- Todd Needle/Daily
By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 30, 2011
A year ago, few would’ve guessed that by year’s end, guard Darius Morris would’ve generated enough buzz to even consider entering the 2011 NBA Draft.
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But not long after the Michigan men's basketball team’s loss to Duke in the NCAA Tournament, Morris left the Wolverines. By the time Morris was drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers, Wolverine fans had already turned their attention to the 2010 Mr. Basketball in Ohio and the expected future of Michigan basketball, point guard Trey Burke.
But after the offense struggled mightily in the Wolverines' first three games, it looked like Burke would need another year to grasp the offense, a la Morris in 2009.
Then the freshman exploded onto the national scene at the Maui Invitational, with several NBA general managers in attendance, along with ESPN NBA Draft analyst Chad Ford.
And if Ford’s impression of Burke holds up, Michigan may be sent scrambling for another point guard replacement next year.
“The more I watch him, the more I think, ‘I can’t see how this guy doesn’t play in the NBA,’ ” Ford said in an exclusive interview with The Michigan Daily in Maui. “(Point guards) who are going to have the athleticism and the poise and the court demeanor — I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he was a first-round pick this year.
“He’s got the body to be an NBA player. He’s got the quickness, and when you see that IQ and the ability to run an offense — which is a little bit more sophisticated offense than maybe some other college teams are going to run — he’s a really good prospect.”
Burke, a four-star prospect out of Columbus, was considered a late bloomer and until his performance last week on national television, he had yet to catch the country’s eye.
But since visiting Hawaii, Burke has shown a maturity beyond his years. His athletic drives to the baskets are drawing all the attention, but his most underrated attribute has been his ball control — he’s averaging less than three turnovers per game.
“I spend the start of my year talking to our high school scouting guys about who are the freshmen to watch, who are one-and-done candidates — he wasn’t mentioned,” Ford said. “He was a steady kid, not flashy like a lot of the players can be. I think a lot of the scouting guys … see that and they say, ‘He’s not as good.’
“Well now when you see him play that way in college, it’s all poise. He’s unselfish, he’s getting people involved, he gets his own shot, but he’s not out there just primarily looking for his own shot.”
Though this year’s draft is already garnering talk of being one the most talented, deepest drafts in several years, Ford is quick to point out that it’s lacking quality point guards, opening the door for Burke.
“These sorts of players, pure point guards like him, are one of the hardest commodities to find in the NBA,” Ford said. “The thing that I think is hard for people to get their arms around about the NBA Draft — because it’s so different than the NFL Draft — there’s five or six guys in a really good draft that are going to be major impact players on their team. … What you’re really asking for most of these guys is, can they be a rotation player off the bench?
“One of the NBA GMs said to me, ‘Well look, think of the 30 backup point guards in the NBA and then look at him and what he does and say, ‘Could he do that?’ And I think the answer is yeah.”
MORRIS MISTAKEN?: Last year’s draft was considered relatively weak, giving Morris the needed assurance that he’d be a first-round selection if he left Michigan.
So when the Los Angeles native wasn’t picked until the second round — albeit by his hometown favorite Lakers — fans called Morris’s decision a mistake.
Even Ford, who Morris sought out for advice before declaring for the draft, was surprised that the guard left after his sophomore year.
“He knew he was a borderline first-round pick,” Ford said. “I think that he was getting some bad information. Whenever you have, in one ear, bad information — but it’s what you want to hear — you tend to discount the good information and go with the bad.”
While the talk in Ann Arbor has shifted to Burke, it could’ve been Morris taking advantage of this year’s weak point guard class.
Had Morris come back this year with improved shooting ability and another year of coaching, his stock would’ve risen considerably.
“I think myself, along with a number of other people, were pretty honest with him about where (he was) and where he could be if he went back to school another year,” Ford said. “There’s almost no point guards in this draft. I think he would’ve went considerably higher. I think we’d be talking about Darius Morris right now as a mid-first rounder, maybe late-lottery pick.”
Though he lost out on his chance to be a first-rounder — and the significant accompanying pay raise — Ford won’t call it a mistake.
“I hate to say that (was a mistake) because this is these guys’ dream,” Ford said. “He got drafted by the Lakers. He gets to play for the Lakers and he’s going to make a ton of money. I’m not sure that you ever characterize that as a mistake.”
MITCH OR MASON?: Incoming freshman forward Mitch McGary, ESPN.com’s No. 2 recruit in the country, has elevated Michigan into the discussion of Final Four contenders next year.
But because he went to prep school for two years instead of graduating high school on time, he’d technically be eligible for the upcoming NBA Draft.
“There was a lot of talk about him flirting with coming to the NBA,” Ford said. “Obviously, it’s about athleticism and motor for him.
“Whenever you get a player with that size, that motor and the athletic ability, that’s a huge get at the college level.”
Ford compared McGary to current Duke forward Mason Plumlee. Plumlee was highly recruited out of high school, but the Blue Devil hasn’t lived up to expectations yet.
“(They have) some of those same attributes, but every time (Plumlee) touches the ball on the offensive end, you’re a little bit frightened by what’s going to happen,” Ford said. “You just hope (McGary) develops quicker than … Plumlee.”