Friday, June 18, 2010

Divergent Paths

It is still disconcerting to see Adam Morrison mired on the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench, often taking in the action in street clothes. With an expiring contract, there is a strong chance that Morrison won’t be in the league next season. That’s a long way to fall for one of the top college basketball players of the past decade.

Morrison’s greatest game at Gonzaga came when he dropped 43 points in a 109-106 triple-overtime victory against Michigan State at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 22, 2005. Besides being one of the best college games in recent memory, it is instructive to watch the game and contrast Morrison with Shannon Brown, the ultra-athletic wing player for the Spartans whose professional career has taken a decidedly different trajectory.

The biggest adjustment for college stars upon entering the NBA, save for a few cases, is that they no longer will be the focal point of an offense. Gonzaga had some talented players, but they clearly deferred to Morrison. That was evident in the opening minutes against Michigan State, when Morrison found space for his first three-pointer of the game after running his defender around a double screen. Morrison hit another three-pointer a few minutes later when teammates passed up open shots to feed him in the corner. The Bulldogs always found ways to get Morrison the ball, even having him bring the ball up the court when Brown made a concerted effort to deny the passing lanes to the Gonzaga star.

Brown’s defense slowed Morrison after a hot start. Morrison had 11 early points and coaxed Michigan State’s Maurice Ager into foul trouble. Brown got the call from coach Tom Izzo to guard Morrison. This would be the type of defender Morrison would face in the NBA — Brown stands only 6 feet 4 inches but has rangy arms and world-class athletic ability. Morrison wasn’t quite sure how to attack Brown, the first instinct being to take the smaller player (Morrison is 6-8) in the post. But Morrison wasn’t comfortable on the blocks, often fading away on his jumpers around the basket.

One of those misses near the end of the first half sparked a sequence by Brown that displayed his tantalizing skill set. When a short turnaround by Morrison caromed off the rim, Brown sprinted down court, filling the lane on a fast break that ended with a soaring one-handed dunk. Brown hit a three-pointer on the Spartans’ next possession, then found Drew Neitzel with a nifty pass on a back-door play. Both Morrison and Brown finished 6 of 10 from the field in the first half.

Brown was plagued by cramps for the remainder of the game and would score only three more points. Morrison also took advantage of a slower Brown, hitting long jumpers and the kind of crafty runners that sparked inevitable comparisons to Larry Bird. Morrison was much more confident with the ball at Gonzaga, and didn’t shy away from big moments. That’s a marked difference from whenever Morrison sees playing time with the Lakers, often looking lost or passive in the triangle offense.

Morrison’s numbers in this game dwarf Brown’s, but it was clear Brown would have a bright future at the next level. Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Bobcats saw enough potential in Morrison to make him the third overall pick in the 2006 draft. Brown went 25th that year to the Cleveland Cavaliers and eventually joined Morrison in Charlotte in 2008.

Morrison had the inevitable up-and-down rookie season and drew heavy criticism for being slow on defense. His career was forever altered when he blew out his knee in an exhibition game and missed his entire second year. When he returned, Morrison was a touch slower, which doomed him against NBA defenders. Those tough runners he hit in college weren’t going to work against the likes of Kevin Garnett. The Bobcats sent Morrison and Brown to the Lakers for Vladimir Radmanovic in February 2009.

With Los Angeles, Brown has found a home for his freakish athleticism. He plays solid minutes for one of the NBA’s elite teams and has treated fans to jaw-dropping slams (except in this year’s dunk contest).

Morrison, meanwhile, is a constant fixture on the Lakers’ bench. Because of his previous exploits, it’s hard for some fans to give up the ghost. Maybe he just needs the right coach with the right system. More than likely, Morrison will be another sublime college player whose game couldn’t translate to the NBA.

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