Kevin Willard’s biggest offseason win was simply avoiding losses. He managed to keep the core pieces of last year’s team — Jahmir Young, Donta Scott and Julian Reese — around for his second year as the head coach of Maryland men’s basketball.
In the age of the transfer portal, all three had options to go elsewhere but chose to come back, looking to build on a successful season that ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Me, Jahmir and Donta, we know that feeling. We know what it takes to get there,” Reese said. “We’re just going to work towards that and winning more.”
The optics of keeping Young were the most pertinent. Losing him would’ve been a massive blow for Maryland, lowering its ceiling dramatically. Watching a local star walk out the door would have also begun to unravel positive recruiting momentum.
That scenario was not realized, though, and Young is back in College Park for his fifth and final year of college basketball.
“I love being coached by coach Willard,” Young said. “Year two under him, I feel like it’ll be great … The tempo that he plays at, the expectations that he has for us, I feel like that’s going to take us to the next level, individually and collectively.”
It became quickly evident a season ago that Young was Maryland’s best player. There were concerns about a rocky transition from Charlotte to the Big Ten, but Young’s craftiness and playmaking ability shined. He led the Terps in points (15.8) and assists per game (3.1) and finished third in rebounds per game (4.6) behind only Reese and Scott.
It’s worth keeping an eye on Young’s field goal percentage, which dropped to just 26.1% during postseason play, a far cry from his season mark of 41.5%. Whether that was a result of better scouting or simply a poorly-timed slump will become more evident early this season.
Last month, Young was selected to the preseason All-Big Ten first team by the media. Expectations are high, and the pressure to match or even improve on his performance from a year ago is on.
“I think the biggest jump will come from Jahmir,” Willard said. “... I think he’s thinking like a point guard now. Last year he was just trying to survive.”
Very rarely is a fifth-year player the X-factor of a team, but that may very well be an accurate assessment of Scott’s importance to this Maryland squad.
Scott has shown flashes. He’ll string together stretches of play where he looks like a bonafide NBA prospect, but then he’ll take his foot off the gas.
At his best, Scott is a lethal mismatch. A mobile 6-foot-8 forward, he can effectively back down smaller defenders, although sometimes he’ll hold the ball for extortionate periods of the shot clock. His athleticism allows him to stretch the floor and simultaneously blow by his less agile counterparts.
The key for Scott is consistency. If he can shoot at a higher clip and force opponents to respect his offensive game before his feet hit the paint, the formula to defend him becomes all the more complicated.
“He’s not getting talked about enough. He’s not getting enough credit,” Willard said of Scott. “Everyone’s talking about Jahmir and Julian for good reasons, and the freshmen for good reasons. But Donta Scott’s had a great offseason. I think he’s poised to really have a breakout season.”
In the vein of consistency, Julian Reese’s development from the beginning of last season to the end was as promising as anyone’s.
Early-season Reese looked the part of a player with no college basketball experience outside of a tumultuous freshman year. A shoulder injury that was perhaps more bothersome than he and the team let on didn’t help either. But by the end of the season, Reese was playing at an elite level.
In the final 17 games of the 2022-23 season, Reese averaged 13.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, blitzing his way to an All-Big Ten honorable mention. He was remarkably efficient around the basket, finishing with the third-best single-season field goal percentage in program history (.632). After adding 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason, according to Willard, he’ll be even more of a force down low.
Even so, Reese has room to grow. His funky shot limits his effectiveness beyond the rim, and he’ll aim to better his 53.3% free throw clip from last season. On the defensive end, Reese needs to limit foul trouble.
If he can make progress in those facets, his numbers could rocket into the upper tier of big men in the sport.
“Julian’s going to kick everyone’s ass and just go at it,” Willard said. “That’s what Julian does.”
In his second year with Maryland, Willard has assembled a team capable of reaching great heights. To realize that possibility, everything will start with the trio that came back to do just that.