The Washington Post

An ‘unheralded MVP’ takes road less traveled

Terps graduate transfer Emilien has had an impact beyond statistics since he joined a winning program


Patrick Emilien initiated the highlight moment. His vision and a perfectly placed bounce pass that swerved just enough around a defender allowed Maryland point guard Jahmir Young to shine. Young raced into open space with a backdoor cut, collected the feed from Emilien and finished with a thunderous onehanded dunk. The arena announcer shouted Young’s name as the crowd roared. Emilien’s work remained mostly in the background.

This is what Emilien does. He’s a backup forward, and his average production — roughly three points and three rebounds per game — is similar to what he offered in that home finale against Northweste­rn. All five starters scored at least 10 points, while Emilien finished his final game at Xfinity Center with two assists (the one to Young and another with a pass over the heads of several defenders that led to a Hakim Hart three-pointer), three rebounds and two points (a pair of free throws made possible by his own offensive rebound).

When Emilien watches basketball, he appreciate­s the athletes who make the plays that are less noticeable to casual fans. Emilien loves diving to corral loose balls that would otherwise head out of

bounds. Defensivel­y, he takes pride in being in the right place at the right time. And his favorite act on the court is grabbing an offensive rebound, he said, because that’s a matter of “pure will.”

Emilien arrived at Maryland for his final season of college with a modest résumé: 16 starts in three seasons at Western Michigan, then a significan­t role (12.5 points) at St. Francis in Brooklyn. Emilien took a massive leap from the Northeast Conference to the Big Ten but has proved to be a key contributo­r, logging 17.8 minutes per game as the Terps enter the postseason. Coach Kevin Willard has called Emilien the team’s “unheralded MVP.”

At 6-foot-7, Emilien is limited by his size, but he compensate­s with “old-man strength,” Willard said. Emilien’s skill set — and his ability to seamlessly switch from power forward to center during stints on the court — has been valuable.

Emilien knew he would be a bench player in College Park. His mother, Sheila Fardy, remembers her son saying, “It’ll be more impressive if I play five minutes at Maryland than if I play the whole game elsewhere.”

And he wanted to be part of a winning program. At Western Michigan and St. Francis, Emilien’s teams failed to win a postseason game or come close to the NCAA tournament. A year ago, he watched Jason Whitens, a close friend who transferre­d from Western Michigan to Michigan State, experience March Madness. Soon Emilien will get his chance.

“He’s going to be able to look back and say, ‘ This moment was my highlight,’ ” said Adeel Sahibzada, who coached Emilien’s AAU team in Toronto.

As a child, Emilien didn’t dream of athletic achievemen­ts. He didn’t grow up in a sports-obsessed household. Emilien enjoyed playing video games and could play the bass. As soon as he was old enough to stay home alone rather than tagging along to his older sister’s soccer games, he did. (Gabrielle, a goalkeeper, eventually played at Howard and was part of the Haitian squad that recently earned World Cup qualificat­ion.)

As a 14-year-old, Emilien followed his friends to basketball, the same way he had followed them to skateboard­ing and other activities. They took a bus to the outskirts of Toronto for a tryout. Emilien didn’t make the team — until a spot opened a bit later and his mom got a call.

“I couldn’t dribble,” Emilien said. “I couldn’t guard. I was 110 pounds, a twig. I couldn’t tell you one thing I was good at.”

Emilien attended a French school through 10th grade. He switched to an English school, partially to be with his close friend and also in search of a more serious basketball program. Emilien said he was a “skinny little awkward kid,” but Sahibzada, while refereeing a game, saw Emilien dunk. Emilien didn’t know what AAU basketball was when Sahibzada encouraged him to join his program. It might be too late, Sahibzada thought, but it was worth trying to develop Emilien.

Toronto Basketball Academy, where Sahibzada coached at the time, had a “shoestring budget,” he said. Players wore reversible jerseys. Emilien remembers staying at “crappy motels.” Sometimes they drove through the night to limit the cost of traveling to tournament­s in the United States.

But Emilien had natural athleticis­m. He welcomed coaching, soaked in feedback and listened “with his eyes,” Sahibzada said. Steady improvemen­t followed.

“The stars aligned,” Emilien said. “I met Adeel, had a growth spurt and then just started having more fun with it.”

After 12th grade, Emilien stayed in high school for an additional year, hoping for a Division I opportunit­y. After his final prep season, he still didn’t have a scholarshi­p offer. Coaches would call, but they often would ask what other offers Emilien had. When they heard he didn’t have any, the conversati­ons didn’t progress much further.

Finally, an offer from Siena — led by Jimmy Patsos, a former Maryland assistant who still hangs around the program, along with then-assistant Greg Manning Jr., now the director of operations for the Terps — ended the drought. That led to more interest, and Emilien landed at Western Michigan.

Emilien had a strong season at St. Francis last season, including an 18-point performanc­e at Wisconsin and 16 points at Penn State, but the team finished with just a 10-20 record.

Emilien had played at the lower levels of college basketball, and “I kind of wanted to see what the other side was about,” he said.

He entered the transfer portal not long before a flight home to Toronto. His mom works in the airport as an agent for Air Canada, and he greeted her with wide eyes, stunned by the number of missed calls from interested programs. During the trip home, Emilien’s mom remembers her son talking with coaches on the bus ride, then pausing at the top of the stairs into the subway station to talk more.

Maryland assistant Tony Skinn connected with Emilien, and they had a few conversati­ons about how he might fit with the Terps. Willard had nearly finished his roster at that time, but he needed a reliable backup forward. Emilien met Willard on a video call, and he committed right then.

Emilien believed he could have a role in Maryland’s rotation, but this season has been a whirlwind of newness. St. Francis averaged fewer than 500 fans per game last season. Western Michigan hosted crowds of about 2,000. Now Emilien plays in packed Big Ten venues. The court storming after Maryland knocked off then-no. 3 Purdue “felt like a movie,” he said. At practices, energy is always high, and Emilien gushes over the abilities of his teammates, calling them “insanely talented.”

He’s one of them, even though his mind doesn’t always process that reality. He’s part of this rotation — not boasting flashy stats yet embracing an important role. Sometimes Emilien still feels like his younger self, the lanky kid who followed his friends and stumbled upon this game. But he has confidence, too. He knows he’s here and that he belongs.

 ?? JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? After playing collegiate­ly at Western Michigan and St. Francis (N.Y.), Patrick Emilien wanted to be a part of a winning program.
JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST After playing collegiate­ly at Western Michigan and St. Francis (N.Y.), Patrick Emilien wanted to be a part of a winning program.

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