Seasoned Stokes College basketball: Maryland's newly quiet, confident setup man has watched his minutes drop, but his effectiveness and value to the undefeated Terps soar.

December 11, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Terrell Stokes readily shares a basketball.

His feelings are another matter.

The freshman who couldn't hide his frustration has given way to a poker-faced senior. The unappreciated floor leader for Maryland, Stokes said "a point guard should always be calm, cool and collected," so he wants to maintain an even keel as the nation's No. 2 team approaches a monumental date.

The Terps take a 10-0 record to No. 5 Kentucky tomorrow night, an anniversary that sheds light on Stokes' demeanor. It was a year ago this weekend when coach Gary Williams benched the one-time whiz kid, who needed nearly a month to regain his starting position.

How calm, cool and collected can Stokes be?

He never asked Williams why he made the move. No explanation came, although Williams, interestingly, said last February that Stokes needed to play with more emotion. Stokes took a deep breath last December and discovered that he didn't need to carry the Terps, just get them in their offense.

An entirely different challenge arrived this summer. If Stokes couldn't hold his job when Matt Kovarik was the competition, how could he hold onto the reins of a team about to add Steve Francis, the best point prospect in the land?

Simple. Defend harder. Ignore your point totals. Become the setup man and let Francis flourish on the wing. Stokes is averaging 6.6 assists, a school-record pace for seasonal average. Because he learned to forget his mistakes, he's making fewer.

"It came over the years," Stokes said. "My first two years, I thought everything would go my way, like it did in high school. I had to learn that I was playing better players, at a higher level of basketball. I was going to make mistakes. I had to learn that when they happen, to get back and play defense."

Stokes, 22, always knew when to run, but now he's doing things he never envisioned for himself, such as holding up a hand like a crossing guard while waiting for his four options to find their right spots on the floor.

Have you ever played this well before, Terrell?

"Yeah," Stokes said. "Last year."

Stokes acquitted himself well down the stretch last February and March, when the Terps lived up to their fourth seed in the NCAA tournament. He averaged better than six assists in the postseason, when critics refused to acknowledge his contribution to a team that struggled early.

Near the end of last season's opener at Clemson, some teammates shied from the ball. Stokes had it, and put that loss on his shoulders. Three days later, his free throws held off Kansas. The next night, he had seven assists to one turnover against George Washington, but Shawnta Rogers beat the Terps' pressure and Stokes was blamed again.

Mark Duffner never got as much heat when he was getting fired as the university's football coach in 1996.

"Terrell has taken more criticism than anybody, even me," senior forward Laron Profit said. "It's a shame, because now that's he's playing so well, nobody wants to talk about it."

Profit is a protective member of a small circle around Stokes. It includes Stokes' mother and father back in Philadelphia, and Alexis Edwards, his girlfriend who drives down from there so often she's mistaken for a student. Stokes constantly seeks advice from Bill Ellerbee, his high school coach, but he can withdraw even from his hometown support.

"When I was a high school senior, we called a press conference for a Wednesday to make my college announcement," Stokes said. "Even though I wanted to play ACC basketball, I was going to go to Temple. Some TV crews couldn't come, it was pushed back a day, and then I announced Maryland. I didn't tell anyone I had changed my mind."

At Maryland's awards banquet last spring, Stokes was recognized for his public service, and he has made up enormous ground since he spent the eighth grade at a court-adjudicated school after he had run afoul of the law. He then got into basketball and Simon Gratz High, where Rasheed Wallace was his biggest target.

After twice failing to achieve the necessary SAT score for freshmen eligibility, Stokes was ready to abandon the idea of playing big-time college basketball. He had to be cajoled to take the test a third time, and didn't believe his mother when she showed him the letter that notified him of a score above 900.

As a Maryland freshman, Stokes sat behind Duane Simpkins and fumed. This season, he's averaging 25.8 minutes, less than his junior minutes, which were less than his sophomore minutes. As his playing load has decreased, his effectiveness has increased.

Francis runs the point for one-third of the game. When the most explosive performer this side of a circus cannon is out top, teammates tend to stand around, awaiting the next miracle. When Stokes is at the point, they seem to work harder because they know the ball could come their way.

Stokes, who visits his barber every other week, has become as meticulous with the Terps' half-court offense as he is with his hair.

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