by Howie Stalwick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he national media has finally discovered Gonzaga basketball star Adam Morrison, but those who know him best say the national scoring leader hasn't changed much since his days at Mead High School.
Still wears the shaggy hair. Still scores baskets in droves. Still sometimes plays defense as if it's optional. Still competes ferociously. Still drives everyone nuts on occasion with his adamant opinions on endless topics.
"He'll debate anything," Gonzaga coach Mark Few says with a weary grin.
"Adam is Adam," mild-mannered Gonzaga center J.P. Batista says with a sigh. "He's his own person. My job is to get the balance. Coach Few says, 'Adam is extreme and you are the guy who's going to balance everything out.' So that's my job. Whenever he gets fired up, I've got to go be there and go, 'Hey, calm down, buddy. We need you.'"
Do they ever. Morrison leads NCAA Division I with 28 points per game, and he's led the sixth-ranked Bulldogs (12-3) in scoring 12 times.
Morrison has twice scored 43 points in one game this season, the top mark in Division I until Eastern Washington's Rodney Stuckey scored 45 at Northern Arizona on Jan. 5. Morrison is the co-favorite for national player of the year with Duke point guard J.J. Redick.
"The guy's unbelievable," Batista says. "Like Coach Few said, he's one of the best, if not the best college basketball player right now, but we've got to get him to play on both sides of the court."
"When he wants to, he can be a pretty effective defender," Few says. "But he needs to be able to show that the whole time he's on the floor.
"He works so hard on offense, sometimes I think he relaxes a little bit on the defensive end. At his size and with his instincts, he probably could rebound the ball better. But he's giving us a lot now."
Morrison agrees with Few that one of his primary areas of improvement since last season (when he averaged 19.0 points and was an honorable mention All-American) is his movement without the ball.
"Basically, I'm just trying to score easier, which in turn helps the team," Morrison said. "Last year, I put up all-right numbers, but a lot of it was taking tough shots and making tough shots over people night in and night out.
"You can't do that every night if you want to be successful. I've tried to learn to move without the ball and use my teammates setting screens for me, using them well and making people pay who over-play me too much by back-cutting them."
One of the few great mid-range jump shooters in college basketball, Morrison also worked hard in the off-season to improve his 3-point shooting. The 6-foot-8 junior forward is hitting a career-high 41 percent of his 3-pointers, well above his 31 percent mark of a year ago.
"I did a lot of extra shooting over the summer," he says. Offense has always been Morrison's strength, even before he set a Greater Spokane League record with 27.7 points per game as a senior at Mead in 2002-03.
"If I had one shot at the end of the game, I would want it in his hands," Batista says.
"He has a remarkable ability to make shots," Few says. "He's a shot maker, and he can adjust and just make shots. He can make a lot of closely guarded baskets, which is rare.
"Probably his best quality is how competitive he is," Few says. "If you're keeping score, he's going to do what he has to win."
Morrison, described by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo as "a poor man's Larry Bird," is projected by ESPN.com to go fourth in the NBA draft if he skips his senior year. Morrison says he won't decide on the pros until season's end, partly because he's determined to help the Bulldogs advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
"It's no secret that we haven't gone as far as we'd like in the NCAA Tournament the past couple years," Morrison said. "We're all working hard to change that."
Gonzaga returns home to face Pepperdine on Saturday, Jan. 14, at 8:30 pm. (ESPNU) and Loyola Marymount on Monday, Jan. 16, at 9 pm (ESPN). Sellouts are routine at the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center. Saturday's game on ESPNU, a relatively new member of the ESPN family, is not provided on many cable and satellite television packages in the Inland Northwest. Check your local provider or local businesses that carry televised sporting events.