When he stood up and pulled off his warmup shirt for the first time in his college career, the Xfinity Center crowd noticed. The noise began to build then, as the 7-foot-2 figure curled up and sat beneath the scorer’s table, waiting to enter for Maryland men’s basketball for the first time.
And when the whistle blew, the buzzer sounded and he lumbered to his feet, those in the stands who hadn’t first acknowledged Chol Marial made up for it once the public address announcer said his name, welcoming him to the floor for his first competitive action in about two years.
Marial has battled recurring leg injuries since high school, and he underwent surgery in September to repair stress fractures in both legs. But now he’s almost back to the player who once topped recruiting rankings and attracted attention as a potential NBA lottery pick.
Coach Mark Turgeon said he’s at about 70 percent. Marial’s return, though, comes at a time when the Terps need a frontcourt boost. Freshmen forwards Makhi and Makhel Mitchell entered the transfer portal Friday, leaving depth concerns.
But as Marial rose up — he didn’t have far to jump — and slammed home put-back dunks midway through the first half in Sunday’s 84-70 win over Bryant, there appeared to be some path forward, some answer to how Turgeon will maneuver games without the Mitchell twins. It came in a 7-foot-2 package. It came in Marial’s debut.
“For him to do what he did tonight was pretty impressive,” Turgeon said. “He energized the building. He energized the team.”
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Over the last two weeks of practice, Marial’s teammates have seen steady improvement. Before Sunday, he hadn’t played much since his prep year at AZ Compass Prep in Chandler, Arizona, in 2017-18. His new teammates noticed Marial beginning to find a rhythm once more.
Turgeon said his defense has improved in practice, and guard Eric Ayala said Saturday that Marial had blocked a shot during practice and looked “fluid” doing so. Ayala said he’d seen Marial play well before they became teammates at Maryland and described his performances as “indescribable.”
Marial’s an imposing presence in the paint on offense and defense, and on his first offensive possession Sunday he showed it off. When Ayala missed a runner, Marial was there to gather the board and finish with a flush. And on the other end, he pulled in a defensive rebound.
About two minutes later, Marial corralled guard Aaron Wiggins’ miss and dunked once again. He added in an assist to forward Donta Scott, giving the Xfinity Center crowd something to focus on in an otherwise tight first half.
“He’s getting his natural basketball feel back,” Ayala said Saturday. “When he first started playing, you could tell he was just getting back into it. Now, he’s getting his strength back, he’s blocking shots and all that. He’s starting to come into who he usually is known for.”
[Read more: Makhi and Makhel Mitchell to transfer from Maryland basketball, leaving depth concerns]
Guard Anthony Cowan, Marial’s roommate, has noticed the forward’s positive attitude throughout the process. It led to a well-rounded performance, especially in the first half, and even as the crowd roared their approval at each contribution, Marial didn’t seem fazed by the moment.
“When you’re 7-2 and can just drop it in, it’s not much nerves are going to do at that point,” Cowan said.
Forward Jalen Smith has been forced to play as a five frequently this year on a team without many other established big men. As the season progresses, Turgeon said he anticipates Marial could play alongside Smith more to allow for Smith to get out of the paint.
Late in the first half, Smith and Marial combined on the floor for a few minutes, offering a look at what the partnership could look like, albeit against an undersized Bryant squad. With Marial attracting attention down low, Smith found room near the free-throw line and swished a jumper.
The Terps shot better Sunday than they had in their previous two defeats — 47 percent — and outrebounded the Bulldogs 48-16. Midway through the second half, as Maryland began to take control of the contest, forward Donta Scott pulled in three offensive boards before finally finishing down low, giving his team its first double-digit lead of the contest.
Cowan paced the squad with 19 points and Smith posted his eighth double-double. And the Terps pulled away for good following Scott’s series of boards, pushing the advantage to as many as 20.
Midway through the second half, Marial rejected an attempt at the rim and finished another dunk, again earning a big cheer from the Xfinity Center crowd. He received that appreciation all afternoon.
“I was not nervous, I think I was too hyped,” Marial said. “That crowd at my back and to play in a big stadium like that is really hype.”
It was Marial who captured the most attention in Sunday’s nonconference finale, taking the floor for the first time and showing a glimpse of what Maryland might have in the 7-foot-2 forward. Marial finished with six points and five rebounds in his 14 minutes of college basketball, helping to buck a two-game losing streak.
“He’s been ready for this moment,” Wiggins said. “He’s been eager for it.”
And now healthy, Marial could be a pivotal piece in the Terps’ rotation going forward. Sunday was just the start.