In the cleansing period that followed Maryland's loss to American, coach Gary Williams had Rhodes address the team to provide some perspective and inspiration. Rhodes keyed in on Gist, who scored just three points before fouling out against American, the latest in a string of the lone four-year senior's poor performances in December.
"He looked at me," Gist said, "and was like, ‘Look, it's time for you to step up. It's time for you to be a leader, it's time for you to lead these guys and do what you need to do to get these guys winning,'"
Gist knew that much, but he didn't know how, exactly, to lead. He had never been in that position before at Maryland; he played a complementary role his first three years and was never looked upon to provide leadership.
"I don't understand everything I have to do," he said to Rhodes. "What is it I have to do to make sure these guys are ready to play?"
"‘You don't just have to push these guys,'" Rhodes said. "‘You have to let them learn, too, own their own at the same time. But you as a senior, you as a leader have to always be ready. You have to always be prepared. You know how it works. You can't come out and have a bad night."
And just like that, Gist hasn't had another bad night, leading Maryland to a 6-1 record since the American game. He's averaged 18 points, nine rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game during that stretch, including a 22-point, 13-rebound performance in Maryland's upset of North Carolina last week.
Did a switch suddenly turn on in Gist's head that made him a leader? Not exactly. Like the rest of Maryland's players, Gist had to learn a lot about his role in the first month of the season. But unlike the six freshmen and three sophomores, Gist had little margin for error because the success of the team heavily depended on how well he played. So when he played bad the team played bad and the losses fell largely on Gist's shoulders.
"Being a senior and trying to be a leader on the team is in some ways difficult because you're not supposed to mess up in certain situations," Gist said. "As a freshman, a sophomore and even as a junior, you can mess up and everybody will look at that as, ‘OK, you messed up, come back, go hard, do it right the next time.' But as a senior, you're supposed to know these things, you're supposed to be on top of everything."
Gist's rapid transformation began in practice. Not that he had practiced poorly before, but his teammates saw that he was refocused and refreshed. He worked with the freshmen more—Shane Walker in particular—but also let them develop at their own pace.
"There were a lot of side factors going on earlier, just some distractions that he was going through," Bambale Osby said. "But now James is way more focused and way more concentrated on everybody getting better."
On top of his improved statistics, Gist also took on a more vocal leadership role. His exciting style of play, punctuated by highlight-reel blocks and dunks, didn't change. He's used it recently, though, to invigorate the rest of the team.
Even when Gist has an off scoring night, he's still contributing. He scored 10 points in Maryland's win over Wake Forest, but Williams said afterwards it was one of the best games Gist played this year. He was in the right places all night, he disrupted Wake Forest's inside game with four blocks, and most importantly, he took pride in the success of his teammates, something he didn't always do before.
"I think James has reached the point in his career where he's happy for the other players who are successful," Williams said during the ACC teleconference Monday. "You can get enjoyment out of that if you're a team player."
Williams was sure to say that it hasn't been just Gist who's led the turnaround. Greivis Vasquez, Landon Milbourne and Osby in particular have elevated their play along with Gist. Freshmen Adrian Bowie, Cliff Tucker and Shane Walker have found their niche in the rotation.
But make no mistake, without Gist embracing his leadership role, Maryland likely wouldn't be in its current position: back in the hunt for the NCAA tournament.
"He's not afraid to be a leader," Williams said. "He wasn't giving the team what he could give us talent wise or leadership wise early and that's been a big change for our team to see James step up like you'd like to see all your seniors step up."
Gist Embracing Leadership Role
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