Remember the excitement surrounding Nick Faust's commitment back in the August of 2010, aka Faustivus? Trick question: of course you do. It's impossible not to.
Faust was (at the time) Maryland's most highly-regarded recruit since Mike Jones back in 2003. He was seen as the guy who, along with others like Justin Anderson and perhaps Shaquille Cleare, would lead Maryland back to national relevance in the waning years of Gary Williams' career. Traditional Gary guys, hard-workers who wanted to be at Maryland, only more talented than the decade or so of prospects preceding them. The keystone of the Gary Renaissance. Or, at least, that was the romanticized vision of the future we created.
As you know, there was an unexpected turn of events in that sequence: the retirement of Williams. But while Maryland lost Anderson, Mark Turgeon was able to retain Faust. And those sky-high expectations stayed sky-high.
It's part of sports culture, really, to inflate expectations. It happens in every fanbase, and perhaps particularly in Maryland's - after all, this fanbase has been through more than its fair share of turmoil. The allure of Faust being the next, say, Jeremy Lamb was too much to pass up. So fans hoped for it, and eventually expected it.
As you might be able to guess, It was an unfair inflation. Faust ended up ranked as the consensus 43rd best prospect in the country by RSCI, the composite rankings. That's the same spot occupied in years prior by Florida State's Okaro White and Florida's Erik Murphy. White? He averaged 6ppg in his opening season; Murphy, 3.5. Emmanuel Negedu, who was #43 the year before, played for Tennessee his first year less than Mychal Parker did last year for Maryland . Yes, players who are ranked lower than Faust succeed every year as freshmen, but players ranked the same or higher also struggle.
Recruiting rankings, while valuable, can be a crapshoot, is my point. Especially when it comes to immediate expectations.
Then the real season started, and things were a bit shocking. Faust, forced to play point guard, struggled in the early season. You can see it in his numbers: he averaged only 6 points per game in the first seven contests, topping eight points only once, despite averaging upwards of 30 minutes per game. But you could see it in his game, too: he seemed out of place, rushed, a little pressured. And that shot. An awkward-looking, chicken-wing of a jumper, Faust's shot - formerly regarded as lethal - couldn't fall for love nor money. The numbers are revealing there, too: 33% from the field, 58% from the free throw line, and 19% from deep.
His overall numbers improved, but only in fits and starts: only two weeks ago he was averaging only 7.1 ppg despite playing a significant role in the offense. The shooting numbers stayed low, a scary development for someone once called the sixth-best shooter in his class, whom Rivals' Jerry Meyer once compared to Vanderbilt's John Jenkins - arguably the best shooter in the country right now.
It wasn't that Faust was playing poorly, per se - for a freshman pressed into playing upwards of 25 minutes per game, the vast majority of them out of his natural position, he was perfectly respectable. And in fact much of his game was impressive, in particular his defense, where his length and athleticism make him a formidable ballhawker.
It's just that he wasn't quite living up to those lofty expectations, especially on the offensive end. And impatient Marylanders thought they found another Sean Mosley - a great competitor, top-notch glue guy, and tough leader who just never quite lived up to lofty high school reputations. Discussions ensued about how much time Faust needed to truly know whether that was his future, or whether he just needed more time to settle in.
Seems a bit silly now, doesn't it?
Faust, over the past four games, has turned on the jets. Pressed back into the starting point guard spot against Duke in the absence of Pe'Shon Howard, Faust had a 15-point, 8-rebound game, and was easily Maryland's best player on the floor. Three games later, he's yet to slow down.
Over the last four contests, Faust has averaged an all-around great 13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. But, just as before, more important than the numbers is how he got them. He's racking up sensational dunks and finding himself on SportsCenter with regularity, while being much more efficient with his shot: 41% from the floor, but more importantly 75% from the stripe, and 33% from three - not fantastic numbers, but significantly higher than his earlier marks.
But just as impressive as all that, in fact perhaps even more so, is what Faust is doing elsewhere, in particular in rebounding and defense. Athletic, long, smart, and hard-working, Faust has always been impressive in those areas. But he's improved in the last several games. We didn't see a better example of this than the Miami game yesterday, when the 6-6 and reed-thin Faust led Maryland in rebounding with eight boards and picked Durand Scott's pocket for the game-clinching steal in the final minute.
