Three days before the Maryland men’s basketball team opened its 2022-23 season and Kevin Willard’s career debuted in College Park, the new Terps coach was asked which of his players had made the biggest first impression during preseason practice.
Willard didn’t hedge.
“I think Julian Reese by far has impressed me the most,” Willard said. “I didn’t listen to anybody about these guys when they told me stuff. I don’t listen to people very well. I’ve challenged Julian tremendously on and off the court. I think [assistant coach] Grant [Billmeier] has been great for him, but Julian has answered the bell.”
For the most part, the 6-foot-9 sophomore from Baltimore has validated his coach’s preseason praise. Still, there is the lingering issue of early foul trouble that plagued Reese throughout his freshman year and is still lurking as No. 22 Maryland — one of the nation’s biggest surprises at 7-0 — begins Big Ten play Friday at Xfinity Center against No. 16 Illinois (6-1) at 9 p.m.
Reese has been in double figures four times, including his first two double-doubles as a college player, and scored a career-high 24 points in last Friday’s 95-79 win over Coppin State. He is averaging 13.7 points — third on the Terps, behind senior forward Donta Scott and graduate student point guard Jahmir Young — and a team-best 7.9 rebounds.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Reese’s remarkable growth from a mostly disappointing freshman year, when he averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in 17.7 minutes a game, has been his offensive efficiency. Making 39 of 50 field goal attempts, Reese is currently ranked third nationally at 78% after shooting 45.1% last season.
Since Reese went scoreless and didn’t even attempt a shot in the first half of a season-opening win over Niagara, Willard put the onus on himself to get the player they call “JuJu” more involved in an offensive system that relies heavily on Scott as well as Young.
“We’ve got to get him some touches down low and get him the ball a little bit, that’s going to come,” Willard said after Reese finished with seven points on 3 of 5 shooting in 26 minutes against Niagara.
It has seemingly been a point of emphasis in many games, since most of them have come against smaller opponents that have had trouble matching up with Reese’s height and length. In the win over Coppin State, Reese made all nine of his first-half field goal attempts and scored 22 points by halftime, 18 in a stretch of seven minutes, before foul trouble set in the second half.
“His size (was) a problem,” Coppin State coach Juan Dixon said of his fellow Baltimorean. “The kid has gotten bigger (and) stronger.”
Willard said he “was a monster.”
But his career-high could have been even more impressive had Reese not been whistled four times in the second half, including for a technical. Although Reese’s foul troubles have not yet hurt the Terps, who have won the first seven games by an average of more than 22 points, it could prove to be more problematic in the Big Ten.
Willard said after Reese picked up two fouls in the first nine minutes and finished with just six points in Tuesday’s 79-54 win at Louisville that the former St. Frances standout has to understand that opposing teams want to take advantage of his propensity to foul and, given his value to the Terps, try to get him off the floor.
“It’s all about figuring out that he’s on the scouting report now,” Willard told reporters at the Yum! Center. “He got two quick fouls again. That’s kind of gotten him out of rhythm. He’s got to understand that when he’s putting up the numbers he’s putting up he’s going to get a lot more attention than when he wasn’t putting them up.”
Billmeier watched tapes of every game from last year and took notice of Reese’s regular foul trouble.
“I think he’s actually improved a lot in that area,” Billmeier said in an interview Thursday. “He hasn’t picked up any frustration fouls that he did earlier in his freshman year. It’s going to happen, you’re a big guy, you’re playing in the Big Ten. There’s going to be a lot of physical play and the refs are going to have to call certain stuff down low.”
A case can be made that Reese could be Maryland’s most indispensable player — or at least a strong second to Scott — given the lack of big men on the roster. Canadian freshman Caelum Swanton-Rodger has the size, but not the experience. Burly graduate student forward Patrick Emilien has the experience gained at two previous stops, but at 6-foot-7 may lack the length to deal with Big Ten opponents.
