Maryland's Haukur Palsson takes a shot against Colgate.… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
COLLEGE PARK — — Almost nobody pronounces his first name correctly. "No, definitely not," Haukur Palsson says good-naturedly.
The freshman forward draws it out -- "hey-ya-kuss" -- as if it had an extra syllable and ended in "s."
But what Americans do get right about blond Icelandic native "Hawk" Palsson -- the thing that translates in any language -- is what Maryland coach Gary Williams sensed about the player on a Florida recruiting trip. It's what coaches like to call a "motor."
"I saw Hawk play, and I liked what he brought to that [high school] team," Williams said Tuesday as the Terps (15-8, 5-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepared to face Longwood (8-18, including 0-13 on the road) tonight. "That was a really good team in Florida [Montverde Academy], and he did the same thing for that team that he's doing for us in terms of energy and things like that."
Since Palsson was a sixth man at Montverde, his emergence for the Terps -- he started against Clemson five games ago, and had a season-high nine points Saturday against Wake Forest -- must be considered something of a surprise.
For those wondering why Palsson has seemed to surpass more heralded recruits, the simple answer is that he was ready.
Palsson is a Williams-type player, having little noticeable ego. "I don't light the stat sheet up, but I just try to do what I do best," he said. Since he was a reserve in high school, it was not a difficult adjustment to sit on the bench at Maryland.
Palsson, who can shoot from long range, was accustomed to rugged competition and national exposure. Montverde finished last season at 23-4 with a loss to Findlay (Nev.) Prep in the ESPN Rise championship game. He was not a standout at last year's Capital Classic partly because all-star games are about glitzy, individual play and Palsson did not often have the ball in his hands.
The 6-foot-6, 190-pound Palsson is almost shy off the court. One reason is that he is still mastering English as his second language.
"I first learned English from my great-grandmother. She didn't want to speak to us in Icelandic. She wanted us to learn some more," he said.
But Palsson has an innate toughness that coaches appreciate.
His older brother, Magnus, is a former defensive player of the year in his Icelandic league. Another older brother also played. Both had been exchange students in the United States, and Palsson -- who wants to play professionally -- followed them to this country.
His brothers -- who are also plumbers like his father -- were important to his basketball development. "Both of them had a lot of influence on me as a basketball player because I always used to practice against them. They especially beat me up," Palsson said. "They didn't want me to win -- never. If I started to score some buckets or something, they started to push me over because they were stronger. Finally, I won."
Said Williams: "He sees the game pretty well, especially as a freshman. He's easy to play with. He'll contribute on defense, he'll rebound, he'll make the right pass. His personality helps us. Number one, he's not afraid. That's the first thing other players look at."
Williams started Palsson in a win against Clemson because there was a short turnaround between games and the coach wanted teammates to feed off the player's energy. He is averaging 2.4 points and 2.0 rebounds a game, but has earned double-digit minutes in the last two contests.
Palsson has become a fan favorite, partly because of his exotic background. Terps fans almost always applaud his entrance into games. "When I get into the game, it kind of all blocks out," he said. "But when I'm on the bench I can always hear it. That always gives me more of a boost and makes me go harder."
Fans know Palsson as "Hawk." It's easier to pronounce than his first name. But it's fitting because "Haukur," derived from the Old Norse, means "hawk."
He wouldn't mind being an unofficial goodwill ambassador for his country.
"Some of them [in the United States] know about Bjork, some of them know about Sigur Ros, which is a music band," Palsson said.
"It's actually really a nice country and if people like the outdoors they should definitely come visit."