When Melo Trimble got to College Park early last summer, he brought with him greater expectations than any Maryland recruit in years. Fans looked to him as a potential saving grace for a downtrodden program, and given a rash of transfers, Mark Turgeon had no choice but to turn to Trimble immediately. Trimble was always going to be good, but not like this - not this fast, not while putting up superb-by-any-standard numbers and making it look effortless.
"I really didn't expect this kind of start," Trimble said after Wednesday's win against North Carolina Central. "I knew I had to be patient, wait for my time to come, and that's what I've been doing. I haven't been trying to force anything."
Before Trimble showed up, the Terps were coming off a disastrous 17-15 season in which they missed not only the NCAA Tournament but postseason play altogether. They had lost their starting point guard, Seth Allen, to an unexpected transfer. So Trimble would clearly play right away, but freshmen - even five-star talents like Trimble - often come around slowly. Not this time around, apparently.
Trimble's collegiate career is now 10 games old, and the early returns have been simply staggering. Rather than just being ahead of the expected developmental curve, he's morphed almost immediately into Maryland's best player. Consider the results. He has played a team-leading 78 percent of Maryland's total minutes. And within that time:
- Trimble's 128.6 offensive rating is the highest on the team and fourth-highest in the Big Ten among players who use more than 20 percent of their teams' possessions. By at least one metric, he's been the third-most efficient offensive player in the conference.
- Trimble averages 16.8 points per game, leading Maryland and ranking ninth in the Big Ten.
- Trimble averages 2.9 assists, leading Maryland in that department despite having the third-highest usage rate on the team and playing almost half of the season without Dez Wells on the floor.
- Trimble is drawing free throws at an outrageous rate. Despite being just 6-foot-3 and playing point guard, Trimble creates fouls at the 14th-highest rate in college basketball among players playing 60 percent or more of their teams' minutes. He is fouled in total seven times per 40 minutes, ranking third in the conference, onlyt behind two big men.
- When he gets to the line (again, often), Trimble is making his shots at a higher rate than almost anybody. He's shooting 89.7 percent from the stripe - the best Maryland figure since Eric Hayes shot 91.2 percent in 2007.
- Trimble's foul-shooting exploits have led to his having the third-highest true shooting percentage in the Big Ten, at 70.1 percent.
Trimble's work from the free-throw line has been vital to his overall success, because he doesn't take all that many shots from the field. He's Maryland's leading scorer even though Wells, Jake Layman, Dion Wiley, Jared Nickens and Richaud Pack have taken shots just as much or more often during their court time (Trimble's raw shots-taken number is second on the roster).
Trimble has made hay at the foul line, taking the highest-percentage shots basketball has to offer him. There are about 40 players nationwide with the same or a better free throw percentage than Trimble's 89.7. But none of them get to the line at rate comparable to Trimble.
In total, Trimble is connecting on an average of an even seven foul shots per game. I've touched on this recently, but the last college player to make foul shots at that pace in a full season was current Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, who did it when he played for Weber State in 2011-12. When I mentioned the Lillard parallel to him after he sunk all eight of his foul shots against N.C. Central on Wednesday, Trimble blushed, then turned serious.
"I practice free throws every day, so I mean, it has to come into play when I'm in the game making free throws," Trimble said. "Because practice makes perfect."
Of course, Trimble can only make the ones he takes. To that end, his body control is remarkable; Trimble can knife toward the basket at full speed and draw pursuers from multiple directions, then seem to freeze in mid-air and leave referees a choice of which defender to whistle for fouling him. Then he walks to the line and doesn't miss.
He said he models his foul-drawing approach after professionals Kyrie Irving and James Harden.
"A lot of people, once somebody's going to the basket, they get really aggressive," Trimble said. "I know how to protect the ball and draw the contact and get the foul."
Trimble's assist numbers, though they're the highest on the team, are a little lower than most anticipated. That's somehow been a good thing, because Trimble has simply played more as a combo guard than a classic point man with Wells and Evan Smotrycz missing. His point totals will probably go down a little bit when they return, but his assist numbers will rise. Trimble might not be a 16-point, 3-assist guard all year; instead, he might turn into something like a 14-and-6 guy.
"Even though Dez and Evan are out, people are asking me, 'I should do a lot of scoring,' but I think I should just let the game come to me," Trimble said.
The buzz around Trimble during his high school career and summer workouts was that his distribution was advanced. "Eyes in the back of his head," one observer said of him before the season started. And he's flashed some of that already, even if circumstances have required him to be more of a scorer than a passer.
"To be as talented as a scorer as he is, it's really unselfish," senior guard Richaud Pack said. "And he can get to the free throw line so well, it kind of takes pressure off all the defenders, because they keep seeing people get foul calls on him. He really kicks it out well in transition, kind of like Jason Kidd, gets the rebound, catches it and just gets out to you, and gets other guys easy baskets. I think he's been pretty effective with that."
If the first third of his freshman season is any clue, Trimble's ability as an offensive force is more present reality than future upside. His slick passing has been effective if less frequent than expected, and he's been Maryland's best player in a host of ways. Turgeon has used him more than anyone else. The results have been lethal.
Given Trimble's high minutes load and the lack of a proven backup point guard, Turgeon looks to rest him when he can – like at the end of easy non-conference wins. Even though Turgeon sat Trimble for the waning moments of the N.C. Central win, the freshman finished with 34 minutes. He has already played more than 300 minutes at a high-speed position, and Turgeon has given no indication his workload will meaningfully decrease.
"Melo is young, and he'll be fine," Turgeon said.
Just 10 games into his career, Trimble is entrenched as Maryland's most indispensable player. Then again, that might have been the case even before this career-jumpstarting run. His path toward this point wasn't as long as expected, but he's absolutely here now. As the key player on the nation's No. 19 team, he has reason to feel upbeat.
"My confidence," Trimble said, "grows every time we come off a good practice."