Coming of Age (Or Not) In the NBA

Jan. 26, 2009
Jan. 26, 2009

Table of Contents
Jan. 26, 2009


Coming of Age (Or Not) In the NBA

Three years ago they turned the college season into their personal stage as they waged a dizzying game of can-you-top-this? These days former lottery picks J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison are battling just to get on the floor

THESTANDARD-ISSUE NBA warmups are made of a polyester material that wicks sweatoff the body. They're Adidas brand, manufactured in China and designed forcomfort and durability. If Adidas needs an athlete's testimonial, the companycould do worse than approach Charlotte Bobcats forward Adam Morrison or OrlandoMagic guard J.J. Redick. To their dismay, both players have spent vast amountsof time wearing the apparel, sometimes going entire games without molting theirsweats. ¶ You remember Redick and Morrison, right? Together they hijacked the2005--06 college basketball season, not only captivating fans with theirvelveteen shooting and abundant scoring but also polarizing them with theirdistinctive styles and colorful personalities. Redick was the cold-bloodedgunner from Duke with limitless range and comparably vast self-belief. Morrisonwas the free spirit from Gonzaga, whose ironic mustaches and hairstyles fitwith his rambling, idiosyncratic game.

This is an article from the Jan. 26, 2009 issue

Together, RedMo,as SI once called them, played a transcontinental game of can-you-top-this?that season. As Gonzaga coach Mark Few put it at the time, "It's nothingshort of what Bird and Magic did for college basketball [in 1978--79]." Onenight Morrison was banking in a game-winning three-pointer against OklahomaState. Another night Redick was lighting up Wake Forest for 32 points. Therewas a certain gilt by association, as it were, and it was fueled by a friendlyrivalry. After games Redick and Morrison would repair to their respectiveoff-campus apartments, spark up the Xbox and engage in marathon sessions ofHalo 2. The next morning they'd text each other with trash-talking recaps.

Fittingly,Morrison and Redick were named the Co--Players of the Year by the U.S.Basketball Writers Association. That summer they were both lottery picks in theNBA draft. At the league's rookie orientation program, according to an NBAexecutive, a speaker asked players whether they envisioned scoring prolificallyin their first season. Among a group that included Brandon Roy and Rudy Gay,only Morrison and Redick raised their hands.

MICHAEL JORDANhas effectively demonstrated that possessing basketball talent and assessingbasketball talent are altogether different things. As a Washington Wizardsexecutive, Jordan spent the No. 1 choice in the 2001 draft on Kwame Brown,who's now playing for his fourth team; hired unproven coach Leonard Hamilton,who lasted just one season; and traded guard Richard Hamilton, who became anAll-Star with the Detroit Pistons. In his first personnel move as the Bobcats'head of basketball operations, Jordan selected Morrison with the third pick in2006.

Morrison beganhis career embedded in Charlotte's rotation. Two months into the season, heturned in a 30-point game; it stands as his career high. As Morrison'sliabilities on defense were made apparent, his minutes tailed off, though hestill averaged a respectable 11.8 points for his rookie season.

In October 2007Morrison landed awkwardly in a preseason game and tore his left ACL, resultingin surgery that caused him to miss the entire season. When he returned lastfall, the Bobcats had a new coach, Larry Brown, and Morrison was a forgottenman. Through Sunday he had averaged just 4.9 points in 15.3 minutes, playing—ornot playing—behind Raja Bell and Matt Carroll, neither of whom was drafted outof college. (Even in the first game after Carroll was dealt to the DallasMavericks last Friday for center DeSagana Diop, Morrison played only sevenminutes and scored one point.) "I feel like I'm the same player I was incollege, but it's much different playing 38 minutes and playing shortminutes," he says. "It affects your mentality."

Specifically,Morrison is beset by a vicious cycle common to bench players: The less theyplay, the less confidence they have; the less confidence they have, the lessthey play. Such a dynamic scorer in college, the 6'8" Morrison has beenreduced to a spot-up shooter. Typically, he stations himself on the wing andwaits for a pass from a teammate who's drawn the defense. Yet even on theoccasions when the ball arrives, Morrison often defers. In a game against theNew York Knicks last month he missed all three shots he attempted, including anair ball. Brown recalls that in hopes of breaking Morrison's slump, he ranplays specifically for him. "[Adam] didn't even touch the ball," Browncomplained to reporters. "He just doesn't have a lot of confidence inhimself. He has the ability to score but not if he doesn't look for hisshot."

In fairness the24-year-old Morrison is returning from a major knee injury, and, for allintents, is only in his second season. He claims to be fully recovered, butBrown isn't so sure. "I watch Adam, and when he gets tired, he rarely jumpsoff that leg, taking runners, not being nearly as explosive."

And therein liesanother issue. Brown, 68 years old and unmistakably old school, tends to buildhis teams on a foundation of speed, length and defense—not exactly Morrison'sdefining traits. Brown also tends to be partial to mature players; when hedescribes Morrison as "a good, goofy kid," it comes across asbackhanded praise. "Adam Morrison," says one Western Conferenceexecutive, "is not a Larry Brown kind of player, not at all." Bell, awell-liked veteran who joined Charlotte from Phoenix last month but has alreadytaken on a mentoring role with Morrison, sounds a similar theme. "A guylike Adam with a variety of shots, it will take opportunity and timing," hesays. "He needs someone to trust him to do it night in, night out. Once hegets opportunity, we'll see that player who had that swagger about him atGonzaga."

