On a white activity bus with purple lettering, Dez Wells and John Wall sat together and practiced their interviews while traveling to Word of God Christian Academy basketball games four years ago. Sensing two burgeoning stars within his midst, Coach Kendrick Williams often whipped out a microphone and pelted his players with questions, critiquing their answers and explaining that, one day, they’d do it for real.
Flash forward to Tuesday afternoon, and Wells was in the Comcast Center media room, staring at a throng of cameras and microphones. An unquestioned leader of the Maryland basketball team mere months after transferring from Xavier, Wells seemed completely at ease. He offered pointed insight into practices and games with frequent references to NBA legends, while selflessly crediting teammates and coaches for individual highlights.
Becoming Maryland’s emotional and physical general was difficult enough as just a sophomore. Doing so without the benefit of offseason workouts and bonding sessions seemed nearly impossible. And yet with the Terps (13-1, 1-0) on a 13-game winning streak entering Wednesday’s ACC matchup against Florida State, Wells has gone from a prized August pickup into a perpetual energy injection, capable of jolting his teammates during lackadaisical practices and carrying them through stormy in-game stretches.
“A natural-born leader such as Dez, they do not have to think about leading,” Williams said. “It’s a habit. That’s who they are. It’s in his DNA.”
Maybe it’s because Wells always played up an age group, taking cues from Wall, North Carolina State junior C.J. Leslie and other Word of God veterans. Perhaps it’s because Wells grew up as “the man of the house,” as his mother Pamela likes to say, or because he’s the only active player on Maryland’s roster with NCAA tournament experience. Regardless, the Terps gravitated to Wells immediately, making even Wells surprised at how much of an impact he’s had, both on and off the court, in such a short time.
“It’s new to me,” Wells said. “I’m new to this, but I guess you could say that I accept my role, getting on guys, not really being their favorite person at some points in practice or the game. But they all know that I love them to death. I want them to be as good as they can be. And it’s not easy. It’s really, really hard.”
Hardest was moving past the heartbreak at Xavier, which cast him out amid sexual-assault allegations that were deemed unworthy of prosecution by an Ohio district attorney. But two hours after Wells landed in Maryland for his official visit in early September, he called Williams to say College Park felt like home.
“I’m very impressed,” Maryland freshman guard Seth Allen said. “When somebody comes in late, you feel like you don’t have that chemistry with him. But as soon as Dez came, he fit right in. He felt like a big brother to me. On the court, he’s a great emotional leader because he has so much passion for the game.”
Confident from the outset, Wells now leads the Terps in team huddles, often gathering the starters together before tip-off. When practices hit a lull, he’s in everyone’s ear, telling teammates to ratchet up the intensity. On a team that returned just two upperclassmen in James Padgett and Pe’Shon Howard, there was room for another outspoken leader. Wells delivered.
To wit, when Virginia Tech trimmed a second-half lead to 11 points with 9 minutes 55 seconds remaining Saturday, Wells took over. First, he sank two free throws. Then he found Alex Len for a dunk. After the under-eight media timeout, Wells returned with a layup. Suddenly, the Terps’ lead was back to 15 and Maryland was en route to a 23-point blowout with Wells finishing in double figures for the eighth time this season.
“Only a handful of guys can do that,” Terps Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Some guys can try to do it but they can’t.”
Maybe hubris gets in the way for others, the vocal aspect of leading unsupported by actions. Yet nothing about the humble Wells screams attention-seeker. During one practice, the Terps were sent to the baseline for punishment sprints, brought on by deficient effort that wasn’t even Wells’s fault. Still, he won every sprint.
“He brings it every day,” said guard Logan Aronhalt, who also transferred to Maryland this offseason. “He always gives us some calming words, knows when to pick things up. When he says something, guys respond. When he brings it on defense, makes a big play or a big dunk, guys just feed off that energy.”
The day after Christmas, following nights of board games and family time in Raleigh, N.C., Williams drove Wells back to College Park. They left 10 minutes before noon, stopping once at a drive-through McDonald’s, talking the whole ride about basketball, friends and life.
But they hit nasty traffic, and Wells was due at Comcast Center for a 6 p.m. practice. Every 15 minutes, they called Maryland’s coaching staff to check in, never thinking the trip up Interstate 95 would last this long. Finally, at 6:05 p.m., they parked in the loading dock. The journey took longer than expected, more than six hours, but at last Wells had reached his new home.