(Part Three in a series on failed lottery picks)
If you are counting, and very few care enough to do so, it was six years after Adam Morrison walked off the Staples Center court that he walked back on. The night of his return was not an Adam Morrison hallmark. His homecoming of sorts was not the reason for the frenzy and awe and busting the seams house that had been standing for the last few minutes. The center of the downtown Los Angeles orbit was not Adam Morrison. There was no sentimental looking back in retrospect of his last professional moment of a below average career, despite that last moment ending in a championship ring in this very same place. Six years after that game 7 NBA Finals, in a world in which Morrison had largely been forgotten, he was here.
That night of Morrison’s return, April 13th, was the last oxygen of Kobe Bryant’s career. What hung in the air, nestled neatly next to the anticipation of seeing something for the last time, was celebration and awe. 20 years is a long time to do anything. Teammates Bryant wanted to be there flooded the court in the aftermath of his last performance, an iconic display of delivering under pressure. Shaqulle O’Neal. Robert Horry. Derek Fisher. Rick Fox. Cedric Ceballos. Devean George. Horace Grant. Brian Shaw. Brian Cook. Gary Payton. They were all there, former Bryant teammates who at one time or another waited for him to give up the ball. And wanted him not to give up the ball.
Among them, Adam Morrison looked awkward, like the kid who gets the invite to the party but then doesn’t know who is going to talk to him and so he hovers in the corner just glad to be included. The NBA shut the door on Adam Morrison a long time ago. On this celebratory night, he stood in the horde, still as a rock, as if he understood the difference between them and him. He was the only one on the court who had a three year NBA career. Who so much was expected and so little was given. In a way, he was the Kobe Bryant antidote, the Bryant opposite. Not more is more. Not less is more. Just less.
If Kobe Bryant extended grace to Morrison by inviting him to his last NBA moment on April 13 2016, then Michael Jordan anointed Adam Morrison by drafting him third in the 2006 NBA Draft. Jordan had just bought into the Bobcats as a minority owner and Morrison was his first pick in his new role.
Jordan had prior experience in personnel. In 2001, as President of Basketball Operations for the Wizards, Jordan selected Kwame Brown with the number one pick. He passed on Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler and Joe Johnson. Jordan was won over by a workout Brown had against Chandler in which Brown was dominant, according to those who witnessed it. That made Jordan’s mind up. But workouts are workouts. Brown was thin skinned, psychologically fragile. He had small hands, not much of an offensive game and his work ethic was average. Jordan made an organizational mistake.
Five years later, he had the chance for a redo. On the board when Charlotte picked was scorer Brandon Roy who came with baggage, bad knees. Rudy Gay another scorer from UConn was available. Randy Foye was a Philly scorer though undersized. J.J. Redik was debatable. Most scouts thought he was too slow to make an impact in the NBA. Towards the bottom of the draft was Kyle Lowry, Rajon Rondo, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar. As drafts go, the first round of 2006 was pretty weak. Only four All-Stars (LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry). Only seven of the thirty first round picks played this past season: Aldridge, Foye, Gay, Redick, Thabo Sefolosha, Rondo, Lowry.
Adam Morrison was a college scorer. He routinely dropped 30 points on opponents and had five 40 point games in his junior year which would be his last at Gonzaga. He led the nation in scoring. Regardless of the mid-major schedule of Gonzaga, against the big boys he also dropped buckets, averaging over 28 points a game. That year, he appeared in the Sweet Sixteen, scored 24 against UCLA and lost a close game which propelled Morrison to the court in tears, weeping openly in front of the cameras which made many old timers cringe and think of Morrison as soft. Later, he was co-player of the year, sharing the award with J.J. Redick.
Was Morrison a bust waiting to happen? The biggest knock on his game was the inability to defend. Even in pre-draft workouts he didn’t exert much effort to contest perimeter shooters and was banged around a lot in the post.
In the NBA, his first 30 point game came pretty quickly, in December. But Morrison was dogged by those defensive questions. He was replaced as a starter midseason because, defense aside, he couldn’t make shots which was supposed to be his specialty. He played almost 30 minutes a game which is a workload for a rookie but only completed 37% of his shots, though his three ball at 33% wasn’t disastrous. The only area of the floor where he showed any type of efficiency was at the rim. He finished the year with 11.8 points per game but he didn’t get to the line much.
In the luck department, Morrison was an outlier. In a preseason game the next year, trying to defend the Lakers Luke Walton, he tore his ACL. A year later, Jordan traded Morrison and Shannon Brown to the Lakers for Vladimir Radmanovic. With the Lakers, Morrison played 39 games, averaging 7.3 minutes and a similar shooting percentage of 37% and a disastrous 24% from three. His 2.2 points were indicative of a player who wouldn’t be in the league much longer. This was a far cry from Gonzaga.
Morrison had zero confidence. Playing on a title contending team with ruthless Kobe Bryant only made his confidence plummet. It was as if he didn’t expect the ball to fall in the hoop. He was slower, thanks to the ACL injury, which only made him a liability on the floor. There wasn’t a place for him on a roster other than at the end of the bench as a cheerleader or in garbage time.
Adam Morrison’s last NBA game was on April 27th, 2010. It was Game 5 of a first round playoff series between the Lakers and the Thunder. By the time he entered the game in the 4th quarter against the OKC Thunder the Lakers had a 29 point lead. He missed a three, missed a mid-range and connected on another. He grabbed an offensive board, and off a James Harden missed free throw, a defensive board. He missed another 9-footer. Made a lay in. Missed a long two. He rebounded a Harden three. He walked off the court a winner. And a loser. He would never play in another NBA game again, not the next playoff series against the Jazz, a sweep, nor against the Suns in an epic 6-game series filled with Steve Nash-Kobe Bryant dramatics. The NBA Finals 7 game series versus the Celtics, Adam Morrison was a spectator, even at the end, when Kobe Bryant jumped up on the scorers table to celebrate with fans. Adam Morrison watched.
Six years later he watched again. It was familiar except it was not. It was once more, one last time, one final Kobe Bryant moment, the greatest teammate Adam Morrison ever had. After the Lakers waived him in 2010 he was in the Wizards training camp and then was cut. He went to Europe and returned to the Summer League to try to restart his career. With the Clippers Summer League team he averaged 20 points. The Blazers signed him for camp but then waived him before the season started.
In three years of availability, only his rookie year did Adam Morrison play a full schedule of games. Then the career went sideways. It’s not abnormal to flameout the way Morrison did. He did tear his ACL. The draft is a gamble and more importantly college scorers don’t necessarily mean pro All-Stars. Morrison had bad luck but even without the torn ACL, with his defense, at best, he was a role player. But he never showed the ability to make contested shots against NBA caliber defenses. And so it was a quick end with one last moment, one last reminder.
Walking onto the Staples Center floor in a salute to Kobe Bryant was the official goodbye of Adam Morrison, even though the night was not about him. In front of the screaming crowd, he took it all in, even if he wasn’t the center.
Once upon a time, Adam Morrison was in the NBA. It was brief. It wasn’t how the dream was supposed to end. But he has two rings. That’s a nice walk off gift for an athlete who failed.
Part One: The Short Career of Jonny Flynn
Part Two: Rashad McCants and the Blame Game