COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Terps’ junior guard Jaylen Brantley has put together back-to-back solid performances, the No. 2 steadily raising his game and proving a capable replacement for starter Melo Trimble.
Against Oklahoma State, Brantley’s 12 points and lockdown defense helped Maryland knock off the Cowboys. A few nights later, Brantley answered that outing with a career-high-tying 14-pont effort against Howard, while he also chipped in two assists and a steal. To boot, Brantley has been so dependable he’s turned in two straight 22-minute outings, logging more floor time than three of UMD’s starters.
“He’s actually a little more than I envisioned. I saw him as a shooter and kind of a leader, and he’s become more than that,” said head coach Mark Turgeon, whose team takes on St. Peter’s (4-4) Dec. 10 at noon in the Xfinity Center. “He’s become a really good defender for us and has a really good feel for the game. He’s had to work hard, and because he’s worked so hard he’s gained confidence. Last year was tough for him because it was such a big jump from where he was to this level, and he had the summer to regroup. His knowledge and understanding of the game with the work ethic he has makes up for his lack of size. At his height, he has to play harder than he ever has, and he’s done that.”
But while Brantley’s play has certainly opened the eyes of Terps’ fans, it’s what they don’t see that’s resonating with Turgeon and his teammates. Although he’s not a starter, the junior-college transfer has actually assumed a key leadership role on this young Maryland squad. Brantley is perhaps the most vocal Terp in practice, and he actively gets after and helps his teammates.
“Jaylen has been playing exceptional. He’s been helping us a lot. Just being a leader, it’s there with him. He’s always the loudest in the gym,” freshman guard Anthony Cowan said. “I try to take a little from everyone, but that’s what I take from [Brantley]. Just being loud and vocal and communicating.”
Trimble offered up his share of compliments as well. The Terps’ No. 1 is more of a calming presence in practice – the yin to Brantley’s yang.
“[Brantley’s] practicing really hard, a ton of energy, showing leadership. And whenever he’s not in practice, he’s watching plays,” Trimble said. “And he’s always communicating -- everyone sees that and Coach sees that. That’s him. He’s really showing he can be a player on this level.
“He’s more of a yeller than I am. I’m more calm about it. But he’s not negative all the time; he’s trying to get you to listen. And he’s aggressive about it.”
Last year, Brantley barely said a word during a game or in practice. As a first-year JUCO transfer, he didn’t want to overstep his bounds, especially with so many strong personalities on the team, most notably Rasheed Sulaimon.
But Turgeon knew Brantley had fire in him, and the coach has seen it unleashed in year two.
“The more confident he gets and the better he plays on the court, it broadens his leadership skills, which is good for our team. He’s going to help Damonte [Dodd], L.G. [Gill], Jared [Nickens] and Melo lead this team. He’s really taken on that leadership role these last couple weeks,” Turgeon said. “He’s been through a lot with his friends and different things he’s been through. He’s been through things academically to get eligible. But he’s still a kid at heart, which is great. But he is mature, he helps the young guys and has a lot of respect.”
Turgeon went on to say it’s “pretty easy” to lead these current Terps since all of them are so coachable. He added that Trimble is, and will continue to be, the face of the program and the go-to guy his fellow Terps look up to.
“But it’s nice to have a guy like Jaylen who really understands the game,” Turgeon said. “He can be a coach one day, because he really understands the flow and has an idea of what the team should do.”
If Brantley can keep producing on the court as well, it would allow Turgeon to rest Trimble more often. The point guard logs more than 30 minutes a night, so Turgeon tries to limit the amount he runs in practice to keep him fresh. Trimble personally said he doesn’t need or want the time off, but realizes it’s probably best if he sits out a few series so he can keep performing at a high level come Big Ten play.
“To be honest with you, I’m more worried about the three young guys playing so many minutes than Melo,” Turgeon said. “It’s new for them; it’s different than high school. But during Christmas and with finals they should be able to get fresh and be ready for the Big Ten.”
Those “young guys” are, of course, Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson. All three freshmen start and average about 27 minutes a night.
“My legs are feeling good, I’m feeling good,” Cowan said. “The ice baths are working and Coach Kyle Tarp, he’s helping us [with recovery]. We’ll be fine.”
One backup who could see his floor time grow and spell the freshmen is Dion Wiley. Wiley has slowly seen his minutes increase as he comes back from last season’s year-ending knee injury, and he’s beginning to contribute more and more with each passing game. Against Hampton, Wiley played 17 minutes and had five points, two assists, a block and a steal.
“One, he needs to get his confidence back with his knee. Dion was a really good defender for us before he got hurt. Right now it’s just not there for him,” Turgeon said. “The last few games he’s played better. He’s not great every rotation, but overall he’s getting more comfortable. He missed a layup the other night, and he’s not going to miss that. He was dunking that before he got hurt. So we just have to be patient with him, and he has to be patient with himself. I think he’s gaining confidence with his defense, ball-handling.
“But he’s not himself yet, and yet he’s still helping us. I just hope he keeps improving, playing time increases and in January, February he looks like the Dion we saw before the injury.”
Said Cowan: “He’s in here putting in extra work. I see him doing it, just putting up extra shots. His confidence is going to keep growing and he’s going to help our team.”
Wiley, and the rest of the squad, will have a couple more non-conference games to keep improving before Big Ten play begins. The key the next three nights, according to Turgeon, is just to “play harder” and resist the temptation to go through the motions.
“You just have to bring it every day in practice. You treat all these games as a way to get better,” Trimble said. “We’re not where we want to be yet. We know every team that plays us is giving their best, so we have to match that intensity.”