BY JOE STAPLETON
Published November 12, 2009
When talking to people who know Darius Morris’ game best, one thing keeps coming up.
It’s not that he can jump out of the gym, though he can throw down with the best (just YouTube “Darius Morris dunk”).
It’s not that he’s quicker than everyone else, though his speed is at times mind-boggling.
And it’s not that he’s bigger than everyone. Though he is 6-foot-4, his frame is best described as lanky.
What sets the freshman point guard apart is what his high school coach, Miguel Villegas, saw the first time he saw Darius play — in an eighth-grade AAU game. Darius had just gotten a rebound and was dribbling up the floor. He glanced up at his teammates.
“The way he told his players where to go, looked to pass and then looked to score when the opportunity was there,” Villegas said. “You could tell he just had the natural instincts of being not only a great point guard but a great basketball player.”
What Villegas called “natural instincts” has been described in many different ways, but the truth is, it’s hard to define. Scouts look for cold, hard statistics like vertical leap, height and wingspan. Then, they look at the real physical tools needed to succeed in the sport, such as lateral movement, coordination and speed while dribbling.
But the toughest aspect of a player’s game to evaluate is also the most important. It’s what makes him wait that fraction of a second before throwing a backdoor pass, and not look at his target when he does. It’s that voice that tells him when he grabs an offensive rebound in the paint, when to pump fake and when to go straight up. It’s what makes it seem like he’s watching every possession in tape delay while everyone else is experiencing it in real time.
It’s not all that common to find a player who has developed these instincts to the point where they can compete at the collegiate level.
Maybe Michigan has.
“Darius dropped everything to go play with his bigger brother,” DeWayne Sr., Darius’ father, says. He remembers how from the age of five, Darius followed his brother DeWayne Jr., who is eight years older, and his friends all over their Los Angeles neighborhood looking for pick-up games.
At first, Darius would only play with his brother when they didn’t have enough bodies for a game. Eventually, he earned his way on the court.
It was there, on the blacktops of L.A., that Darius was forced to develop his instincts quickly, to find creative ways to shoot over taller kids and dribble around wider ones.
“The best part of his game is his handle and his creativity,” DeWayne Jr. says now. “His court vision is something you can’t teach. The stuff he could do on a basketball court when he was ten years old was amazing. A nine, ten-year-old kid should not be able to see the floor that way.”
DeWayne Sr. also noticed the skills his son had at a young age. As an eight-year-old, Darius would go to the YMCA in Inglewood, a hoops mecca if there ever was one, and play against kids at least a couple years older.
“Darius used to do some very” — he pauses — “unnatural things, I would call it, as a youth in basketball,” DeWayne Sr. said.
But it wasn’t until a national AAU tournament in Florida that DeWayne Sr. realized exactly the opportunity his son had.
At age 11, Darius split double teams with ease, found eye-popping passing angles and just flat-out scored the basketball. His father watched all of this from the sideline and had a bit of a revelation.
“I told him, ‘If you really want to pursue this, you have a chance at being really good at this,’ ” DeWayne Sr. said.
Darius listened. By the time he was in eighth grade, he was in a position to play at one of the many big-time high schools in the L.A. area, like Westchester, Redondo Union or Mater Dei. He was even thinking about following his AAU teammate and current Milwaukee Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings to the famed basketball factory Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.
But DeWayne Jr. realized Darius, at 5-foot-9 and painfully thin, would be physically overmatched at these basketball powerhouses.
DeWayne Jr. had heard about a private school called Windward, located in the Mar Vista neighborhood in L.A. It had a very good academic reputation but was looking to build up its hoops program. It was then that DeWayne Sr. contacted the school’s coach, Villegas, and together they went to see one of Darius’ AAU games. Villegas was impressed.
Growing up in the L.A. area, it’s natural to run into celebrities every day. Darius played high school ball with two of them: Malcolm Washington, son of Denzel, and Percy Miller, formerly known as Lil’ Romeo.
Even on a star-studded squad, Darius stood out, thanks in a large part to plays like one Villegas remembers. It’s usually a good thing when, while describing a move a player made, Michael Jordan is invoked.
“Do you remember when Jordan went baseline, he faked like he was coming out but he went baseline and then he dunked on some guy?” Villegas says.
Darius, just a freshman, pulled down an offensive rebound at a critical point in a game. He started dribbling out of the paint, toward the 3-point line, then quickly turned back inside, shook nearly the entire defense and hit a layup.
“The defense just reacted like, ‘Wow,’ “ Villegas said.
That summer, Darius played pick-up ball at UCLA, home of some of the hottest summer ball in the country. One day, DeWayne Sr. decided to drop by. His son was guarding former NBA player Cuttino Mobley. Former UCLA star and current Oklahoma City player Russell Westbrook was also playing. And former Michigan star and Fab Fiver Jalen Rose had next. DeWayne walked up to Rose.
“How do you like that kid right there?” DeWayne asked. He gestured toward his son.
“Oh, he’s nice,” Rose said. “He’s smart.”
“Well, that’s your alma mater’s ’09 point guard.”
Rose, who wore the baggy shorts and black socks while leading the first team to start five freshmen in the NCAA Tournament final, replied:
“Is that Darius Morris?”
On the day he was photographed for this story, Darius Morris strode through the tunnel at Crisler Arena with his long arms swinging along his sides and brand-new maize-and-white Adidas Crazy 8’s on his feet.
Someone asked him how he was doing.
“Can’t complain at all, man,” Morris said.
It’s a running theme in Morris’ life. He walks with the confidence and ease of someone who is completely content with where he is in that exact moment.
“I feel like a lot of guys, if they’re good, they let it get to their head, and they start to feel like the whole world owes them something,” Darius said. “Just the opportunity to go out there and prove myself on a national level, really, it’s a great opportunity.”
But sometimes it can get confusing because, like most elite athletes, Morris is never content with his game. In Michigan’s exhibition win against Wayne State on Friday, Morris did what he was supposed to do: he started, and he played swarming defense. He might not have filled out the stat sheet (four points, three assists, and three rebounds), but he didn’t try to do too much and showed glimpses of that basketball instinct that has made him stand out at every level.
But you get the feeling that even if he posted a stat line like that of teammate Manny Harris (25 points, five rebounds, four assists), he wouldn’t have been satisfied.
“I’m not content with the exhibition game,” Darius said. “I feel like I’m in a good position to do better. I’m just really looking forward to the next game — I always feel like I got more to show. And after that game, I’ll be excited for the next game. That’s kind of how I am.”
It’s a good thing, because this year will not allow for complacency. The Big Ten looks like it will be one of the best — if not the best — conference in the country, with both Michigan State and Purdue returning almost all of their respective starters. Also, with success comes high expectations. For Michigan, that means a deep NCAA Tournament run.
In a nod to a player from the last Michigan team to make such a run, Morris wears No. 4, in honor of Chris Webber.
Morris has made a name for himself with his ability to anticipate how a play will develop, to instinctively see a play before it happens. It remains to be seen if he can do it on the collegiate level.
What many people don’t realize is that Morris committed to Michigan before last season, before the run to the first NCAA tournament berth in 11 years and before the program was back on the map.
He signed the summer after Michigan finished with a program-worst 10-22 record — as if that same instinct that he has on the court extended to his assessment of the program.
Like how he knows where his teammates will be on the court, it’s as if he could see the success before it happened.