Dez Wells was not happy.
It was last spring, and his Maryland basketball team had recently capped a disappointing season with a walk-off loss to Florida State. Then three teammates transferred out of the program, a number that would later rise to five and rob Maryland of 51 percent of its scoring and 42 percent of its rebounds. Fans and media began to question the job security of Mark Turgeon, the Terrapins' three-year head coach who hadn't yet taken the program to an NCAA Tournament.
"He was very frustrated. With the talented team, being so talented, and then the outcome was, what, 17-15, the actual record? He knows they could've done better than that, so he was real frustrated about it," said Pamela Wells, Dez's mother. "Then, once the season was over, a lot of them started bailing out on him. He was real frustrated about that."
But Wells had an out. Coming off a strong junior season in which he averaged 15 points and 4 rebounds, he could've declared for the NBA Draft. The wounds of Maryland's collective failures were fresh, and the NBA is perennially appealing.
Of course, Wells didn't leave. His mother says he sat in his Raleigh, N.C., home with his mother and two mentors, longtime coaches LeVelle Moton and Kendrick Williams, and they worked on him. They talked about the benefits of finishing out a Maryland degree, which Wells could own with one more year in school. They talked about the team – and specifically its coach, Turgeon, who'd done enough for Wells that the shooting guard couldn't simply up and leave him.
"The thing of it is, ‘Don't leave Turge high and dry,'" Wells's mother told her son. "‘Just go in and do this last year. I want your degree. I want the degree. You get the NBA accolades and stuff like that. I want the degree,' so he's doing it."
Wells stayed in College Park, and the rest is history still being written. Maryland set its regular-season wins record this season with 26, as a group of freshmen and incoming veterans joined Wells to lift Maryland to heights it hadn't seen since Juan Dixon led the Terps to a national championship in 2002. After shaking injuries to his shooting hand and wrist, Wells has averaged 18 points in 11 games since the start of February. He's charging to the finish, leading Maryland into the NCAA Tournament as he shares the load of Maryland's offense with freshman guard Melo Trimble and junior forward Jake Layman.
Wells finishes a dunk against Wisconsin on Feb. 24. He scored 26 points in a win over the No. 5 Badgers. – Evan Habeeb, USA TODAY Sports.
Things could hardly be better. For Wells, it has been a long journey.
Wells played his freshman year, 2011-12, at Xavier, earning Atlantic 10 freshman honors and reaching the Sweet 16 under head coach Chris Mack. He committed to Xavier in October 2009 and couldn't have delivered a more promising debut season for the Musketeers. He averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds and shot better than 50 percent from the field, all terrific numbers for a freshman shooting guard.
It all fell apart even quicker than it began. In August 2012, Xavier abruptly expelled Wells from the university, pointing to a "serious violation" of the school's student conduct code. A female student had accused Wells of sexually assaulting her. A university judiciary panel heard the case and found for the accuser, booting Wells off the basketball team and out of the university altogether.
The case went to a grand jury, which declined to charge Wells with any criminal wrongdoing. From there, Wells' situation descended into a mushy minefield – about the fairness of Xavier's judicial process, the merits of the woman's claim against him and the right way to handle sexual-assault allegations on college campuses.
A Hamilton County, Ohio, prosecutor took to the radio and blasted what he saw as an amateurish process that led to Wells's "fundamentally unfair" dismissal. Xavier countered that it had acted within the scope of Title IX and was minding the best interests of its students. But Wells was exonerated before the case even got to the courts.
Moton, the men's basketball head coach at North Carolina Central University who Wells calls his "uncle," has fiercely defended him, along with the rest of Wells' family and friends.
"The reality is he was a step away from going to prison, you know? When you put it at that and you reflect on that, obviously, he [would have been] going to prison for something he wasn't guilty of," Moton said. "Any man I know would have a problem with that, for going to prison for a crime he committed, let alone one that he didn't."
There is nothing simple about sexual-assault cases, especially those involving college students. Straddling the line between sensitivity toward alleging victims and fair process for the accused is brutally hard. Xavier, at any rate, opted to send Wells away.
Wells would eventually sue Xavier over the ordeal, and the two sides settled for an undisclosed sum last summer.
On the court, a rising sophomore all-conference basketball player was suddenly without a team. In early September 2012, just after Maryland opened school for the academic year, Turgeon's program announced it was adding Wells.
The coach needed someone with program-altering talent after the yearlong suspension of high-scoring guard Terrell Stoglin, and the player needed a soft place to land. The NCAA ultimately granted Wells a waiver to play immediately, and the onetime Musketeer would be a Terrapin.
Wells chose Maryland for his mother, she said. Xavier was eight and a half hours by car from the family home in Raleigh, while College Park was half that. Pamela would have an easier time getting to Dez's games, and Maryland would add a top-flight player in need of a new home.
"He knew he had to go and he had to prove himself," she said. "He had to go out and put out what it was that they took a second chance at for him, so he had to go and just do the best he could."