“Julian is invaluable to our early success, he’s a major reason why we’re off to a 7-0 start,” Billmeier said. “I don’t want to say he’s the biggest piece, I think everyone on this roster has had a major hand in what we’ve been able to accomplish early on.”
Although the league lost several elite big men after last season, including Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell, it remains deep with traditional post-up bigs. Reese will eventually have to go up against Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson (7-1, 260) and Purdue’s Zach Edey (7-4, 295).
His first two matchups will be facing underrated bigs Coleman Hawkins and Dain Dainja of Illinois and Tyler Wahl of Wisconsin on Dec. 6.
Can Reese take the pounding that comes with playing in one of the country’s most rugged conferences? Reese put on 15 pounds during the offseason and is listed as 230 pounds, but still seems skinnier than recent Terp star Jalen “Stix” Smith was after a similar physical transformation between his freshman and sophomore years.
“I said this before, gaining weight or gaining muscle, it does something mentally to you,” Reese said on the team’s Media Day in October. “You feel more confident. It brings more swagger to you. I notice it watching film of practice.”
Willard said that Reese’s difficult transition from high school to college can be traced to his pandemic-impacted senior year at St. Frances — “COVID really screwed him,” Willard said — as well as the tumult that surrounded the Terps last year after the early-season resignation of coach Mark Turgeon.
“Last year was a really difficult year for all of these guys,” Willard said. “He didn’t really have a typical freshman year. So you’re looking pretty much at a freshman right now.”
Nick Myles — who coached Reese his last two years at St. Frances after he transferred from Newtown — said this week that an abbreviated schedule of 13 games as a senior didn’t help a player who had not even turned 18 when he left for College Park. Myles said that although interim coach Danny Manning helped Reese learn his position, the losing wore on him.
“He’s definitely been through tough times,” Myles said of a player he called “the most talented kid” he ever coached on the high school level. “He’s finally getting a chance to have fun with it and play basketball, which is good.”
Asked what has made the biggest difference, Myles said, “I think Julian trusts the coaches, he’s getting mature. He’s a young kid. Julian’s nothing but 19. You’ve got a lot of kids still in high school that are turning 19. He’s younger than his class, most people don’t know that. Most kids are reclassifying.”
Just as Willard said earlier this season that Reese is just “scraping the surface” in terms of reaching his potential, Myles believes there is still a lot of room for his former player’s game to expand. Some might also point to Reese’s relationship with Billmeier as a key to that development.
A former backup center at Seton Hall, Billmeier returned to his alma mater in 2011 as a member of Willard’s support staff. After being promoted to assistant coach in 2015, Billmeier helped in the development of Angel Delgado, who won the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as the nation’s top center in 2018, and power forward Sandro Mamukelashvili, the Big East player of the year in 2021.
“It’s definitely something you take pride in,” Billmeier said of his reputation as one of the top big-man coaches in the country. “Player development is a major part of Coach Willard’s program. With the guys you work with you certainly want them to get better.”
Billmeier said that Reese has shown tremendous growth since the new coaching staff arrived in the spring.
“He’s a kid that wants to get coached, he’s a kid who wants to learn and he wants to get better on an everyday basis,” Billmeier said. “He’s not a kid that thinks he has all the answers but he definitely searching to get better,”
Along with Scott, Reese could be the biggest difference maker for Maryland this season. It could be the difference between the Terps fulfilling the prevalent preseason predictions of them finishing toward the bottom of the league, or continuing to exceed the expectations many of the team’s fans had for Willard’s first year.
The jury might still out on Reese, but the judge — in this case his coach — believes that Reese will live up to the hype surrounding him coming out of high school.
“The player I saw last year compared to the player I think people will see this year is night and day,” Willard said.
Don Markus covered college sports at The Baltimore Sun, where he was on staff for 35 years. He is the author of “100 Things Maryland Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” and was a producer for the podcast series “Len Bias: A Mixed Legacy.”