Reticent anduneasy, Morrison is philosophical about his situation. The losing, he says, ismore difficult than any personal shortcomings. (At week's end the 16--24Bobcats had more defeats this season than Morrison endured during four years atGonzaga.) Discussing his struggles is, understandably, not a favoriteconversation topic. Though slump-shouldered and looking downward, he seeks nosympathy. "The way I look at it, I couldn't ask for anything more out oflife," he says. "The money? The lifestyle? In this economy with peoplegetting laid off? Everyone in this league is blessed. I can't get toodown."

Redick has notbeen so equivocal about his fate. In his first two seasons Redick played(sparingly, at that) in just 76 games. Like Morrison he struggled to stay infront of his man on defense. And while he lacks classic point guard skills, ata generous listing of 6'4", he's undersized for a shooting guard. When heentered games, it came with an unspoken edict: Knock down jumpers or you'recoming out. He did not suppress his frustration. On more than one occasionRedick, through his agent, Arn Tellem, made it clear that he wanted to betraded. The Magic front office demurred.

At hisseason-ending exit interview last May, Redick pointedly asked coach Stan VanGundy and general manager Otis Smith where he stood. He recalls being told thefranchise hadn't given up on him and there was a 95% chance he'd be back."That was some peace of mind," he says, "and I just told myself Iwas going to try to enjoy being part of such a good team." Orlando was33--8 through Sunday, a bona fide contender. And though last off-season theMagic drafted Courtney Lee and signed free agent Mickael Pietrus, both shootingguards, Redick has cracked the rotation recently. On Jan. 13, when Orlando setthe NBA record with 23 three-pointers in a game, Redick had 15 points in 26minutes of action, part of a four-game run of double-digit output. "He's ina good rhythm offensively," says Van Gundy. "Some matchups are alwaysgoing to be tough for him, but he doesn't hurt us on the defensiveend."

Still, Redick'sname will surface as the Feb. 19 trade deadline nears—he's already been rumoredto go to Phoenix for forward Grant Hill. Nothing if not a realist, the24-year-old has come to expect anything. "I've started games, then I'vebeen totally out of the rotation, then I've been back in," Redick says."I don't know if you ever get conditioned to it, but you accept it, andjust try to be a good teammate."

HOW DID thishappen? How did a pair of college A-listers fall so short of expectations?Perhaps the attention that came with their scoring exploits and teams'successes led some to overestimate their skills. It also bears mention that the2006 draft was notably weak, as it was the first year that players wereforbidden from jumping directly from high school to the NBA. Had, say, Portlandcenter Greg Oden or Oklahoma City swingman Kevin Durant been allowed to enterthe league that year, the draft positions of Morrison and Redick surely wouldhave dropped, making their modest production a bit less glaring.

But maybeMorrison and Redick simply stand as twin studies in just how different thecollege game is from the NBA. Defenders are faster and longer—hell, the6'9" Durant often covers guards. More players can create their own shots.And there's a huge difference between playing in an offense built around youand trying to make an impact as the fourth or fifth option. "It can behumbling," says Redick, "but sometimes it can be good to get punched inthe mouth and try to get back up. Me, I needed to be humbled."

Morrison andRedick say they've fallen out of touch with each other. They still greet eachother warmly when their teams meet. But there are no more barrages of texts, nomore Halo sessions during the infomercial hours. ("I haven't played Halo inyears," says Redick.) The parallels, though, keep coming. One last one:They both look decidedly different from their college days. Apart from addingthree more tattoos, Redick has packed a good 10 pounds of muscle to his framewith off-season weight training. As for Morrison, his look, once defined by amop top and "porn-stache," now features a buzz cut and an unruly soulpatch. Asked what prompted the new look, Morrison shrugs sheepishly."Different phase, I guess."

"It's much different playing 38 minutes andplaying short minutes," Morrison says. "IT AFFECTS YOURMENTALITY."
"Sometimes it can be good to be punched in themouth and try to get back up," says Redick. "ME, I NEEDED TO BEHUMBLED."



Go to the SI Vault to read Grant Wahl's March 6, 2006, cover story on J.J.Redick and Adam Morrison dueling for player of the year.


PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhoto Illustration by SI ImagingBILL FRAKES (REDICK); KENT SMITH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (MORRISON)HALO, GOODBYE Redick (left) and Morrison once played nightly Xbox games; now, it's time in warmups they share.PHOTORICH FRISHMAN (MORRISON COVER); JEFFERY A. SALTER (REDICK COVER)PHOTOKENT SMITH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESROUGH CUT After a hair-raising run at Gonzaga, the shorn Morrison is trying to come back from knee surgery in Charlotte.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO[Seecaption above]PHOTOGLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERGROWTH OPPORTUNITY Redick, more muscular than he was at Duke, has seen an uptick in production lately for Orlando.PHOTOBILL FRAKES[See caption above]PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]