Penn State’s Lamar Stevens poses a number of challenges for defenders across the country. As a player who can play in the post, shoot from the perimeter and excel in creating his own shot off of dribbles and post-ups, opposing coaches are tasked with finding a player who will match up and minimize his offensive impact.
For Maryland and head coach Mark Turgeon, that player was Jalen Smith. Drawing Penn State’s leading scorer coming into the game at 23 points per contest, the matchup had the potential to be a tall task for Smith, a freshman player who is accustomed to using his size and length on the interior during his high school days when he towered over players.
“Coming into college, I had to work on my perimeter defense because in high school I didn’t really guard on the perimeter that much,” Smith said after the game. “Guarding on the perimeter, it’s a hassle. It’s something I never really did so it’s just something new to learn.”
Against Penn State, Smith constantly found himself defending Stevens one-on-one on the perimeter, and the power forward was up to the task.
Smith was the primary defender on Stevens in all but 13 defensive half-court sets. During his defensive assignment on Stevens, Smith held the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer to 11 points on 6-of-16 shooting.
“I thought Jalen Smith was defensively his best game since he’s been here. He did a great job on Stevens,” Turgeon said after the game. “His length was terrific.”
Smith’s 6-foot-10 and expansive wingspan was needed against Penn State’s go-to scorer, especially when Stevens used crafty moves to create a shot. Smith’s size, though, constantly made those shots much more difficult than the 6-foot-8 forward usually deals with.
As a team, Maryland forced Stevens to be a volume scorer, as he needed 24 shots to reach his 19 points during the game. Aside from Smith, other Maryland primary defenders on Stevens held him to six points on 2-of-7 shooting in half-court sets. Stevens got his other two points with a transition dunk.
Stevens found success late in the first half after struggling to a 1-of-7 shooting start by using pump fakes on the perimeter and getting towards the rim. On two straight possessions, Smith bit on the pump fake, which allowed Stevens to score both times.
After falling for the pump fake for the second consecutive possession, Turgeon substituted Smith out in favor of Bruno Fernando.
On Penn State’s second possession of the final 20 minutes, Stevens tried to use that pump fake once again. This time, Smith, having made the adjustment at halftime, didn’t leave his feet and kept pace with Stevens’ drive. The possession ended in a missed turn-around jumper, which Smith heavily affected.
Turgeon readied his young big man for the matchup during practice on Friday. Smith and the other big man were matched up one-on-one with guards in the practice session. Smith also said he studied Penn State’s film and watched what it would be like to cover Stevens.
“I thought as the game went on, [Smith] got better. I think he followed the scouting report, which is huge,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “He took away some strengths of [Stevens].”
Smith’s pairing with Fernando is what forces him to defend some opposing players on the perimeter. But it’s also his pairing with Fernando that allows him to improve his game on the defensive end.
“In high school, I usually had the high scoring load on myself. But now, I can focus on my defense and let me offense come to me,” Smith said.