The Big Fundamental
Somewhere around the third grade, Randolph Morris was pushing 6-feet tall. So it didn't take long for him to learn that when you're the Mount Everest of a landscape, any pair of scanning eyes tends to pause upon the peak.
That level of everyday scrutiny can wear on the average 8-year-old. But Morris, now a 6-foot-11, 270-pound senior center at Landmark Christian School who's rated the nation's No. 10 overall hoop recruit in the Class of 2004 by SchoolSports.com, was about as average then as he is now. He chose adaptation over hesitation.
"I accepted it early, and I learned to brush off the attention," says Morris, 18, who has also been burdened with talk about his basketball future since he first showed some ability in a fourth-grade church league. "I realized I'd always be the first one noticed. I knew I couldn't even think of doing things shorter people would get away with. I was mindful early on not to do that type of stuff. In a way, my height helped me stay out of trouble."
Not that Morris was a born troublemaker. He simply never engaged in the typical adolescent, pre-teen mischief — a self-imposed sense of decorum that today rests at the core of his extraordinary maturity and focus.
Morris, a SchoolSports All-American who averaged 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game as a junior, is as broad-minded as he is physically towering. He loves his AP calculus class, which he's apparently schooling worse than opposing centers given his 3.6 overall GPA entering his final semester. His favorite movie is actually a trilogy: "The Godfather" series. One of his favorite athletes is female sprinter Marion Jones, and his favorite team to watch is the Sacramento Kings because "they play good team basketball."
Randolph Morris gives unpredictable answers to predictably answered questions. Which is a lot like his game itself.
"He's not a jumpy, clappy, excitable kinda guy," says War Eagles third-year head coach Bryan Bartley, 37. "He's a real quiet guy. He's done a good job of handling the pressure. It hasn't gone to his head. He's really grown personally these last two years, and he's still growing. But he's making sure the pressure doesn't get to him."
Meanwhile, Morris has assembled a dizzying mix of finesse and ferocity in the low post that is reminiscent of two-time defending NBA MVP Tim Duncan.
Owning remarkable touch around the basket, Morris hits all kinds of shots from all kinds of improbable angles. He leans, spins, fades and still finds nothing but net, whether popping off his dependable turnaround J, guiding home his baby hook or kissing in his trademark 10- to 12-foot bank shot near either elbow.
But the effortlessness of his game sometimes overshadows his dominance. Case in point: During a matchup earlier this year against Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy superstar center Dwight Howard (another prep big man who's drawn comparisons to Duncan), Morris ripped down 25 rebounds and blocked nine shots — four above his season average — to go with 24 silky-smooth points. Then in a second showdown with Howard (this time a win), Morris had 25 points, 15 boards and five blocks.
"I can't explain that," Morris says of his show-no-mercy attitude on the basketball court. "That's just something basketball does to you. I become a different person. The important thing is having the confidence to perform. Don't question anything about your game during a game. If you're feeling down, keep playing with confidence.
"You can't get caught up in the hype," adds Morris, whose 6-foot-6 brother, William, is a 15-year-old sophomore forward for the War Eagles. "It's about knowing what you gotta do and dealing with the pressure properly. Everything will come in time, so focus on one thing at a time."
One detail Bartley has a hard time containing his excitement about is the notion that the best is yet to come for Morris, who averaged just five points per game in spot duty as a freshman.
"He hasn't shown his best yet," says Bartley, noting that Morris' mother, Patricia, and father, Ralph, run a tight ship at home. "Some people peak. You know they've given their best already. He hasn't even tapped his real skills yet."
If Morris — who played his AAU ball for the Atlanta Celtics alongside Howard and former McEachern High forward Josh Smith — has given us a glimpse at just the tip of the iceberg, that's a terribly exciting prospect indeed. But how can we be so sure?
"There are two kinds of kids: the kids who are hungry and the kids who just want to eat," explains Bartley, confirming that Georgia Tech and Kentucky remained the front-runners for Morris' collegiate services at press time. "The players versus the guys who know how to play. When a guy with Randolph's ability is hungry, the sky is the limit. Like LeBron (James). He knew as a high school senior if his jumper wasn't clicking that he needed to make an adjustment for himself. Once Randolph consistently does that instead of just playing, he'll give himself every opportunity. He understands the NBA is an opportunity, not a career choice."
Being mentioned in the same sentence as LeBron tends to get a guy noticed, and the high profile means everyone wants a piece. But sometimes people don't understand there's not always enough to go around.
The resulting equation is becoming more and more common for high school standouts: A guy can't grant every request made of him, so fans, media or so-called friends presume they're getting the cold shoulder.
"Sometimes it can be frustrating," says Morris, who remains non-committal about his college choice as well as his NBA Draft prospects this summer. "But I can't lose sight of what I'm trying to do. People don't know how much you sacrifice personally to give what I do to basketball. I try to surround myself with my teammates, so I don't get a lot of opportunities to turn people down socially or otherwise. But there are no regrets about what I might be missing. I'm doing something I love to do."