Jalen Smith heads to NBA Draft with his hunger for NCAA Tournament redo unfilled

As Jalen Smith left the floor in tears on March 23, 2019, goggles removed from his face, Bruno Fernando wrapped an arm around him and accompanied him to the locker room.

Maryland had just suffered a gut-wrenching 69-67 defeat to LSU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, its late comeback not enough to knock off the Tigers. Smith, then a freshman, struggled to control his emotions afterward. Fernando, a sophomore who plays basketball with a similar fire as Smith, dug down to achieve stoicism.

One month later, Fernando announced he would go to the NBA, leaving Smith as the unquestioned leader of the Terps’ frontcourt. Smith used Fernando’s maturation as a blueprint for his own growth, transforming from mercurial producer built so thin he earned the nickname “Stix” to one of the nation’s most reliable big men and a prospect beefed up enough to be considered NBA-ready. 

“When I met Stix, he couldn’t even walk and chew gum,” said Maryland guard and fellow Baltimore native Darryl Morsell to reporters in January. “So it’s crazy just to see how he’s grown into his body, how he’s grown mentally. He’s just tough.”

Smith waited all season to prove he could carry Maryland in the NCAA Tournament and leave the college game a champion. He never got the chance.

About a month after the coronavirus pandemic prompted the cancellation of March Madness, Smith on Tuesday announced he would enter the 2020 NBA Draft, where he is expected to be a first-round pick. He leaves a program that went 24-7 in 2019-20 and earned a share of the Big Ten title in large part because of his 15.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.

Big Ten play brought out the best in Smith — a testament to his progression and ability to raise his performance level against tough competition. He secured at least 10 boards in 13 of his final 14 regular-season conference games. His crown-jewel performance took place against Indiana, when his 29 points and 11 rebounds helped Maryland flip a seven-point deficit with just over four minutes remaining into a 77-76 win at Assembly Hall.

After breaking the Hoosiers, Smith rubbed salt in the wound, taunting their fans. Within the next hour, he apologized for his actions, though most Terps fans watching from home certainly didn’t mind the display of passion.

Mostly, Smith’s college success came with a widely accepted dose of enthusiasm — like when he posterized Rutgers in transition during a February win and roared to Maryland’s student section behind the basket.

Fernando shared a similar propensity for doing everything he could to demoralize opponents and pump up his teammates, often celebrating with excess gusto after big finishes at the rim. He, too, managed to get under the skin of the other team.

His stepover of a Nebraska defender following a dunk was perhaps his most notable moment of his sometimes over-the-top intensity.

Before Smith’s huge slam against Rutgers, there was Fernando’s throwdown against the Scarlett Knights two years prior.

The parallels were never an accident.

“I learned from (Fernando),” Smith said, “and just use what he did in my game now.”

The 6-10 Smith was the most noticeable player on almost every court he took, naturally drawing attention with a boisterous playing style that often overwhelms opponents inside.

When Smith scored 18 points and amassed 11 rebounds in Maryland’s regularseason finale victory over Michigan, which gave the Terps a share of the conference title, Fernando sat courtside in College Park looking on with pride as he soaked in the man Smith had become.

Following the game, Fernando spoke at length with Smith, then offered encouragement on Twitter.

“Be Greater than those Before You,” wrote Fernando. “You r the true meaning of that my Dawg.”

Smith had excellent opportunity to achieve greatness in March and do what his mentor could not. Now he’ll have to wait until the NBA to make the national mark he craves.

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