By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer
"Success isn't just one straight line"
- Anthony Morrow
"It's usually a wild path that we all have to go through to achieve some sort of success in whatever we do," explained guard Anthony Morrow, newest member of the Thunder, as he verbally walked me through the weaving narrative of his basketball career.
A decade ago, Morrow was a lanky guard playing for Charlotte Latin, a North Carolina private school and basketball powerhouse. On December 5th, 2003, six months before he graduated high school, Morrow strolled into my high school's gymnasium and with a few flicks of the wrist, casually eviscerated our team. Our Durham Academy gymnasium sat just 700 people, but everyone in attendance that night learned the harsh way just how massive the talent gap is between collegiate and professional basketball players and typical high school athletes.
As the 94th ranked recruit in the country that year, Morrow was about to graduate from Latin and become a role player at Georgia Tech. He wasn't highly touted and it seemed that a career in the NBA would have to be less manifesting his destiny and more grinding away with determination. But he had an elite skill - shooting the basketball from the perimeter.
Morrow didn't even play two full quarters that night in Durham. He scored a cool 26 points on ten shot attempts. He hit four three-pointers in the second quarter and another three triples in the third quarter and then retired for the night.
On some possessions, Morrow didn't even bother stepping inside the three-point line, knowing that a teammate would find him and that his hot shooting hand would do the rest, no matter where he was on the floor. Radiating for that fortunate audience to see, Morrow was an absolute star that night, but no one in the gym could possibly foresee how much he would have to fight, scratch and claw for every opportunity he's gotten since then.
As fate would have it, a decade later I had the chance to remind Morrow of that game. Some athletes have an innate ability to remember the most miniscule details or seemingly minute parts of their careers. Morrow seems to be one of them. He remembered that game vividly.
Nights like those were commonplace for the 6'5", 210-pound wing in 2004, but even from his childhood until now, he's had to stay disciplined, focused and positive in order to advance to new heights. The journey he and his family have undertaken for the last decade inspires him to continue digging deeper into his reserves of resiliency.
"I've been an underdog my whole life," Morrow said. "Even before high school, going back to middle school and elementary school. Watching my mom work so hard for me, watching my father work so hard, it's been one of those things where I've just been able to persevere."
After averaging 11.4 points per game over four successful years for the Yellow Jackets, Morrow went undrafted, but signed with the Golden State Warriors after the 2008 Draft. He's played for five different NBA teams in six years. At times he's been a starter and others a reserve off the bench. Playing time was inconsistent, but he always managed to be productive in the time that he got. In fact, Morrow has never shot less than 37 percent from three-point range throughout the course of a season, regardless of his situation.
He started 53 games in his first two years with the Warriors, then started 65 games over two seasons for the then New Jersey Nets. What ensued for Morrow was a challenging two year stretch with the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans.
Finally, it seems, Morrow has found a landing spot in Oklahoma City. He's grateful for the opportunity while still desperately hungry to straighten out that elusive, zig-zagging path towards success. One reason why Morrow has continued to be sought after, and is a particularly nice fit with the Thunder, is because of his attitude in the locker room, leadership and selflessness.
"I want to do well, but I want the team to do well," Morrow said. "If I see anybody struggling, I want to be the guy to step up and say something and not just let them wallow in that or to be down on themselves because it's such a long season."
That attitude will mesh perfectly in Oklahoma City, where resiliency, resolve and determination are cornerstones of the franchise. Instilled by General Manager Sam Presti and Head Coach Scott Brooks, those traits have been championed by players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka.
As an outsider coming to the team this off-season, Morrow has had a chance to see the Thunder grow up from afar. He recalled Durant's rookie year, the bold move to draft Westbrook, the incredible skill of Ibaka and the toughness of Kendrick Perkins. He singled out the evolution and growth of players like Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Perry Jones and Andre Roberson. What struck him the most over the years playing against the Thunder and what sold him on the opportunity, however, is the way the team as a whole operates and conducts itself on and off the court.
"You can see it in their faces when they're in the game," Morrow explained. "They have confidence. It's a family-type organization."
"You can hear the chatter," Morrow continued. "You can feel the spirit that they're more than just teammates. They've been together so long that they've built a culture. That's something that I feel like is right up my alley."
The Thunder's culture is built on mutual trust, communication and making the right play on both ends of the floor. Morrow understands that there is already a bevy of talent on the roster in Oklahoma City, so playing time isn't guaranteed. That's nothing new to the seventh-year man, because that "playing time must be earned" mantra has been the case for him ever since he left for Georgia Tech.
As a result, he does the only thing a true professional can do – focus on what is within his control. Regardless of his playing time or role on the team, Morrow maintains the same routine and attacks each day of preparation with the same sincerity and intensity.
"There's a mental aspect of it more than a physical one," Morrow said. "As long as I'm doing what I need to do physically off the court and on the court and I'm keeping my routine the same, I found out that you can't worry about or control what happens. You just have to prepare for whatever the day holds."
One area of his game that Morrow has devoted a lot of attention to over the last few years has been his defense. In order to get playing time for the Thunder, he must be a capable defender within the Thunder's schemes and find ways to impact the game within the team concept.
Teammates like Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka, Perkins, Adams, Lamb, Jones and Roberson all use their physical tools and intelligence to make life difficult for the opponent. To Morrow, it's about the same combination – finding the ways he can deter opponents from getting easy scoring opportunities by using both his body and his mind.
"It's understanding how to use my length and my size," Morrow said. "It's one of the things I learned, just figuring out the system and where I need to be. I'm going into my seventh year, so I'm getting a little bit cleverer defensively with getting steals or beating guys to the spot. You have to out-think guys as opposed to being late."
On offense, Morrow is coming off of a season where he played 76 game and averaged 8.4 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting, including an 88-for-195 (45.1%) mark from the three-point line. Morrow also shot 82.8 percent from the free throw line. His game still relies on quite a bit of the dizzying catch-and-shoot prowess that I saw a decade ago back in North Carolina, but his offensive arsenal has matured along with him. His movement off the ball is sharp, he uses pin-down screens to find mid-range jumpers and his pump-fake, one-dribble, pull-up game keeps defenders honest.
With creators like Durant, Westbrook and Reggie Jackson, along with key finishers like Ibaka and Adams, Morrow provides an excellent option to space the floor and force the opposing defense into difficult decisions. It still remains to be seen how Brooks and the coaching staff will utilize Morrow's skills, but with his attitude and the welcoming nature of the Thunder's leadership, the newest member of the organization is confident and eager in his ability to impact the game. If he does, he'll keep climbing those rungs on that unpredictable success ladder he's been ascending for the last decade.
"I have to come in and figure out the system defensively first and figure out my role and figure out my niche offensively as well," Morrow said. "In terms of just the preparation, it just comes with repetition defensively and offensively. It's a challenge I have but I can't wait to start."
"You can feel the spirit that [Thunder players are] more than just teammates. They've been together so long that they've built a culture. That's something that I feel like is right up my alley."
- Anthony Morrow