Pe’Shon Howard might spend as much time in the Comcast Center media room as anyone on Maryland’s roster. Even on days when the point guard doesn’t duck in, though, he has a pretty good idea what sort of questions coach Mark Turgeon is fielding from scribes.
Namely, is Howard ever going to look for his shot on a regular basis?
“I feel like every day, that’s part of his interview or something like that,” Howard said. “Everyone wants to emphasize it. Everyone wants me to score more. I just try to be aggressive, period.”
For their part, the Terrapins (12-1) are fine with Howard playing just as he did during nonconference play. The junior enters Saturday’s ACC opener against Virginia Tech (9-4) averaging 5.8 assists and only 3.2 field goal attempts. Only once, when he hoisted eight shots in the opener against Kentucky, has Howard tried more than five shots in a game.
Howard is a smoother, savvier player than a year ago, and he’s surrounded with a vastly different and much larger collection of talent. It’s fitting he evolved as a point guard, considering the considerably altered look of the program in the past 12 months.
Howard missed nine games to open last year with a broken foot, then bookended the season with an ACL tear that cost him the final nine games. There was plenty of time to observe how Turgeon wanted things done, and in between learned what it was like to run an offense for a team with precious few scoring options.
“What he went through was not fun, and it might have cost us a couple wins last year,” Turgeon said. “But he was able to sit back and watch. Sometimes when you sit back and watch, it really helps. We obviously have a better basketball team than we did last year. There are a lot of guys around that can score. He’s taken this assist thing seriously, so he’s always looking to make good plays.”
There were plenty made as Maryland rolled up 12 consecutive wins, but Howard’s significance isn’t just a matter of health and the skills of his teammates. He’s the conductor who finds ways to integrate nine other distinct options into a deep rotation.
He can run on the break with Dez Wells and Nick Faust. He’s found a knack for feeding passes into center Alex Len. And he’s astutely found zone-busting guard Logan Aronhalt open on the perimeter in several vital situations in the season’s early stages.
“He’s so valuable to us because he does everything we need him to do,” Wells said. “He doesn’t get out of character, and he doesn’t do anything to jeopardize a game for us. He just keeps everybody going and makes sure everybody is satisfied with their touches.”
Maybe that wouldn’t be an issue under any circumstances for a team that’s repeatedly lauded its collective kinship. Howard hasn’t left anything to chance.
Not that it doesn’t come naturally. Even though he played shooting guard on AAU and high school teams, Howard said he still somehow found a way to have the most assists. That outlook is serving this Maryland bunch well and offering a blueprint for freshman Seth Allen to observe when he comes in to spell Howard.
“I just try to pick up everything and talk to him all the time,” Allen said. “I think he’s figured out everything. I always tell him I want to be like him when I grow up, just joking around, and he’s like ‘Yeah, Seth, whatever.’”
One thing Allen might not want to completely copy is Howard’s unique approach to shooting, something that might change as games become closer. Howard is acutely aware opponents will try to double on Len and will concentrate on Faust and Wells in transition opportunities.
Still, he can’t help but to look elsewhere sometimes when his own scoring opportunities develop.
“Even when I’m open, when I start to jump I’m still looking around the court,” Howard said. “We played George Mason, and I threw that pass to Alex out of bounds. Even when I’m getting ready to shoot, I’m still looking and I just find the rim at the last second. That’s probably why I miss a lot, actually, because I’m really not looking at the rim.”
Howard realizes a vital truth about his place on this roster. With so many other options, Maryland doesn’t need him to score — hence an average of 3.9 points.
That would be a career-low, but there’s little doubt Howard is enjoying his best college season so far.
“Coming off surgery, you never know what you’re going to get,” Turgeon said. “He’s been better than expected. He’s playing better than I thought he could play after coaching him for most of last season. He’s become a better leader, more vocal, he has a great understanding of what I want him to do out there, and he’s making players around him better.”
On a team two years removed from its last NCAA tournament appearance, it is little wonder Howard is popular for his on-court unselfishness. But he gets some gentle ribbing about passing up shots even from teammates, who can see him gradually regaining all of his explosiveness now that he’s more than 10 months removed from surgery.
Howard shed his knee brace recently, and a few weeks ago during practice jumped from the foul line and went between two defenders and drew a foul while depositing a layup.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I think he’s back now,’” Wells said.
Fortunately for Maryland as it approaches the greatest tests on its schedule, he’s better than ever, too.