One, two, punch. Left hook. Right uppercut. Double jab. One, two, punch.
Chol Marial shuffled his feet, bouncing back and forth with a wide smile on his face and a look of determination in his eyes as he threw his gloves with full force into the pads of his trainer, Chad Dunn.
The 7’2 Maryland men’s basketball center declared himself the “Sudanese Muhammad Ali” during his venture into boxing, just one part of his work with Dunn to continue his recovery and improve his movement mechanics at Move Physical Therapy & Human Performance Center ahead of his sophomore year.
“That fire was relit inside of him for sure,” Dunn told Testudo Times. “They always call him the Lion, and I could see that in him and it was coming out. And they’re sneaky. Lions are a little sneaky, and I know Chol’s ready to go.”
In eighth grade, Marial left South Sudan, his native country, on his own to come to the United States to pursue his basketball dreams, and he quickly gained national recognition with his height.
By 2017, the center was one of the top prospects in the nation, with ESPN ranking him as the No. 1 center in the class of 2019 at one point. However, he barely played in his junior and senior seasons of high school as he struggled with leg and ankle injuries.
Head coach Mark Turgeon was undeterred, but the program discovered he had stress fractures in both legs in the summer before his freshman season. Marial had surgery in early September, the first step in a slow recovery process.
“It was tough, because at that time I was nervous and at the same time I was hurt,” Marial said. “So it was really hard.” Still, he always had a smile on his face, often giving his teammates a spark of energy from the bench.
He missed the first 12 games of the season before making his collegiate debut against Bryant on Dec. 29, 2019. Marial showed flashes of greatness in the best game of his career, recording six points at a 75% clip, five rebounds and a block.
Chol Marial is a force to be reckoned with. pic.twitter.com/ZyquQy5vqU— Sean Montiel (@SeanMMontiel) December 29, 2019
The freshman appeared in 11 more games, but played sparingly as he continued his recovery process and the pains that came along with it. Having been sidelined for most of the two years prior, he struggled to find his timing and rhythm again upon his return to the court.
Marial ended the shortened season with 10 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks in 65 minutes of action, during which he shot 50% from the floor.
Marial was supposed to spend the summer in College Park to work with Maryland’s strength and conditioning staff and continue his progress on the court, but he instead returned back to home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Determined to continue his recovery and get back in prime form, Marial used his three months back in Chandler, Arizona, to train with Dunn, whom he originally began with while home last December.
The center did so alongside Minnesota guard Both Gach, Colorado forward Jabari Walker, BYU guard Alex Barcello and top recruit TyTy Washington, as well as Oregon starting quarterback Tyler Shough and Washington State quarterback Gunner Cruz, with each Division I athlete pushing each other to get better.
Marial quickly became a fan favorite last season with his unbridled joy on the court, and the center brought that same infectious energy to his workouts every day.
“He would come in and he’s got the Chol smile and he’s grinning from ear to ear,” Dunn said. “‘[I’d say], ‘How are you feeling today? You ready to go?’ He’s like, ‘Let’s go baby!’”
He first put Marial through athletic and injury assessments, taking a look at his mechanics as well, and then created a specific plan to get to the root of the problem and not only help him continue to recover, but to improve his movement, an essential part of play on the court and avoiding injuries.
The first step was to strengthen Marial’s feet so that he could regain balance and build the proper support to prevent his hips, knees and shins from taking the full brunt of his weight.
“Trying to build an athlete with bad feet is trying to build a home with a bad foundation,” Dunn said.
He put Marial through drills to improve his running mechanics, strength, speed, agility and movement, including squats, sit-ups, medicine ball tosses, sand work, sled pushes and rope climbing, to name a few. And of course, boxing, which Dunn said helps teach balance, rotation and stance.
Marial and Gach got quite competitive, with the duo trash talking and bragging back and forth as they tried to best the other in their training with Dunn. “It was interesting,” Dunn said. “I can’t say they’re going to be in the next world title boxing match, but they did okay. They did okay.”
The center also tried different treatments, such as dry needling and cupping, in addition to stretching.
Dunn was eager to show off the Maryland product when his good friend, Art Dye, who coached Mike Bibby, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye as high schoolers and is considered the driving force behind the start of AAU club basketball in Arizona in the 1980s, came to visit the facility one day.
“He looks like a basketball player,” Dye said as he looked the 7’2 center up and down. “But can he shoot?”
Marial didn’t hesitate. “Come on, baby!”
The trio then went to the hoop outside, where the Terp showed off by draining three after three. Dye was quickly convinced of Marial’s unique talents.
“Okay, he’s a basketball player,” he remarked.
The South Sudan native continued to improve his skills on the court throughout the process. He even took part in open runs with local players, including Former PAC-12 player of the year Nick Johnson and Washington, among others. And he was utterly dominant.
“Everybody came in and said, ‘Man, he’s looking unbelievable,’” Dunn said. “So with [Jalen Smith] getting drafted and coming out here to the Suns, I think it’d be great for Chol to be the next guy up over there.”
Perhaps one of the biggest questions for Maryland entering this season is how the front court will shape up, much in part to the loss of Smith.
The newly drafted lottery pick averaged a team-high 10.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks, as well as 15.5 points and 31.5 minutes per game in 2019-20, so his departure has naturally left a large hole to be filled at the five spot.
The Terps lost three additional 6’10 big men over the past year; twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell departed in December and Joshua Tomaic opted to move out West to join San Diego State this offseason. That leaves Marial as the only returning big man.
Though Marial and his teammates were all a little rusty once they got back on the court together in October, the head coach said that the change in the sophomore was evident right away. And he’s only continued to improve since.
“He’s starting to look like the Chol that I remember coming out of high school two years ago,” Turgeon said. “So it’s exciting. And he’s got a great attitude. And there’s a lot of things that we didn’t know he could do because he just wasn’t able to do it [last season], and I think he’s been able to do a little bit more.”
Marial said he feels a lot more comfortable reading offenses and defenses, and his teammates noted how much more confident he looks on the court with improvements on his screen-setting, spacing and timing, and of course, movement.
“Even just over the last two or three weeks here in practice, he’s grown a lot,” Aaron Wiggins said. “So he’ll be really tremendous for us, he’ll be a big piece for us. His ability to block shots and his presence in the post will just, it’ll change and alter games seriously for us.”
Darryl Morsell added: “Chol’s coming along. His timing is impeccable. Now he’s blocking shots like crazy and stuff like that.”
Most of Marial’s pain has gone away, with Turgeon saying on Nov. 10 that his legs are healthy, back at 100% in his left and nearly there in his right — one spot hurts him from time to time, though it’s minor and improving, according to the head coach.
Turgeon puts an emphasis on challenging his big men to train like guards in practice, which has helped Marial keep improving his ball handling as well. He’s also continued to perfect his shot from long range, one of the many skills that makes him such a unique talent.
“I feel like everything is finally coming back around,” Marial said. “And now I’m so ready for everything that comes [this season].”