In the first game of her college career, Destiny Slocum owned the stage. She scored 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting, knocking down three 3-pointers and adding five rebounds and six assists in Maryland basketball’s win over UMass Lowell.
Slocum was one of six freshmen making their Maryland debuts on Sunday. If you haven’t heard, the group is the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. The five-star point guard certainly received the most preseason hype, but the five other newcomers have started strong, too.
Fellow guard Kaila Charles, who started alongside Slocum, won the opening tip and finished with 11 points. There’s Blair Watson, who scored a game-high 29 points in the team’s first exhibition, and center Jenna Staiti, who led with 25 in the second scrimmage. Sarah Myers is a long-range shooting threat who could secure minutes in relief of Slocum. And forward Stephanie Jones returned to the floor just in time for opening day, rounding out the group.
With two juniors (Kiara Leslie and Aja Ellison) redshirting this season, freshmen comprise half of Maryland’s active roster. Their quick development is crucial if the Terps want to overtake strong teams like UConn, Louisville and Arizona State before conference play begins. They combined for 43 of Maryland’s 100 points Sunday, which is an encouraging sign.
“At times, they showed some nerves,” head coach Brenda Frese said after the game, “but I thought overall, they showed they belonged.”
It certainly helped that Maryland took a foreign trip as a team during the summer. Such ventures are legal, and the NCAA allows extra practices. During those practices and games against European professional teams, the team grew closer on and off the court, which eased the transition considerably.
“It may sound kind of cliché, but [Italy] really brought us together,” Slocum said. “We started clicking.”
This put the Terps ahead of the curve when “official” practices started in October. The freshmen were already somewhat integrated, so while other teams across the country were introducing schemes, Maryland was refining. Practices became a lot more competitive as a result.
“If you go around the country and ask seniors if their freshmen push them, I don’t know how many seniors would say yes,” senior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. “This freshman class pushes me just as much as I push them.
“I don’t even like to call them ‘freshmen.’ I like to call them ‘new players,’ because they don’t play like freshmen.”
At the moment, Slocum and Charles figure to be starters, with Staiti and Watson playing key roles on the bench and Jones and Myers rotating in. A lot can change over the course of a season, of course—rotations tighten in games of higher magnitude, and it’s often the less-experienced players that get relegated when that happens.
If four freshmen are ready for high-leverage minutes right away, that’s huge for a Maryland team that lost four seniors from last year. Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones will be hard to replace down the road, but the Terps don’t have to do that quite yet. The pieces are in place for another conference title and, perhaps, a deep tournament run.
Maryland is in good position for the future, but it could be in even better position for the present.