COLLEGE PARK -- The transformation in Laron Profit was confounding.
A junior forward, he led Maryland and the Atlantic Coast Conference in steals this season, with an approach firmly rooted in the fall. He relates to an elite defensive back, say Deion Sanders, or the "neighborhood bully who took your ball and told you to go home."
So what happened to that bravado once Profit got his hands on the ball? When he came open on the perimeter in January, Profit became stricken with paralysis by analysis. Neon Deion disappeared, and in his place you got the golfer who uses a compass and a wind-gauge to line up a three-foot putt, then misses it.
"I was thinking about it way too much," said Profit, who made two of the first 27 three-pointers he tried in ACC games this season. "I was not real comfortable with the three. Is this a good shot? Should I be taking the three? Am I taking it too soon? It's kind of like I was shooting at the basket, but looking around to make sure it was OK."
When you do as much for your team as does Profit, the coach will be patient while you squirm through a shooting slump. Gary Williams did, and when third-seeded Maryland meets Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament tomorrow (noon) in Greensboro, N.C., it will go in with Profit leading in scoring and introspection.
"I don't think people understand me," said Profit, a third-team ACC all-star who stands 6 feet 5. "They see what they see on TV, a guy always talking, all these gestures to the crowd and teammates, but they don't understand what's important to me. My family, keeping God first in my life, my teammates, that's what's important.
"It gets frustrating for me, because I don't think people appreciate what I try to do for this program. All they look at are the negatives."
Admittedly, Profit has done the same sometimes. Sometimes, he just thinks too much.
Before his sophomore year, he was asked to name the best player ever out of Delaware. "Me," said Profit, who had starred at Caesar Rodney High in Dover. That bold kid was the same one who, after his college debut consisted of two minutes against Kentucky, wondered if he was in the right place.
As a freshman, Profit eventually found his niche, and a mentor in then-senior Johnny Rhodes, who was in the process of becoming the ACC's all-time leader in steals. The friend who taught Profit the nuances of defending also picked him up during his slump, which began in a loss at Clemson and bottomed out in an 0-for-7 nightmare against Duke on Jan. 3.
"After that game, there was a message on my answering machine from Johnny, calling from Taiwan," Profit said. "It was short. He said: 'Will you shoot the ball?'
"He was home shortly after that. We sat in his car, and talked. Johnny told me I was the only one doubting myself. He said he went through the same thing here. Everyone was always telling him, 'Work on your j, work on your j,' and he obsessed over it. 'Is my elbow at the right angle? Am I following through?' You think that much about it, you miss."
In short, Rhodes told Profit to play offense like he did defense.
"A lot of what Johnny did rubbed off on me," Profit said. "He taught me how to play the game without thinking about it. On defense, it's a feeling you get, reading what the other team is doing. You play long enough, and it's as if you're inside the head of whoever has the ball, like you're eavesdropping."
Until the noise in Profit's head quieted and his stroke became smooth, he was soothed by other facets of his game. Take Maryland's Jan. 21 win at Georgia Tech. Profit went 3-for-13, but JTC was he dragged down by his second-worst shooting game of the season? Hardly. He had eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals.
In the Terps' first three ACC games, he was 7-for-31 from the field, an embarrassing 22.6 percent. Since then, he's hit 46.3 percent of his shots. He entered February with that ghastly .074 percentage on threes in the ACC, but in Maryland's past eight games he was .375 beyond the arc and an even .500 overall to smooth out what had been the rough edge on his game.
"The biggest area that he's improved on this year is that he has the ability now to really focus for the whole game," Williams said. "There were times in his sophomore year when he played great, but then the next game he couldn't keep that same focus going.
"The basketball ability, the athletic ability and the intelligence is there. It's a matter of Laron putting it together every night out. That's what he's done the last half of the year. He's been a dominant player, and hopefully he can continue doing that as we get into the tournament."
The one teammate who matches Profit's desire for a good ACC tournament is point guard Terrell Stokes.