For the first time since Dez Wells transferred to Maryland a little more than two years ago, Maryland men's basketball is about to play without its best player. Wells, a 6-foot-5 senior, has been a rock for Mark Turgeon's team since virtually the second the NCAA cleared him to play in 2012-13 without sitting out a year. The news Friday that Wells will miss a month with a wrist fracture was jarring, only because Wells – who described himself as "made of steel" just weeks ago – has been such a constant for the first two seasons and change of his Terps career.
As the Terps have jumped to a 5-0 start, Wells's traditional numbers have been hard to miss. He's averaging 16.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, shooting 45.7 percent overall and 60 percent on three-pointers. He's been rough around the edges – his field goal percentage is actually comfortably the lowest of his career – but he still leads the Terps in both scoring and assists. Those 16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists per night will need to be replaced.
Wells's peripheral numbers – via analytics god Ken Pomeroy – paint a deeper, different picture of his work so far this year. Wells has played 73 percent of Maryland's total minutes, tied with point guard Melo Trimble for the most on the roster. He has used 30.5 percent of Maryland's possessions so far, meaning he's either taken a shot or turned the ball over three times out of every 10 the Terps have held the ball with him on the court. And he's taken 35 percent of the team's shots, the 40th-highest proportion of any player in the country. Wells is a domineering presence in Maryland's offense.
But Wells, despite his huge role in the offense, hasn't been all that good through five games. He shot 50 percent or better in the Terps' first three games, all against cupcake competition, but he was 12-of-38 combined against Arizona State and Iowa State. His effective field goal (50 percent) and true shooting (52.5 percent) rates are a little better than his overall field goal shooting mark because Wells has shot well from beyond the arc, but he hasn't been much of a marksman overall. He also has an 18.8 percent turnover rate, third-worst on the team behind freshmen Trimble and Michal Cekvosky. More positively for Wells, his assist rate is the best on the team.
So, if there's any consolation for Maryland, it's that the Terps have gotten off to such a scorching start with Wells, on the whole, not playing that well. His ORtg, Pomeroy's most inclusive measure of offensive production, is an unspectacular 104.4, which is literally the worst figure of any player in Maryland's rotation. Wells is ostensibly Maryland's star, but he hasn't played like it in a small sample so far, and the Terps have still been really good.
How Maryland is likely to replace Wells
Forward Evan Smotrycz will play for Maryland for the first time this season Friday night against Monmouth. Smotrycz had been nursing his own injury for more than a month, leaving the Terps with just three big men in their rotation – Cekovsky, Damonte Dodd and Jon Graham. Smotrycz doesn't play the same position as Wells, but his return will almost surely alter the way Turgeon goes about replacing his star.
Without Smotrycz, the likeliest alternative to having Wells would have been to simply fill his minutes with heavy doses of freshmen Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens. Both of them have been terrific in their early careers: Nickens has a 127 ORtg, while Wiley's is 119.6. For perspective, 120 is considered to be excellent. Both players have actually been far more efficient so far than Wells, although the small sample caveat is key.
But Smotrycz is back, and he's both a senior and a known quantity. Smotrycz is a power forward who can't defend other power forwards and, last year, spent a lot of time leaking out toward the perimeter and firing a team-high 147 three-pointers. Expect Smotrycz to play a lot right away, limiting what otherwise cold have been a massive jump in minutes for Wiley and Nickens.
For the sake of Maryland's offensive efficiency, it'll be interesting to see where Smotrycz fits. Though he's a three-point shooter by trade, Smotrycz only shot 36.7 percent from deep last season, while Nickens and Wiley's early-season success rates this year are 33.3 percent and 46.2 percent. If Smotrycz can make three-pointers at a rate north of 40 percent – as he did at Michigan three seasons ago – he'll be an important part of Maryland's survival without Wells. If Smotrycz isn't better than what he showed last year, Turgeon will have to consider spending more time on a small lineup, with Wiley and Nickens picking up the minutes Wells leaves behind.