Maryland Basketball Season Preview: The Bigs

Good news, folks: basketball season is almost back. Maryland starts off their basketball year against Seattle this Monday at the Comcast Center, and even though football is better than expected, it's time to switch gears, at least for a little.

The surprising football success has kept us from doing a 13-post countdown this year, but we can still do something similar: a player-by-player preview broken down into three posts, one for each general position.

In case you couldn't tell, that's what we're doing: one for the bigs, one for the wings, and one for the guards. We'll hit the bigs today, working our way down the point guards on Sunday - ie, the day before basketball starts. (A quick disclaimer: this is more for fun than for serious discourse, which would be difficult at best considering how many questions are on Maryland's team.) Let's talk roundball again:

The Starters

Jordan Williams, 6-10, 260 (9.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG)

Coming in as a freshman, Williams was expected to be in too poor of shape to contribute in the ACC. At best, he'd be competing for playing time with the other bigs off the bench. Instead, he claimed a starting role with a 19-point, 13-rebound night against Villanova shortly before ACC play started and became a legitimately game-changing player for Maryland: for the first time since Lonny Baxter, Gary Williams had a wide body to bang in the paint. It opened up Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes on the perimeter, which in turn opened him up inside. And contrary to the conditioning concerns, he excelled at running the court and got better as the season went on: in his final ten games, he averaged 12.6 PPG and 10.4 RPG and notched five double-doubles. Oh, and he did this.

His solid freshman year, littered with a few spectacular performances (21 and 17 vs. Houston, 15 and 11 against Duke), was enough for me to claim that the team is his now. And it very well may be. He still has plenty of holes in his game - he shot just 53% from the line, which is key considering how much he did (and will) get fouled - but he was pretty complete: he rebounded well, caught everything near him, showed some surprising athleticism,  had savvy beyond his years, and most importantly showed that he knew how to use his body. And after a year of working with Paul Ricci, it looks like all of that (lovable) pudge is now gone.

Now what Maryland needs to see is his ability to play without an established perimeter force or distributer. That's not easy for anyone to do, but as it stands now Williams is all Maryland has as an established scoring force. Many of his points last year came from great feeds by Vasquez that were opened up by GV's and Eric Hayes' shooting ability. When defenses can key in on Williams and double-team him, how will he respond? Can Maryland prevent that from happening? Is there a passer good enough to give him looks similar to what Vasquez could do?

All that will define how well or poorly Jordan Williams does, and it'll probably also define Maryland's season. For now, making any sort of prediction projecting him as a legitimate Wooden contender is foolish: Jordan's ceiling is probably around 22 and 12, but it's going to take the right crew around him to achieve that. He should get more looks, but they won't be as easy as last year. For now, we'll assume a moderate increase in rebounds and a mild uptick in scoring, very close to the averages in his final 10 games last year.

Cautious Projection: 13.4 PPG, 10.7 RPG

Dino Gregory, 6-7, 230 (4.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG)

Gregory was expected to be a starter last year, but he missed the first half of the season due to academic reasons and lost his starting spot to J-Dub (and rightfully so). He became the first big man off the bench for the ACC season and the closest thing Maryland had to an energy spark off the bench. He was usually good to block the occasional shot, play some solid defense, take a charge or two here, hit a mid-range jumper, force in some garbage buckets, or put down a big dunk. Essentially, he was the epitome of an energy player: he used his technique to help on defense, grabbed rebounds, and hustled on offense to hide a general lack of refinement.

All that was well and good when he was playing 20 minutes a game; when that ups to 30, as it likely will this year, will it be enough? Dino has never been a big part of Maryland's half-court offense, a product of his lack of height and low-post moves, and I don't really expect him to be one now. He started to knock down a mid-range jumper last year, which should be his biggest offensive asset aside from rebounding, but past that I'm not sure where he factors in. He's a face-up four, ala Landon Milbourne, but Landon was taller, longer, faster, more athletic, had a better handle, and was a better shooter. Offensively, Dino's probably not going to be a scoring machine; instead, he'll do most of his damage hitting mid-range jumpers created by J-Dub and scoring some garbage buckets (not a bad thing). Anything more than his energy roots is going to be gravy.

