PORTLAND – Morris Almond receives the pass on the wing, his back to the basket, about 15 feet out. Suddenly he whirls and is facing the defender.

A quick fake upward with the ball gets the defender moving his feet, then Almond moves the ball to the left. The defender is helpless now, his body moving one way as Almond suddenly bursts past him toward the basket.

It’s a sight Maine Red Claws fans have become accustomed to since the team acquired Almond along with forward T.J. Cummings from Springfield on Feb. 15. Almond, the NBA Development League’s third-leading scorer at 25.4 points per game, is one of the league’s most accomplished offensive players, with a sharp eye from the outside and a powerful drive.

That he is still playing in the D-League is surprising.

“Morris is as talented a scorer as there is in this league,” said Red Claws Coach Austin Ainge. “I think he’s an NBA talent on the offensive side of the court, and on defense he is improving.”

Jon Jennings, president and general manager of the Red Claws, said: “Morris, I think, honestly, is an NBA player. I’m happy he’s still here but there’s no doubt in my mind that he will be playing in the NBA.”

The 25-year-old Morris, with a tight end’s physique at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds and a quiet demeanor, doesn’t worry about his future.

He can’t control where he’s playing, so he just continues to work on his game.

“I’m just trying to maintain the course, keep playing with intensity,” he said. “Sometimes it’s more about timing then anything else, but you’ve got to keep working and don’t fall off. You want to be ready when the time comes.”

Basketball has been part of Almond’s life since he was a youngster growing up in Atlanta. His father, Willie, was an Army man and instilled in Almond the discipline and attitude he would need to succeed in life.

Almond played high school basketball with Josh Smith, now with the Atlanta Hawks. While Smith went straight to the pros, Almond headed to Rice University in Houston. After biding his time for two years, his scoring average jumped from 7.2 points to 21.9 in his junior year.

Almond, who received a degree in sports management, said it was simply a matter of getting a chance to play. But he also came to a realization the previous summer.

“I’d go home in the summer and play with (Smith),” said Almond.

“And that’s when I knew from playing with guys I grew up with who were in the NBA that I had a shot (at the NBA). When I went back to school, we had some guys who had graduated and I had my opportunity.”

That led to Almond being selected in the first round of the 2007 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz, the 25th player selected.

In two seasons with the Jazz, Almond played in 34 games and averaged 3.1 points. It was in the D-League that he made his mark.

Sent to the Utah Flash to get playing time, Almond twice set the league’s single-game scoring record.

He scored 51 in a game Dec. 21, 2007, against Austin. A little over a month later, on Jan. 30, 2008, he scored 53 against Bakersfield, a record since tied by Will Conroy, recently called up to the Houston Rockets.

Almond led the league in scoring that season at 25.6 points per game.

He began this year with the Orlando Magic, playing sparingly in three preseason games before he was released.

Then Almond had to make a decision: the D-League again or go overseas. He signed with Springfield in December.

“The goal is to get back in the NBA and I thought the D-League was the best way back,” he said.

“It really wasn’t a money issue this year, so I felt I could come back here, get in some minutes and see what happens, set myself up for next year.”

Both Ainge and Jennings see a different Almond this year.

“Guys sometimes just mature and grow at different paces,” said Ainge. “I’ve seen some maturity in his game this year. He’s playing better in a team environment and he’s playing to win.”

Jennings said Almond has “been a great asset” for the franchise.

“There are numerous examples of guys who have been drafted in the first round or NBA players who haven’t approached the D-League in a positive light,” said Jennings. “Morris has come in with an unbelievable attitude. He is working very hard to go back to the NBA level.”

With Almond, it’s no longer all about scoring 25 points a game.

“I just want to win and become an all-around player,” he said.

He can still score: He threw in 40 in his fifth game with the Red Claws and had 31 on March 2.

But it’s not necessary for him to carry the load with scorers like Maurice Ager (17.6 points) and Russell Robinson (15.6) as teammates.

“Whoever has the mismatch, we’re looking to him,” said Almond. “Guys 1 through 10, everybody can play.

“We’ve had a lot of guys getting assigned, coming in trades; once everyone settles into their roles, we’ll be able to put together a nice run.”

As far as his future? Well, Morris figures his career is just starting.

“You keep playing until you can’t play or find something better to do,” he said.

“This is obviously just the beginning for me. It’s like when I was in college, I didn’t even start a game my first two years.

“So it’s not how you start, but how you keep pressing on and how you finish.”

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: [email protected]