, how long have you been here?’ ” said Moses, who began coaching Trimble as a 12-year-old.
Moses thinks that’s part of the reason Trimble was overlooked as a young player — “He was never bringing attention to himself” — and coaches say it’s why he’s such a good learner. But Trimble knows he must break out of that shell. When he decided to return to College Park, he told coaches he wanted to improve his defense, see the court better and become more of a vocal leader.
Maryland assistant Cliff Warren recently showed Trimble a video of Chris Paul during which the NBA all-star was asked what makes a great leader at the point guard position.
“At the point guard position, you’re just in charge at both ends, defensively and offensively,” Paul said. Warren liked that because he’s been stressing the defensive responsibilities to Trimble. “It’s your job to get everybody else involved,” Paul continued. Warren kept stopping the video to make small points, many he had made before and many he would make again.
“I just have a hard time yelling,” Trimble said. “When I do yell, I think everyone hears me, but they don’t. No one does, I guess.”
“He’s just a quiet person,” said Dez Wells, the former Terps guard who took Trimble under his wing a year ago. “Even when he’s speaking, you kind of can’t hear him because he’s so soft-spoken.”
Trimble said even in class, when students are assigned to groups, he inevitably is the one who sits in silence. He says he’s listening, soaking everything in, but doesn’t always feel he has something to offer. When his mother texts him, she gets short responses:
What are doing? Nothing.
How are you doing? Good.
The Terps have other vocal leaders, and coaches are confident Trimble can quietly tackle anything that’s put in front of him.
“Look, Melo didn’t ask for that role as a freshman,” Clark said. “To come in here, start, be a team leader — he didn’t ask for that kind of pressure. But Melo’s always been good at just taking care of the task at hand. That’s what we need from him.”
The Terrapins take the court before the start of the game against Princeton on Dec. 19 in Baltimore. Maryland won the contest, 82-61.
Comparisons, then evolution
The locker room inside Xfinity Center is impressive but not showy, and on each stall is a five-foot photograph of the locker’s occupant. Inside Layman’s are printouts listing statistics of two NBA players: Chandler Parsons and Kawhi Leonard.
“Their success is what I want to have,” Layman said. “It’s a good daily reminder.”
Tarp created the printouts last spring to illustrate a couple of things: Layman is comparable to formidable NBA talents in many — but not all — areas.
Following last season, the Terps’ staff brought in Brett Brungardt from BAM Testing, the same outfit that measures prospects every year at the NBA combine. Brungardt ran Layman and his teammates through the same tests and recorded the measurements.
Tarp then studied Layman’s numbers and put them alongside those of Parsons and Leonard. At 6 feet 9, Layman is an inch shorter than Parsons and two inches taller than Leonard. Leonard has a bigger wingspan, but Layman has lower body fat, a better vertical jump, faster sprint time, better agility and quicker reaction time than both.
“Athletically, Jake’s superior to these guys in terms of testing numbers,” Tarp said. “Now it’s a whole other thing when you put a basketball in a guy’s hand, but physically, he has the foundation to beat these guys out.”
At the time of the tests, Parsons weighed 221 pounds, and Leonard was 227. Layman was at 205.
“That’s the difference,” Tarp said.
Coaches like everything else about Layman, particularly his evolution as a player. He’s become more vocal, absorbs instruction as well as anyone and has become increasingly confident. He was strictly a jump shooter as a freshman, learned to play better with the ball in his hands as a sophomore and then moved down to the post as a junior. This season, they want to see him defending, rebounding and providing a scoring threat from every spot on the floor.
It has required a mental adjustment of sorts. A year ago Layman was the team’s third-leading scorer (12.5 points) and top rebounder (5.8). He failed to score in double digits just six times. This season, playing fewer minutes, he scored fewer than 10 points in half of the Terps’ first 12 games. Through the Terps' nonconference schedule, Layman was the team's fourth-leading scorer (11.0) and second-leading rebounder (5.3).
While Trimble had played so big against the toughest foes, Layman had just four points against North Carolina and eight against Connecticut. He went through a six-game stretch in which he reached double figures just once.
“My goal this year was to become a complete player,” he said. “So points per game is one thing, but there’s all the other things — defense, rebounding, playmaking — that are on my mind. It’s all about, did I play the right way? Did I have a complete game? Did we get a win?”
During a recent practice, one of the last before the Terps’ holiday break, the team began a loose-ball drill, a bruising exercise. Turgeon rolled the ball, and Layman hurled his body on the floor, securing the ball and flipping a quick pass. He jumped back to his feet, received a pass and charged into the paint where an assistant was waiting with a giant pad.
“Give him wood!” Tarp yelled from the side.
Layman pounded into the assistant, his shoulder, elbow and hip working together as a wrecking ball, before spinning and rolling in a layup with his right hand.
“Yeah, Jake!” Tarp yelled. “Cause of that extra bagel sandwich!”
No place like home for the holidays
In late December, the fall semester was wrapping up, finals were finished and conference play loomed. But first players were given a brief break to go home for the holidays.
Weighing 212 pounds, Layman rode home on the high of his most recent performance. On Dec. 19, he scored a season-high 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting with eight rebounds against Princeton. His parents didn’t even need to check with Tarp; they knew to have plenty of materials for protein shakes on hand.
Trimble finally had some time to spend at home, but he also visited friends and an old coach in Virginia. He didn’t dare take a break from basketball.
“I feel like if I get complacent or take any time off, my game will fall off,” he said.
Melo Trimble gets a hug from his mother, Kim Trimble, following the win against Princeton in Baltimore.
The assistant coaches squeezed in some final recruiting trips, while Turgeon, who’d taken in the seven high school games the previous weekend, spent time at home with his family. He was still consumed with what lay ahead for the Terps. He had started sprinkling in new plays at recent practices that he’d unveil once the conference season began. He was expecting Trimble to see more double teams and was eager to introduce some new wrinkles.
After suffering their lone loss at North Carolina, the Terps have strung together five straight wins, the latest Sunday’s victory over Marshall in College Park. They’d climbed to No. 4 in the rankings, and through 12 games, all five starters were averaging double digits in scoring. Turgeon liked seeing his team progress throughout December but still felt the group was far from its ceiling.
“I’m still figuring this team out,” he said in late December.
Tarp always worries about the players’ routines when they leave College Park, but Layman returned from the holidays weighing 213. Trimble’s barber was away on vacation but returned in time for one final haircut before the new year, ensuring that the talented guard looked fresh and ready as the curtain rose on the second act of the Terps’ season.
About this series: The Maryland men's basketball team faces high expectations as one of the nation's top-ranked squads. Washington Post reporter Rick Maese and photographer Toni L. Sandys go behind the scenes this season to see what makes a high-level program tick and what it takes to fulfill potential.