Wells became a key player on a Maryland team that, with him, was expected to play deep into March. He started a bit slowly, scoring 16 points over his first two games on 5-of-18 shooting, but it didn't take long for him to become one of the team's best players. Along with Ukrainian center Alex Len, Wells drove Maryland's offense, and his wowing athleticism made him an immediate hit with fans. He finished his year averaging a team-high 13.1 points.
But Maryland, on the whole, didn't fare nearly so well. The offense lacked cohesion and labored to an 8-10 record in ACC play despite the help of the third-most efficient defense in the league. The Terps enjoyed two wins over bitter rival Duke – including a Wells explosion for 30 points in the conference tournament – but they were stuck in the NIT, anyway.
Wells took on something of a leadership role in his first year, but his mother said that role took some adjustment and learning. After all, the team had several veteran holdovers.
"When it came to Maryland, he came not knowing who he was dealing with, and as far the team was concerned, and players, not knowing if there was a leader already," his mother said.
She said Wells had to learn how to push teammates to match his intensity. This, she said, was his "stepping stone to become a leader."
Maryland's next season didn't wind up any better than Wells's first. He was good again, continuing to lead the team in scoring and developing more as an off-court presence. But Maryland couldn't win close games, and the Terps' offense underachieved horribly for all the talent it had. Despite having Wells, Seth Allen, Nick Faust and a deep cast of talented underclassmen onboard, the offense languished again at the bottom of the ACC. The defense was solid, but it wasn't nearly enough.
Wells and Turgeon suffered through two mediocre seasons after the player arrived in College Park.– Greg Cooper, USA TODAY Sports.
Maryland finished a nose above .500 and missed postseason play. The program saw a wave of bad headlines when three rotation players transferred shortly thereafter. The time came for Wells to decide whether he'd roll the dice on a senior year at Maryland or on the NBA Draft. His family and mentors pushed hard for Maryland, in part based on the degree ("the basketball could stop bouncing any day now," his mother said) and, in another part, based on Turgeon's loyalty to Wells.
"‘He gave you the opportunity,'" Pamela told Dez. "‘Well, Maryland gave you a second opportunity. By the grace of God, you were given an opportunity to be in school, to continue to do what you want to do.' So my thing was: ‘Don't leave Coach Turgeon out there. Don't leave because everybody else left. Start it anew, you know? Build it around yourself.' He pretty much thought about that, and he said he wanted to stay and do it for Coach Turgeon."
Wells officially announced his intention to play a senior season at Maryland at the team's end-of-year banquet on April 1, his mother said. She wasn't sure of his decision before that.
"When he made the announcement that he was going to stay, to get Turge to the tournament, that was the best thing that I heard at the whole banquet," she said. "I didn't hear anything else except that."
Allen officially announced his intention to transfer a month later, following in the footsteps of Faust, guard Roddy Peters and center Shaquille Cleare. Forward Charles Mitchell followed suit later in the spring. As Allen was on his way out the door, a fan tweeted encouragement to Wells, saying other players couldn't handle adversity like he could.
Wells responded: "last of a dying breed."
The next day, he added: "You not happy? Okay, well go get happy & tell me how that goes."
Guard Allen (4) and forward Faust headlined a series of Maryland transfers after the 2013-14 season.– Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports.
The Terps' newest freshman class arrived a few weeks later. The team still had Wells, and it still had Layman, the rangy forward who'd shown so many flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons, but hadn't put everything together. The Terps would be getting Trimble, a rising prospect who'd just played in the McDonald's All-American Game, and Richaud Pack, a steady transfer guard who'd played his first three collegiate seasons for smaller programs. Rookies Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley figured to add some shooting punch.
After a tumultuous offseason, Maryland's cupboard remained fairly well stocked. There wasn't a complete dearth of talent, just as there hadn't been on Turgeon's last two teams. But something would clearly have to change to bring results, and Wells took it upon himself to steer the team in a common direction.
Wells, along with Layman, was now Maryland's longest tenured rotation player, a far cry from his days playing two years above his age group in North Carolina and, even, as a freshman at Xavier. At Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, Wells played with three others who would eventually spend time on NBA rosters: Wizards guard John Wall, Suns forward T.J. Warren and C.J. Leslie, a forward who spent a brief time with the Knicks. At Xavier, he was just a freshman, where senior guard Tu Holloway and other upperclassmen were clear leaders.
As a senior at Maryland, Wells would be the player driving the ship.
"He had to grow into that. The truth is he didn't know how to lead. He never had to. He was always on teams where they were dominant," Moton said. "You're talking about a high school team that had four NBA players on it. They're beating teams by 68 points. Nobody needs to lead to show up. You're just better."
This year's Terrapins have been better, too, but the margins have been narrow.
They finished the regular season with a near-impossible 10-0 record in games decided by six points or fewer. They won their first Big Ten game, a road contest at Michigan State, after Wells forced overtime with an off-balance three-pointer before the buzzer. They overcame a double-digit deficit to beat Northwestern at home a few weeks later, with Wells leaping for a put-back just – again – before the final horn. He put Maryland's regular season finale against Nebraska on ice by hitting a contested jumper with eight seconds left, then proclaimed himself and Trimble to be "the best duo in the country." The program has billed him as its own Captain Clutch. It hasn't been without merit.
