Serrel Smith Jr. has been an on-and-off contributor for Maryland basketball early in his freshman season. The 6’4 guard scored 13 points against Mount St. Mary’s and had three additional outputs of at least seven, but went scoreless in five of Maryland’s first 10 games and scored two points against Virginia. In the aggregate, he entered Tuesday averaging 3.6 points in 11.9 minutes per game.
But Smith Jr. can find a rhythm in a hurry. He did just that in the first half of the Terps’ 94-71 win over Loyola (Md.) on Tuesday, knocking down all four of his shots, including two threes, to enter the break with 10 points. He took just one shot in the second half and didn’t score, but the rookie still left his mark on the game.
It’s not a foreign concept for one made basket to jump-start a player’s confidence and spark a dominant stretch or a big game. Smith Jr. scored eight of his 10 points in a 4:23 stretch, and while none were assisted, he credited his teammates for finding him in space.
“[I was] just really moving and finding open spots,” Smith Jr. said. “We’ve got great point guards and they just feed me the ball, and I just knock down shots.”
While the offensive results have been inconsistent, the freshman’s playing time has been steady. Sure, his highest minute totals have come in games where he’s been scoring—13 points in 19 minutes against Mount St. Mary’s, 10 in 18 Tuesday, eight in 17 Saturday against Loyola-Chicago—but he’s played at least eight minutes in every game, and his defense has been a big part of that consistent role.
“I think he’s playing with more confidence,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “I think Serrel has really gotten better defensively, where we have confidence in him, and then his offensive game, he’s getting more comfortable within our system when he can score. It’s good to see.”
Turgeon has said multiple times that Smith Jr. has improved on the defensive end as much as any of Maryland’s freshmen since arriving on campus in the summer. His length has helped the Terps on the perimeter; while Loyola got hot from three in this game, opponents entered shooting under 32 percent from deep. Smith Jr. was an offense-first guard at St. Petersburg High School, but he’s adjusted his game at the next level.
“In high school, I didn’t really play a lot of defense, so when I got on campus, that was the first thing I told myself I was gonna lock in on,” Smith Jr. said. “Focus on my defense, that’ll help keep me on the court.”
Maryland played without Darryl Morsell on Tuesday, as the sophomore guard twisted his ankle pregame and played just 12 minutes against Loyola-Chicago on Saturday. He’s unlikely to miss any more games—it’ll be 11 days before the Terps host Seton Hall—but his absence opened the door for Smith Jr. to earn more playing time and find a rhythm.
“I was just ready,” Smith Jr. said. “Whenever my number’s called, let’s go. Get ready, get out there.”
The divide between Maryland’s top six, which have played over 90 percent of the Terps’ minutes in high-leverage games, and the rest of its bench has been well-documented, and Smith Jr. is one of the keys to giving the team the depth it craves. Having him as a plus perimeter defender certainly helps, but having him as a confident offensive weapon raises Maryland’s ceiling significantly.
And if he needs constant reinforcement to have that confidence, then so be it.
“It’s very important, because starting off the first three games, Serrel wasn’t hitting,” freshman forward Jalen Smith said. “I just kept telling him just to shoot it no matter what. Even if somebody’s guarding him, still shoot it and have confidence in his shot. And once he started hitting, I just told him, ‘Keep shooting.’”