University of Kansas

Next step is a really big one

LAWRENCE — By now, Marcus Morris has made it abundantly clear who he is:

A 21-year-old basketball player who got himself fired up for his college games at Kansas by talking a little trash.

A guy who has recently made headlines by downplaying a comparison to Denver Nuggets forward Al Harrington — instead offering that he's more like New York Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony because he's a "mid-range king" — and by saying that he and twin brother Markieff are a better set of twins than Brook and Robin Lopez, who play for the New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns, respectively.

A young man who isn't afraid to put a target on his back as he enters the next stage of his life, confirmed by his response when asked earlier this week if he has what it takes to back up all of his talk and become the next NBA star from KU.

"You can't see the future," Morris said, "but I definitely, definitely, definitely think I'm going to be one of those guys who's an All-Star in the league."

Yep, you counted that right. Three definitelys. Morris is sure of himself, always has been. But run his assertion by former KU center Scot Pollard, now retired after 11 NBA seasons, and it brings up mixed feelings.

"It's kind of early to start making predictions like that," Pollard said. "The good news is he's confident in his abilities, as you need to be in the NBA. You've got to have a little bit of jerk inside of you, or you won't have what it takes to compete with the egos in the NBA — a good kind of jerk.... But for a kid that hasn't played a game in the NBA to say he's gonna be an All-Star is a pretty bold statement."

Marcus, a 6-foot-9 forward with a complete inside-outside repertoire, is projected to be a lottery (top-14) pick, while Markieff, a 6-foot-10 forward who can also stretch the floor, is expected to go in the first 20 picks.

But if they think they are already on the path to stardom at the next level — Markieff has also been quite talkative of late, telling the Washington Post that he thinks projected top-two pick Derrick Williams of Arizona is not "as good as advertised" — all they have to do is look at the other KU players in the league to understand it takes a truly special talent to get there.

Currently, there are 11 former Jayhawks in the NBA. One of them, Boston Celtics superstar Paul Pierce, has been an All-Star (He has been selected nine times). Among the seven NBA players coached by Bill Self at KU, who are all fewer than five years into their pro careers, only Miami Heat guard Mario Chalmers has been a consistent starter. In short, it is just plain hard to excel at the next level.

Marcus has reason to be confident in his career trajectory. He improved dramatically each year he was at KU, evolving into the 2011 Big 12 player of the year by living his motto of "no days off." Self said that Marcus was the best all-around player that he'd coached.

Self, who also coached NBA All-Star Deron Williams when he was at Illinois, sees big things ahead for Morris, but isn't sure how big.

"I think he's an NBA starter for years," Self said. "Whether or not he's an All-Star type player, that remains to be seen. He's got to continue to get better.... I think Marcus can be one of the better pros that has come out of Kansas. I really believe that."

Self would love nothing more than for Marcus or any of his other former players to join Pierce, who played for Roy Williams at KU during 1995-98, as an NBA All-Star.

The Kansas program has been about as good as any at putting players into the league. KU's 11 current NBA players is tied for fourth with North Carolina, Connecticut and Arizona, and trails UCLA (14), Duke (13) and Kentucky (12). Assuming all of the current former KU players remain on NBA rosters next season, the number will jump to 14 if the Morris twins and Josh Selby are drafted in the first round Thursday as expected.

Having more star power in the league could be a major boon to KU in recruiting.

"I think it helps," Self said, "but the thing about it is, whether it be Roy or whoever the coach is, there's not very many All-Stars out there, and the majority of the All-Stars are kids that probably wouldn't have gone to college. Paul's obviously an All-Star, but he might not have gone to college if he came out in 2003. Over time, the majority of the players are not really college four-year and three-year guys."

Given that context, Self says he is proud of how his players have done in the NBA. He says he expects that Chalmers, Darrell Arthur (Memphis Grizzlies), Brandon Rush (Indiana Pacers), Cole Aldrich (Oklahoma City Thunder), Xavier Henry (Grizzlies) and Julian Wright (Toronto Raptors) will be able to stay in the league long enough to have financial security for the rest of their lives. As long as they accomplish that, Self can't ask for much more.

"I'd love for one of them to break through and become an All-Star-like performer, but there's only 24 of those in the world," Self said. "And how many of those are repeat guys? You know Kobe's gonna stay on the team. And Derrick Rose is now gonna stay on the team. Dwight (Howard) is gonna stay on the team, and the majority of those guys are one-and-done (type) guys."

Aldrich, who left KU after his junior season in 2010 and was taken No. 11 overall by the New Orleans Hornets before being traded to the Thunder, had a disappointing rookie season. Aldrich, a 6-foot-11 center, played in more NBA Development League games with the Tulsa 66ers (21) than he played in for the Thunder (18). For the Thunder, he averaged 7.9 minutes and 1.0 points per game. For the 66ers, he averaged 10.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 29.3 minutes.

Life in the D-League showed Aldrich just how competitive life as a professional player can be.

"Guys in the D-League are guys that were all-conference players in every conference around the country," Aldrich said. "There's a few All-Americans in there, guys who have played in the league but just can't do enough to get on that roster because everybody's so good. People don't realize how good you have to be to make a roster."

While it's easy for Marcus Morris to view himself as a future All-Star, one year in the NBA has Aldrich thinking much more practically.

"It takes so much to be an All-Star," Aldrich said. "There's only a few guys that are special enough to do it."

And maybe Morris will be one of those players. Pollard says Morris has the right body type and set of skills to excel in the combo forward role that has become popular in the NBA in recent years, and he has seen Morris put in the work to get better while in Lawrence. It's the same type of effort Pollard saw Pierce, his KU teammate, give more than a decade ago as he began the march to becoming the 2008 NBA Finals MVP.

"When Paul is done," Pollard said, "there'll be someone else that will be the best KU alumni that is currently in the NBA. The list will go on and continue."

Morris wants to be next in line. Pollard has some advice for him and his brother.

"If they thought they were working hard already, just wait," Pollard said with a chuckle. "Getting a job in the NBA is really hard. Keeping a job in the NBA is even harder."