Defensively, I'm a little more confident. He's a tad undersized, yeah, but he adds a lot of experience to a muscular base and generally solid timing and instincts defensively. He'll struggle against some of the bigger ACC teams, but he'll be an asset more often than not.

Dino's not a star. Expecting him to magically turn on an offensive switch is unrealistic, though he should be able to pick up much of the rebounding slack (12 boards/game total) left by the absences of Milbourne, Hayes, and Vasquez. Frankly, you'll probably get what you can expect out of Dino: a glue guy and energy player playing starter minutes. On a team filled with question marks, that's a pretty nice deal. Don't take it for granted.

Cautious Prediction: 6.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg

The Role Player

James Padgett, 6-8, 225 (3.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG)

When Padge came into the program, it was a toss-up as to whether he or Jordan Williams would be the better player. Though it looks like that question is now definitively answered in favor of Williams, Padgett still has a role to play here, and for now it'll probably be the same one he played in high school: the trashman. At Lincoln High with Lance Stevenson, Padgett's role was to grab rebounds, play tough defense, and get tough buckets. Think of Dino Gregory, only taller, longer, and with a higher upside.

Unfortunately for Padge, his similarities to Dino meant that he didn't get much playing time last year. There was more than one occasion (I know, I'm only linking one occasion, but trust me) that it seemed the Padgett era was starting, but it never really did. But now Padgett is the first big man off the bench and we'll finally get to see that gritty game in action.

He's not just all grit, though. In fact, when we saw him in College Park, he looked more finesse. He needs to work on his hands, but he's got some sweet low post moves on offense and his footwork on defense in the post surprised me. He's occasionally looked tentative, but if the "dirty work" mentality that he had at Lincoln pops back up, he's got a very high ceiling. And past the dirty work, it's clear he has some skills in the low post, and his length and athleticism can make him a force defensively.

Like Dino, it's unrealistic to expect too much from him. A few more points and a few more boards is all I'll project for the moment; there's just too much unknown there to go for much more. Make no mistake, he has the potential to be more than an energy guy, which would have him start taking serious minutes from Gregory. But until he shows that consistently, Gary's not the type of guy to go about giving him a bunch of playing time.

Cautious Projection: 4.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg

The Newbs

Berend Weijs, 6-10, 200 (JuCo transfer from Harcum College)

Ah, the Flying Dutchman. Maryland found Weijs when he came with a friend to play pickup in College Park and some of the players were present. They saw that Weijs was for real, told the coaching staff, and they offered. It's a...different, I guess you could say, type of story.

But Weijs brings a lot to the game, believe it or not. He's lanky, the tallest player on the team, and was a record-breaking shotblocker at Harcum. He didn't score much at all and that won't be his role here, but on a team that's short on bigs and defense, Weijs has a lot to offer.

His success won't be measured in points at all. In fact, if he scores, consider it a bonus. But he was okay at Maryland Madness and played more minutes than even James Padgett against Florida Southern, where he contributed five boards and four blocks. And if that's all he does - block a few shots and grab a few boards - that's fine: Maryland needs some interior defense, particularly against taller teams that Dino Gregory will be ineffective against, and rebounding is always welcome. Considering that they've lacked interior depth in the past, Weijs' presence is welcome.

Cautious Projection: 1.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.1 bpg

Ashton Pankey, 6-9, 220 (freshman from St. Anthony's HS)

Most seem to think that Pankey's not all that different from James Padgett: long, athletic, strong in the low post and willing to do some dirty work. Having never seen him play, I'm no position to judge otherwise. One of the truly notable things about Pankey is that he missed his entire senior year due to a major stress fracture in his left leg. After what happened with Jerome Burney, it's fair if you're a little skeptical of his health, though he's supposedly 100% back.

Even if Pankey is fully healthy, I'm not sure where his PT is coming from. Padgett is a similar player with an extra year in the system and was more advanced at the same stage; Weijs offers more in defense. Pankey's upside right now is a hard-nosed rebounder, and that's fine, but don't expect a ton in the way of minutes.

Cautious Projection: 1.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg

Remember, there's a reason this is a cautious projection. There are a million different variables, and like most previews this is really more for fun than anything else. With that said, any thoughts on these five?

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