TJ's top player has eyes on ball, and Terps, too Boys basketball: Terence Morris, who commited to Maryland as a junior hoping to avoid recruiting pressure, is living up to his billing as one of the nation's top prep players.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Heads turn. Fingers point.

And fans -- some who have journeyed from all corners of the state -- begin to scour the gym for the sole reason of their trip: Terence Morris.

A 6-foot-8, lanky forward out of Thomas Johnson High School, Morris has become Frederick's top tourist attraction this winter because he's considered the biggest recruit for Gary Williams at the University of Maryland since Keith Booth four years ago.

And with his high-flying slam dunks, game-tying three-pointers and numerous blocked shots, some of which land near half court, Morris hasn't disappointed.

Nevertheless, Morris always trys to avoid notoriety, which was the main reason he orally committed to play for the Terrapins in the fall of 1995, before his junior season in high school. Morris, who signed a letter of intent this past November, said he believed an early commitment would remove most pressures.

"I thought it was in his best interest," said Thomas Johnson coach Tom Dickman. "He's very unassuming and doesn't have an ego. A lot of people like him because he plays hard and doesn't have to point fingers or get in people's faces. And he didn't need to be recruited by a lot of schools and have people tell him how great a player he is."

However, most publications, including USA Today, have done just that -- list Morris as one of the nation's top 25 high school players. The fan publication, The Terrapin Times, even prints a schedule of his games.

Last night, Baltimore-area fans didn't have to travel far to see Morris, who scored 23 points as the Patriots lost to Calvert Hall and future Terrapin teammate Juan Dixon, 60-58, at the Towson Center in the Charm City Classic.

At last year's Classic, Morris out-dueled 6-10 center Tim Thomas, now at Villanova, outscoring him 23-22 and out-rebounding him 15-4. Thomas' Paterson (N.J.) Catholic won the game, 61-51, but Morris was the game's MVP.

"When less people know who you are, it's kind of easier," said Morris in a softly pitched voice. "When they hear all this about you, it's like you have to live up to it."

He has averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds a game, a bit deceiving because he has played three quarters in nearly half of Thomas Johnson's games and sometimes only a half. In full contests, Morris has posted 25 points and 19 rebounds a game, including 23 points in a win over DeMatha at the USAir Arena last week.

That's why it's not unusual to hear crowds chant for Morris or see a mob of spectators hunting down an autograph.

Mr. Versatility

Try stopping Morris. Most high school coaches believe it's out of the question because of Morris' prowess in the low post and shooting range past the three-point arc, combined with his quickness and ability to handle the ball.

Kennedy High School tried a triangle-and-two defense. Morris drained three three-pointers in the first quarter.

Westminster High attempted to trap him on the post. Morris spun along the baseline and rammed down a couple of two-handed dunks.

South Carroll High collapsed on him inside. Morris found teammate after teammate for wide-open three-pointers.

For his high school career, Morris has hit more than 70 percent of his two-point shots and 45 percent of his attempts behind the three-point line.

"He's practically impossible to defend one-on-one," said South Carroll coach Jim Carnes, who has coached for 21 years and faced Morris five times over three seasons. "He has the best timing I've ever seen [in blocking shots], and he's never in foul trouble. The only other player I have personally seen [who was] close to him is Monty Williams [of Potomac] when we made the state semifinals [in 1989]. That's the only person even close, and he was a first-round draft pick in the NBA."

Unlike most high school players, Morris enjoys defense over offense. In fact, Morris' shot-blocking ability first brought him his first stardom as a sophomore.

With Thomas Johnson leading Broadneck by a point in the 1995 Class 3A state semifinals, Morris slid across the lane and slapped away Jason Smith's layup with two seconds remaining in the game to lead the Patriots to a state title.

Two years later and a Division I scholarship awaiting, Morris remains the same docile teen-ager, who plays the occasional prank on his teammates.

"He hadn't changed a bit," Dickman said. "Everybody likes Terence because, for one, his personality, and secondly, he makes everyone better around him."

Rising grades

Morris faced a difficult decision last summer: Spend days competing against some of the nation's top teen players in basketball camps, or sit in a classroom trying to solve Algebra II problems.

Morris chose school.

Entering his senior year, he carried a 2.1 grade-point average in his core classes and would need an Scholastic Assessment Test score of at least 970 to play as a college freshman. Morris, who will take the SATs again in March, could lower his required SAT score if he raises his GPA this year.

However, the absence from those camps dropped Morris out as one of the top 10 recruits by many scouts. But a tremendous senior season has Morris climbing the ranks again.

Earlier this season, in the Glaxo Wellcome tournament in Raleigh, N.C., Morris registered a three-game total of 66 points (27 of 40 field goals), 36 rebounds, 10 assists and a tournament-record 30 blocks. In a field that included national powers Oak Hill (Va.), St. Raymond's (N.Y.) and University High (Calif.), Thomas Johnson placed third, but Morris was named Most Outstanding Player.

For more proof of Morris' resurgence, there is Bob Gibbons, a high-school talent expert who recently watched Morris after seeing two of the most sought-after recruits -- forwards Lamar Odom, of Troy, N.Y., and Tracy McGrady, of Mount Zion Christian, another Charm City Classic contestant, in Durham, N.C.

"He's got the same skills as they do, but he's more disciplined than they are," Gibbons said. "The biggest difference is he wants to go to college. He's elevated his game to be one of the top 10 players in the country. He's got some of the same skills as Joe Smith has inside and Walt Williams outside. Potentially, he's a better recruit than Keith Booth was. Whether he has Booth's heart and can do the same things over the course of his career, we'll find out."

Becoming a Terp

Morris receives a letter once every two weeks from Maryland asking about his progress at school and watches the Terps every chance he can on television. Most of those familiar with his skills predict that Morris will have little adjustment once he is on the other side of the screen.

"Terence is perfect for their system," said his high school coach, Dickman. "He runs and does a lot of things in an open style. He can flourish at Maryland, and that was really my only input."

Morris said he feels equal amounts of excitement and nervousness about starting his collegiate career in College Park, which is 45 minutes from his home in Frederick. For Morris, this year's surprising Terps haven't helped.

"People think they're No. 5 now and I'm going to step in and they're not going to miss a beat," Morris said. "Maybe hopefully, there will not be that kind of pressure."

Pub Date: 1/31/97

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