Shaquille Cleare might not have arrived at Maryland as a perfectly polished player.
There’s little doubt he’s every bit as physical an option as the Terrapins hoped for.
He can set a menacing screen. He’s tested center Alex Len in practice with an unrelenting approach. And he’s starting to become a greater factor in games for the Terrapins (8-1), who play host to Monmouth (5-5) on Wednesday in their final game before a break for exams.
“Ooh, he is a bruiser, but Shaq plays hard, he’s a big body and he’s a strong guy,” forward James Padgett said. “You just have to be able to battle and compete. Sometimes, he knocks people down and runs people over. You just have to get used to that.”
Yes, he creates his share of headaches for opponents, too.
“It’s pretty fun until you hear the whistle and you try to prevent looking over at the bench because [coach Mark] Turgeon will be like ‘Shaq, no more fouls!’” Cleare said.
It’s a minor inconvenience for Maryland, which made little secret about how it used last week as an opportunity to tweak its lineup and dole out minutes differently in a pair of de facto exhibitions. Cleare arguably benefited as much as anyone on the Terps’ roster from the tinkering.
He set career-highs in points (12) and minutes (22) while making his first start in a rout of Maryland-Eastern Shore. Then he had his most efficient rebounding outing to date, collecting eight boards in 16 minutes in Saturday’s defeat of South Carolina State.
He played a combined 38 minutes in those games, nearly doubling his 20 total minutes from the previous two contests against Northwestern and George Mason.
“I think Shaq’s actually had an opportunity to play,” Turgeon said. “He didn’t get an opportunity, really, at Northwestern, even though he played well at Northwestern. He didn’t get any chance against George Mason. The last two games, he’s had a chance.”
It’s starting to become clear (no pun intended) what the freshman is especially fond of. He has an affinity for dunks and swatting shots far out of bounds, skills likely to serve him well throughout his time at Maryland.
And rather than avoid contact, he’s almost a magnet for collisions either real or imagined.
“When Shaq gets in there, you kind of see bodies bouncing off of him,” Turgeon said. “Now what teams are doing is just starting to flop whenever he gets near. Hopefully, people will understand it’s a flop as time goes on, and he’ll get the benefit of the doubt as we move forward. Physically, I’ve never had anyone like him — just strength, work habits, weight room, conditioning, things like that.”
He remains a developing player, and the presence of Len provides Maryland the option of gradually increasing Cleare’s playing time. Turgeon said because of Cleare’s ample strength, he tends to be “pretty robotic” on the floor and must continue to work on playing fluidly.
It’s nothing Cleare isn’t aware of working on.
“I just have to do things much smoother, to run plays and be a better defender,” Cleare said. “I have to limit my standing around and be involved in every play now and just get better.”
The last two games helped. Turgeon still is seeking greater consistency out of his deep and talented rotation, and providing a starting opportunity for four freshmen last week offered the coach a chance to see how each handled a new situation.
After his most effective week to date, Cleare is better positioned than ever to dole out some bruises far beyond Maryland’s practices.
“I’ve seen him come out of his shell tremendously,” sophomore Dez Wells said. “He’s done an incredible job of just establishing himself as an inside presence for us. We always knew he was a great player, but once he got the opportunity, he took full advantage of it. You should look forward to his minutes improving a lot as ACC season gets here.”
NOTES: Maryland is 2-0 all-time against Monmouth, with the last meeting a 91-55 rout early in the 2001-02 season. The Terps are 19-5 in nonconference games under Turgeon, including 14-1 at home. Maryland has 169 assists through nine games, effectively halfway to its season total of 339 last season.