Mark Turgeon's praise was predictably effusive, saying he could check any guard in the country. I'm not entirely sure he's wrong about it. But the best part of it all: Faust's recent performances has elevated him from being simply a defensive stopper to being a weapon for Maryland in all aspects of the game, including offense.
So, how's he done it? True, you could be simple and say he seems to have adjusted to this level - it wouldn't be wrong. He's never lacked for swagger, but at times earlier in the year he did seem to be a little hollow, a little unsure. He was certainly jumpy. The more time he's spent against high-major competition, the more sure of himself he seems. You see this in his drives to the lane, where he's finishing with authority that he lacked earlier in the season. And then those good plays lead to more good plays, in particular three-pointers, where he seems to be almost entirely reliant on confidence and feel to get shots to fall.
But he's being smarter, too. One of the knocks on Faust back in high school was that he didn't slash enough, didn't go off the bounce as much as he should've. Looking at how effective he is off the dribble and how well that facet of the game fits his skill set, it's surprising to hear. But Maryland fans saw it firsthand through Faust's first several games in College Park. Mark Turgeon made it a point of emphasis for Faust to look to penetrate more, and Faust has listened. The end result: easier opportunities at the rim, where Faust's length, athleticism, toughness, and creativity make him almost impossibly difficult to stop at times.
Now that Faust has realized he's at his best slashing to the rim, the occasionally ill-advised jumper hurts much less - and even sometimes goes in. The Virginia game is a great example, where Faust made two huge three-pointers in the first half, neither one objectively "good shots" to attempt. Both went, though, because Faust was in a rhythm, comfortable, and confident. And now that we know he knows to take the ball to the rack, I'm okay with him letting it fly every once in awhile if he's feeling it.
There's so much to talk about with Faust that it can be easy to forget that he's actually as sensational a passer as Maryland has had in years. He may not be particularly consistent or effective as a point guard, but when he sees an open man on a slash or a break, he takes the Pistol Pete method of getting the ball to him: we've been treated to no-look dimes, behind-the-back dishes, behind-the-head, and spin passes, among others. His floor vision, in truth, is underrated, and it'll make him that much more difficult to contain going forward. Teams can, say, rotate over to help out on defense against him, but odds are that he'll recognize it and get the ball to the open man. James Padgett's game-winning and-one, remember, was actually set up initially by a pinpoint pass from Faust to Ashton Pankey.
In fact, he's played so well that it might be tempting to wonder if he might just be better off at point guard, or at least as the team's #2 option there. I have to recognize that he probably appreciates the position at the moment, largely because it's an easy way for him to get involved. One of his problems was asserting himself off the dribble, but it can be tough to assert yourself if you don't touch the ball for three possessions at a time. In that sense, having the ball in his hands every time down the court is probably helping him stay more focused and is likely part of the reason for his recent uptick in play. When he does switch back to the wing, he'll have to adjust.
But that's still his better and more natural position. And it's a much better spot for Maryland. As many areas as Faust has succeeded in lately, he's struggled immensely with turnovers, averaging upwards of four a game. The vast majority of them can be attributed to his handle, which is too loose to be an everyday point guard in the ACC. He's fine slashing to the rim - like many slashers he probably finds the ball much easier to handle while attacking the basket - but when standing around on the perimeter, he lets the ball get too far away from his body, opening himself up to easy steals. He can and likely will improve upon that, but I don't know if it'll ever be good enough for me - or Mark Turgeon, for that matter - to be comfortable with him running the point over a true lead guard.
Which isn't to be critical. Faust isn't supposed to be a point guard. He's a pure swingman with a scorer's mentality. The wing is where he belongs, especially if Maryland can locate a point guard to get him and Terrell Stoglin the ball with regularity. The thought of him back where he belongs, roaming the perimeter off the ball alongside Stoglin while Pe'Shon Howard or another true point runs the offense, is more than a little tantalizing.
A four-game stretch is too early to say Faust is out of the woods. Just as he will have more ups, he will have more downs. We saw him come and go a bit in the Miami game, where he didn't hit a field goal until several minutes into the second half. To make matters worse, as teams realize the threat he poses, they'll do more to counteract it, not to mention the struggles he may initially encounter when he transitions back to the wing.
Most of all, he's a young player, and young players are inconsistent. He will have slumps in the future. So be patient. If he's the real deal, as I believe him to be, we'll know soon enough.
But Maryland's future, dubious even just months ago, now looks as cheery as it possibly could for a team sitting at 6-7 in the ACC. And Faust, improving every week, is at the forefront.