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Malone: New Staff A "Game-Changer"

INDIANAPOLIS __ For D.C. Assault director Curtis Malone and his staff, it was strange seeing Dalonte Hill, one of their former players and coaches, wearing a University of Maryland shirt as he sat amongst the thicket of college recruiters in the stands at the Adidas Invitational.

For Maryland, Turgeon's hire has brought about an immediate burst of energy on the recruiting trail. (Greg Fiume photo)

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It wasn't the fact that Hill had been a member of Kansas State’s staff for five years before landing at Maryland in May that made it an odd sight; it was foreign, rather, because of the relationship – or lack thereof – between the powerhouse AAU program and Maryland’s basketball program since Assault’s inception in 1993.

Never a fan of the grassroots basketball evolution that shifted a slab of importance from high school programs and coaches to their AAU counterparts, Gary Williams declined to build personal relationships with most AAU coaches – most notably Malone, whose program has produced countless college stars and several NBA players, making him one of the major players in the talent-gorged Washington, D.C.-area basketball scene.

There were years of chatter about a cold war between Williams and Malone, whose program has featured prized recruits like DerMarr Johnson, Keith Bogans, Jeff Green, Michael Beasley, Nolan Smith, Joe Forte and Quinn Cook, among many others. Such talk was over-stated, Malone said, adding that he’s never told a player not to go to Maryland.

“Me and Gary never really had a problem. We just never really knew each other,” he said. “I don’t get as involved in the recruiting as everybody thinks.”

That changed a bit a couple of years ago, when Malone joined then-Assault/DeMatha star Quinn Cook on a visit to College Park and the two sat down and had an extended chat, squashing whatever discomfort existed.

“He’s a great guy,” said Malone, who along with Assault vice president Damon Handon, has built one of the most recognizable names on the ever-growing grassroots basketball circuit.

“I had always respected him as a coach.”

Under Williams, Malone said, Maryland simply hadn’t gone hard after many of those players, and when the Terps did so, they were sometimes late to the party. Arinze Onuaku (Syracuse) and Dante Cunningham (Villanova), for instance, had already become highly sought prospects by the time Maryland’s staff began to pursue them in earnest as rising high school seniors.

The lone players with Assault ties to sign with Maryland – Travis Garrison (2004) and Lonny Baxter (1998) only played for Malone’s program sporadically. The Terps came close to landing DeMatha star Austin Freeman in the Class of 2007, Malone said, but Georgetown won a close battle because Freeman’s family shared a strong bond with Hoyas assistant Kevin Broadus.

“We’ve never really had a player go to Maryland. Maryland’s been involved with a couple kids but none of them ever chose Maryland. I just never thought that the Maryland staff spent a lot of time watching and recruiting our kids,” he said. “And they probably thought that they couldn’t get some of them.”

When Mark Turgeon was hired to succeed Williams in May, Turgeon immediately prioritized rebuilding and developing such ties. His hiring of Hill, a heralded recruiter with strong ties not only to Assault, but to many other grassroots and high school programs, signaled a major sea change at Comcast Center.

“It is [strange]. It’s something I never thought would happen. But then again, I never thought that Gary would retire anyway, especially so soon,” Malone said as he watched his 17-and-under squad compete at the Adidas Invitational in Indianapolis last Friday. “It’s a great thing, just the relationships he has. He’s familiar with the area and he’s worked with a lot of the coaches in the area.”

This is hardly breaking news, of course, to those who closely follow Terps basketball and recruiting. But it does have a foreign feeling to those who’ve long followed a program that despite a largely successful tenure by Williams, was oft-criticized for failing to secure more of the area’s hoops prodigies.

It was no secret that Maryland’s head coach often delegated the program’s recruiting efforts to his assistant coaches -- a tough task for any assistant in today’s hoops climate; with ever-increasing attention being paid to recruits, most sought-after prospects expect to deal with the head coach as well.

Malone has noticed the sudden surge in energy on the recruiting trail at Maryland following the arrival of Turgeon, who along with Hill and fellow assistants Bino Ranson and Scott Spinelli, has the Terps involved with a laundry list of top prospects. Maryland is among the top choices for Gonzaga (D.C.) point guard Nate Britt, a rising junior who is Assault’s current star.

The Terps are also checking out Assault big man Junior Etou and wing man Rajay Bullock, and the program is said to have a banner crop of young players soon to hit the high school ranks.

“They’ve been very active in a short period of time. I’ve seen a big, big difference,” he said. “I thought Rob [Ehsan] and Bino tried. They really tried. I thought Chuck [Driesell] really tried too.”

Handon has noticed Maryland's increased presence on the trail as well.

"The first thing I noticed in Indianapolis was that the whole Maryland staff was there, and they had someone at every one of our games. I had never seen that before," he said.

"In Minneapolis, I saw Bino watching our under-16 team play. That in itself is something I hadn't seen much ... I think when you're recruiting against Duke and North Carolina, you have to be aggressive and try to put a wall around the local area. They've also been very visible watching teams from outside of the area."

Georgetown has been the brand-name school among local prospects in recent years. The Hoyas’ trendiness isn’t an inherent advantage, though, said Malone. That ‘swag,’ as the players call it, is directly correlated to the amount of effort being put into recruiting and relationship-building.

“I definitely think that staff is everything. Now, it may be a big deal when Mark Turgeon and Dalonte and the rest of the coaches come and watch you,” Malone said. “I really think that’s a game-changer.”

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