On a purely statistical level, this has been Wells' worst season. His offensive rating is marginally lower than his average over the previous three, and he's shooting a lower percentage from the field than ever before. Part of that's a function of Wells shooting a ton; he takes 30 percent of the Terps' shots when he's on the floor, a top-100 figure in the country. And he takes tough shots sometimes, though it might be best that if anyone will take them, it's him.
It's partly a function of injury, too. Wells missed five weeks with a fractured right wrist earlier in the year and has dealt with a nagging thumb problem throughout the season. He was startlingly inefficient after coming back from more than a month on the sidelines, but he tore through the Big Ten after January. Wells delivered no fewer than five dunks that could be considered the best play of Maryland's season, hit no shortage of major shots, questioned whether an opponent is actually a deity and drew a travel by literally jumping over an opposing point guard.
"I think he just got healthy," Turgeon said late in the regular season. "He had a broken wrist and a partially torn ligament. That's some serious stuff, in your shooting wrist. And then you're five weeks out, and you come back and your wrist is really not there, but he's such a competitor, he wants to fight through it and play. I think it just took time. I just think it took time, and us getting used to having him back."
Wells is very much back now. In Maryland's last seven regular season games, he averaged 18.7 points on 53 percent shooting from the field. He's made 31 of 35 free throws, saving the best basketball of his Maryland career for its most vital stretch.
"His strength and his ability to get to the rack, man, that's his biggest attribute," Moton said. "You're not going to stop him from getting to the lane."
He's chipped in with key defense against some of the Big Ten's most prolific scorers, too, limiting Nebraska's Terran Petteway and Wisconsin's Sam Dekker, among others, to uncharacteristic scoring nights. He's been every bit as zealous about his defense as his offense.
"Dez is super competitive, so sometimes we might have matchups, but he'll be like, ‘No, I want him,'" said Pack at the end of the regular season, who often shares defensive duties with Wells. "That's what he means. He has to know situations. If he has two fouls in the first half, [it's a] 'just let me get him' type thing."
In a lot of ways, Wells and Maryland's run has been the realization of the vision his mother put forth a year ago.
"‘Everybody could see that some of them bailed out, but you as an individual, you as a leader, you've got a McDonald's All-American point guard coming in,'" Pamela recalled telling Dez. "‘That's all you ever needed.'"
She also pointed to Layman and made the case to her son that the three of them could pick up Maryland. Wells and Trimble have recently spent alternating turns preventing Maryland from losing. Layman was especially crucial in Wells' absence in much of the early season. All three players made All-Big Ten teams, and Turgeon went from facing employment scrutiny to the league's coach of the year award, at least by a media vote.
"They blossomed," said Moton, whose North Carolina Central team Maryland beat on Dec. 10 at Xfinity Center. "This is a different team. They're probably not as talented as they have been, but they blossomed, and you can see that through their play."
When Wells was named first-team all-conference by coaches and to the second team by media members, Turgeon shared that he was the happiest for him of anyone.
"I'm happy that he's getting rewarded with honors," he said. "But I'm more happy that he's playing on a really good team that has the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament and just, you know, the way he's handled everything. It's been great. Not only on the court has Dez excelled, but off the court he's been great for me, too."
Senior Wells and freshman Trimble have teamed to give Maryland a dynamic backcourt. – Evan Habeeb, USA TODAY Sports.
So Wells has come to the end, at least until the NBA brings new beginnings later this year. His Terps have a strong chance to at least reach the Sweet 16, a height Wells hasn't reached since his Xavier days and few of his teammates have ever sniffed.
After Wells scored 13 points in a Senior Day win over Michigan on Feb. 28, the question was posed to him: "What's different about Dez Wells today compared to the Dez Wells who came onto this campus about three years ago?" He chuckled, "That's a lot, that's a lot," and cupped his head in his hands for a moment.
"I think I've matured a lot," he said. "I've become a lot more, you know, secure and comfortable with myself and the things I can do with the basketball, and how I can help my team," Wells said. "I found a lot about myself as a player and as a person. When you're growing up, you used to have to come into your own. I feel like that's something that this university and this program has helped me do."
His mother made him do sit-ups and push-ups growing up in Raleigh and asked his AAU coaches to play him both in the post and at guard to round out his game. An accomplished basketball player herself, Pamela Wells used to block her son's shots and "push him around," as she put it, to build toughness. Now Wells puts an emphasis on "challenging himself." He says it to the team's student managers when he stays on the court after his teammates have left to shoot foul shots, and he has mentioned it several times to the press. He self-starts.
The likely biggest on-court challenge he's faced yet at Maryland starts now, with the rigors of an NCAA Tournament in which the Terps figure to have a shot at advancing deep. That will only happen if Wells plays a starring role. Those close to him are as excited about things like the Final Four as the rest of College Park, but Moton expects something simpler.
"He's going to make mistakes, but just respect other people, respect himself and give 100 percent every single day and maximize the ability God has given him," Moton said of the player he calls his nephew. "That's between you and you. When you go home at night, you know if you've maximized your ability that day. That's what I want him to do."