- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

Maryland forward James Gist was not exhausted from playing nearly a full 40 minutes after a game last week, nor was he tired of talking about his team’s blossoming postseason prospects.

And when a visitor still loitering in the locker room 45 minutes after the final buzzer broached the topic of freshman Braxton Dupree, Gist’s enthusiasm suddenly grew even more.

“Braxton, he’s 6-8, 280,” Gist said. “That’s a big dude. And he can move.”

“Unguardable,” Bambale Osby, himself listed as a chiseled 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, interjected from a nearby locker. “I can’t check Braxton. He’s like the size of my locker.”

“I’m being serious,” Gist agreed. “This is the stuff we’re talking about.”

But it’s not necessarily what everyone else is seeing, and it stems from a classic conundrum: the patience needed for the development of big men, an asset Maryland (15-8, 5-3 ACC), which meets N.C. State (15-7, 4-4) at Comcast Center tonight, possesses in bulk.

Athletic freshman Shane Walker’s role expanded since the start of the season, and Dino Gregory’s spot just beyond the regular rotation has not changed. But both Dupree and redshirt freshman Jerome Burney faded from the cusp of acting as regular contributors to diminished or evaporated roles during conference play.

It was noticeable for Dupree, who started seven games before New Year’s before his minutes faded during conference play. He had a one-minute cameo against North Carolina and didn’t play against Duke, and has only three points in the last eight games.

“I don’t feel there was a wall,” Dupree said. “I just think I had to take time to work on a few things on my own a little more.”

Dupree, though, still has a spot in the rotation and was one of four freshmen on the floor during a vital stretch in the second half of the Feb. 2 victory at Georgia Tech.

Burney was not one of them.

The redshirt freshman provided a hint of his potential with 10 active minutes against Illinois in November, but he has remained buried deep in the rotation and has not played since Jan. 2 against Savannah State.

Burney missed all of last season with a left foot injury, a problem that cost him experience and perhaps some of the athleticism that made him attractive coming out of high school.

“They really set me back,” Burney said. “I think I actually lost some vertical leap because I remember in high school I did some dunks I didn’t think I could do, and now I can’t do them anymore.”

Coach Gary Williams insists his rotation in the frontcourt is still fluid behind Gist and Osby, a caveat that permeates any of his comments about his inexperienced forwards.

That could mean Burney or Dupree, the latter of whom Williams acknowledged must make some adjustments and is headed into “a big spring and summer for him,” could yet play a large role for the Terps.

But it might not happen this season.

For the most part, the Terps’ staff is exercising patience with their young big guys, who don’t always develop rapidly. Williams can invoke a Joe Smith or a Keith Booth as freshmen who instantly started. Or he can mention Lonny Baxter, who didn’t play in two games as a freshman, or Chris Wilcox, who averaged 8.6 minutes his first season.

Of course, Maryland doesn’t need herculean performances from its freshmen this season — just enough to provide a respite for its regulars.

“That’s what we ask the guys — when you get on the court, do good things like take a charge, rebound, play defense,” said Booth, now a Maryland assistant. “For the most part, some guys progress faster than others. The only thing we can tell them is you never know when your name or number is going to be called, and you have to be ready to play.”

It’s a platitude much easier to repeat than put into practice. Readiness isn’t simply confined to working relentlessly in practice and remaining attentive during games, and freshmen often need time to figure out how to add missing elements to their approach.

Osby learned that during a season at New Mexico, where he went against future NBA player Danny Granger and veteran David Chiotti each day.

“You thought you were playing as hard as you can, but you just don’t understand what playing hard really is,” Osby said. “Braxton, Shane, Jerome, Dino, they don’t really get the gist of how urgent it is to go hard on every play, how urgent it is to attack the basket on every play.”

In theory, that will come in time for Maryland’s young bigs. Neither Burney nor Dupree grumbled about their playing time, and both pointed to the Terps’ recent play (9-2 since Christmas) as something to appreciate.

Eventually, though, they will need to develop in much the same manner Gist did. The senior had the luxury of gradually improving into one of the conference’s best interior players, and marvels at how dominant he believes the beefy Dupree could become based on what he has seen in practice.

“If we could bring that out of him every night,” Gist said before trailing off. “Give him a couple years and you’re going to hear about him. Some people can get better faster than other people. Not everybody’s the same. Everybody gets better differently.”

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