- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

The campers long gone and the summer pickup games over as well, the Comcast Center floor predictably sat vacant. Yet as the night deepened, two familiar visitors made their way back to the arena.

It was nearly ritual. James Gist and Gini Chukura — the starter and the walk-on, the high school teammates now playing for Maryland — would slip back into the building and take aim at the basket.

“Me and Gini would come up here and just shoot in the gym all the time,” Gist said. “I’d just hit Gini up and he’d be ‘Let’s go get some shots up.’ It’d be 12 o’clock at night and we’d be in here shooting.”

Over and over and over again they would shoot, smooth swishes mixed in with inevitable clanks and caroms off the rim. It was an opportunity not only for Gist to refine his range, but to define how important he would be to the Terrapins in the future.

It was a welcome undertaking for the junior, who deferred to the likes of former teammates Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison his first two seasons. Yet with a half-dozen new players, Gist realized he owned a much greater place in Maryland’s program as he entered his second year as a starter.

In the last month, Gist has further embraced his impact on the Terps. Influential both on and off the floor, he is coming off consecutive 20-point outings as Maryland (16-6, 2-5 ACC) visits Wake Forest (10-11, 2-7) tonight in a game vital to the Terps’ postseason hopes.

Not long ago a raw athlete, Gist’s increased polish contributed to the Terps’ 8-0 start, and his burgeoning inside-outside game is perhaps the best reason to believe Maryland can reverse its recent struggles and reach the NCAA tournament next month.

“James has gotten better every year, but now he’s taken a little bit of a step where he knows he can make open jump shots,” coach Gary Williams said. “He sees how he can score inside because of his quickness. He’s in a good place right now. He feels real good about himself.”

Developing a game

One of the prices of being part of a successful program is the endless search for the next guy to follow former stars. At Maryland, the search is always on to anoint the next Juan Dixon, the next Lonny Baxter.

With his lithe body and abundant athleticism, Gist was immediately compared to Chris Wilcox when he arrived on campus more than two years ago.

In some ways, the comparisons were valid. Both had much to learn, and both were capable of a jaw-dropping play. Yet Gist was careful not to make too much of his similarities to the 2002 NBA lottery pick.

“That’s a compliment, a huge compliment being compared to somebody like Wilcox,” Gist said. “I just looked at it as ‘OK, they think I’m like him, but I can’t play like him. I don’t want to try to play like him, I want to try to make a name for myself and be like myself.’ Maybe two years down the road, somebody will come in and they’ll say ‘He’s a James Gist.’ ”

Gist enjoyed some Wilcox-like plays in his first two seasons, though they were fleeting. He also played in two NITs, which didn’t match Wilcox’s two Final Four appearances before turning pro.

The summer shooting was only part of the 6-foot-8 Gist’s work to solidify his game. He added 10 pounds of muscle to enter the year at 228 pounds, a change noticeable in several interior scrums this season that has helped him raise both his scoring (12.6) and rebounding (7.0) by nearly 50 percent.

“He’d make a rebound last year, and it was unbelievable and was as good as anybody can do, but it didn’t happen for five more minutes or seven more minutes in the game,” Williams said. “Now, he’s more consistent around the glass. He’s figured out he can score as an offensive rebounder. He’s just become a more complete player.”

The offseason work had other benefits. Gist always believed he could hit 3-pointers but was uncertain of how wise an attempt would be. He’s 6-for-12 beyond the arc this year, and has added several mid-range jumpers to make defenders even more wary of his skills.

Another year of basketball made it clear to Gist the Terps needed him to be more assertive. Suddenly, he was an upperclassman and realized he shouldn’t wait for someone else to create offense.

“It’s more of a confidence issue, too,” Gist said. “Before it was more ‘I don’t know if I should take this shot. We’ve got Nik, we’ve got Chris [McCray], we’ve got D.J. [Strawberry]. They can take the shot.’ Now it’s like ‘I’m the one that has to take the shot.’ ”

His progress continues even in the middle of the season. Williams recently noticed Gist’s tendency to double pump when he was coming in from the wing or trying to lay it in, negating his speed advantage over opponents. Gist has dispensed with the fakes in the last two games while making 20 of 25 shots.

“I think it’s just experience,” Chukura said. “He understands how to play the game now. Over the years, he’s really developed more of a knowledge of the game, so he knows what to do in certain situations and what not to do.”

Picture this

Gist’s certainty on the floor could be seen in other areas before. He is interested in graphic design and the way images in video games and animated films such as “Shrek” and “Finding Nemo” are generated. In high school, while others might simply doodle, Gist would be a bit more precise in what he produced.

“He would sit there and draw a cartoon — Marvin the Martian, Bugs Bunny, just draw them off the top of his head,” Chukura said. “He always had the gift for that. … He would sit in class and come out and say ‘Look what I just drew.’ You drew that in an hour and 20 minutes of class? Wow, that’s pretty good.”

Clearly, Gist knows how things are supposed to look. So when the Terps lost their first conference game in the new year in an unsightly manner, Gist immediately sought out Strawberry to call a team meeting the next day after practice.

Strawberry is clearly one the most significant voices for this year’s Terps, but it was Gist who made several points during the meeting that preceded a victory over then-unbeaten Clemson.

His eloquence came as a surprise to neither Chukura nor Strawberry, who realized months earlier how desperately Gist wanted to experience the NCAA tournament this year.

“I know everybody wants to win bad, but I feel me and James are the people that want it the most,” Strawberry said. “Over the summer, I wasn’t here, but I was in contact with James all summer and we just talked almost every day about how we couldn’t wait for this season and how bad we wanted to win. … I can tell how much he cares about the team and how much he wants to win.”

Gist presents an interesting dichotomy. He is one of the funniest Terps, and he and Chukura loudly laugh about old inside jokes from across the locker room.

At the same time, he already has proved willing to emphasize the importance of playing in the right manner rather than ignoring basic facets of the game like rebounding and defense.

“James always brings a real loose atmosphere to the locker room,” junior forward Bambale Osby said. “When he’s on the court, he always wants to kick your butt. James is a competitor. A lot of times when we’re not stepping up, he’ll be the first one to say ‘We need to pick it up, we need to bring it.’ Just him being himself, it’s just a key for us.”

Gist is averaging a team-high 15.3 points in conference games and has made 56.6 percent of his shots in league games, third in the ACC. There is an increasing onus on the Terps to collect victories to remain in the NCAA tournament hunt, and Gist is determined to provide a further example of how Maryland must play to avoid another NIT trip.

“I’m a junior and I’ve got to be one of the leaders on the team,” Gist said. “Playing tough is something Coach Williams expects from everybody. I have to come out there and play as tough as I can and show the freshmen and sophomores and Bambale this is how we’re going to play here. If I don’t play like that, they’re not going to play like that.”

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