BALTIMORE, Md. -- For six of Maryland’s first seven games this season, head coach Mark Turgeon inserted nationally-touted freshman center Diamond Stone into his starting lineup. Even though Stone wasn’t physically or mentally ready for extended minutes against Division I competition, the Terps’ headman made the savvy public relations move -- even if the coach would never admit it. After all, the 6-foot-11, 260-pound All-American didn’t choose College Park, Md., over hometown Madison, Wis., and several bluebloods just to ride pine.
But after a series of fits and starts, turnovers and missed assignments, an occasional flicker of brilliance on offense followed by a miscue on the other end, Stone finally took a seat at the jump. The date was Dec. 4, three days after the Terps dropped their lone game of the season, an 89-81 defeat at North Carolina. Stone ended up scoring nine points and pulling down five rebounds that night, but he couldn't hang with Carolina’s athletic big men, the freshman’s still-evolving game exposed.
Thus, junior center Damonte Dodd assumed the lead gig Dec. 4 against St. Francis (Pa.), and has held the job in the three games since.
“We just weren’t starting games well and we needed to try different things,” Turgeon said previously. “Damonte is our best defensive guy, and we were struggling with it and had to change it. … Today, we’re comfortable where we are … we feel like we have our best defensive lineup on the floor to start the game.”
But no one outside of Maryland’s locker room knew quite how Stone would respond. Would he view the “demotion” as an ego hit? Would it shake his confidence? Would he start to grumble when his teammates weren’t around?
Or, would he take it as a chance to learn, steadily working to improve each night -- regardless of when he entered a game?
“I didn’t like [coming off the bench] at first,” Stone admitted after the Terps took down Princeton, 82-61, Dec. 19. “But now I’m used to it. I don’t mind it. I kind of like coming off the bench.”
Indeed, the bench has, ironically enough, been a boon for Stone. Readily subbing in for Dodd, Stone is actually averaging more minutes the last four games (21) than he was during his six starts (around 19). What’s more, Stone’s scored in double-figures during each outing since the UNC defeat, including back-to-back 16-point efforts. He had his signature outing on a national state against UConn, racking up 16 points and a season-high nine rebounds in front of numerous NBA scouts at Madison Square Garden.
“[Stone] enjoys challenges,” Turgeon said before. “And now he’s being challenged a little bit.”
Most recently, against Princeton in Baltimore’s Royal Farms Arena, Stone tallied 11 points, six boards and a block. His numbers may not have matched his UConn outburst, but Stone was a key driving force behind the Terps’ blowout victory.
Initially, though, the Tigers hung tough, employing a 3-2 zone they hadn’t used prior to Dec. 19. Turgeon and the Terps acknowledged they were flustered and did not prepare for that type of look.
So instead of working the ball inside and exploiting interior mismatches, the Terps were content to jack up jumpers. Maryland did hit its share of 3-pointers (Jake Layman canned three of them), but the Terps missed a fair amount too, allowing Princeton to stay in the game. The Tigers ended up taking a six-point lead with 6:36 remaining and only trailed 35-31 at half.
“I thought we shot too many jumpers at the start. But we really got it clicking in the second half, guys shared the ball, moving it around,” Turgeon said. “We got it to the high post. We have a philosophy, we want our post to touch the ball on every possession against the zone. And when they do, good things happen. I bet when I go back and watch the film, 70 percent of the time that happened.
“It was a different game,” the coach continued. “We weren’t prepared for the 3-2, [but] kind of adjusted. We can score inside, and our big guys continue to get better.”
Forward Robert Carter did his damage in the paint, putting up a dozen points, while Jake Layman converted around the rim a couple times as well.
But it was Stone who shined during 19 minutes of action Dec. 19. During the first half, with Maryland trailing 14-13 and in need of a spark, the young center subbed in for Dodd. He promptly took a feed from Rasheed Sulaimon, made a power move towards the hoop and threw down a monstrous dunk. Two minutes later, with the Terps again behind, Stone converted another Sulaimon post-pass into a two-handed slam.
Stone then showed off a feathery touch from the baseline, reminiscent of the 15-foot jumper he hit overtop a UConn defender that prompted Robert Carter to proclaim: “He’s got it going, he’s feeling it now … He’s learning every day, always getting better. [Stone] knows how to play the game.”
During the latter 20 minutes Dec. 19, Stone helped the Terps pull away. Right before the second media timeout, the Wisconsin native muscled up and hit another short jumper, drawing a foul in the process. After a made free-throw, the Terps were up 56-45, their largest lead of the night.
“Once we got the ball inside to Diamond and Rob, we kind of calmed down and starting clicking a little bit,” Layman said. “Once we got the ball inside, it made it easier for us and opened things up.”
Stone capped off his scoring by running the floor, taking a pass from point guard Melo Trimble and converting a layup. From there, Maryland cruised to a 21-point victory.
“I know if I get in the game I can bring energy and be dominant in the paint,” Stone said. “When things aren’t going so good, I can be the guy who turns things around. I can be that spark off the bench; that’s what I am.”
Of course, Stone still has to continue improving on the defensive end. But the big man took another stride in that department Dec. 19 by hitting the boards and doing his part to hold counterpart Pete Miller to six points on 2-of-9 shooting.
“I just tell Diamond every game, because he can get confused where to be on the court, I tell him, ‘If you mess up, just play hard. Play hard through your mistakes,’” Dodd said previously. “If you play hard you can’t really get mad at him, because he’s trying his best. So I tell him, ‘When I came in, I didn’t have the offensive game you have, but with defense it’s all about effort…. If you play hard on defense, you have a chance to make a lot of money.’”
Dodd had better be careful. If Stone begins locking down on “D,” he won’t be wearing a warmup jersey at the game’s outset for much longer.