Kevin Willard didn’t temper expectations for freshmen DeShawn Harris-Smith and Jamie Kaiser Jr. Instead, the Maryland men’s basketball coach called this freshman class the best he’s ever had and Harris-Smith the most physically gifted player he’s coached.
Saturday’s performance against Nebraska, in which the duo combined for 23 points, gave a glimpse into why the coach thinks so highly of his four-star recruits. But performances like those have been few and far between.
Harris-Smith and Kaiser average just 7.1 and 4.1 points per game, respectively, and have been shooting poorly. But despite those persisting offensive struggles, the two have been useful players for the Terps by becoming reliable defenders.
Willard said the two were initially lost on defense but are now assets. Their growth is part of why Maryland’s defense ranks No. 7 in the country in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rating.
“I think our freshmen are playing at a very, very high level, especially defensively,” Willard said. “For being as young as they are in today’s college basketball, what they’ve picked up on scouting reports and what we’re trying to do on certain guys, they don’t make mistakes anymore.”
They have yet to take the same strides offensively. The Terps hope Saturday’s outing is the beginning of one.
Kaiser was known as a shooter entering college but is shooting just 25.6 percent from three this season.
During Maryland’s Wednesday win over Iowa, Kaiser missed three 3-pointers and went scoreless in 20 minutes. But late in the game, Willard needed him to re-enter the court and gave his freshman a pep talk.
“I had a little bit of a conversation with him about how well he’s played … I say, ‘My man, eventually you’re going to make a shot and when you do, it’s going to be over,’” Willard said.
Days later, Kaiser went 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and scored a career-high 14 points.
Both freshmen have worked hard to improve their offense. Harris-Smith knew Willard spent mornings in the gym working with Jahmir Young and Julian Reese, so he asked his coach if they could work on his jump shot. Kaiser did the same.
The one-on-one sessions allow Willard to find small adjustments, like Harris-Smith’s follow-through or Kaiser’s footwork.
Willard praised both of the first-years for their effort and for putting up with his antics.
“He’s gonna try to knock you off your game a little bit and see if you can stay locked in,” Harris-Smith said. “He’s going to talk a little trash to try and make you miss a shot, but he’s just trying to make you better.”
While Harris-Smith has shot slightly better since starting his career 1-for-19 from beyond the arc, he’s still shooting just 16.7 percent from three this season.
Both freshmen were efficient against Nebraska, though, combining to shoot 8-for-13 from the field. That, coupled with improved defense, made Saturday a bright moment amid a challenging freshman year.
Fans chanted Kaiser’s name any time he was subbed in or out of the game during what he called his best day on campus since he arrived in College Park.