Ashley Morris likes being put to the test. That’s why she gets so excited upon entering a game. When coach Dawn Staley shouts Morris’ name, the freshman guard is typically going in to defend the opposition’s most dangerous backcourt scorer. And Morris never turns down a challenge.
“Coach likes to put me out there on the floor against their best scorer and see what I can do,” Morris said. “She says to me, ‘Go at her.’ So I go at her.”
Halfway through her first season, Morris is already excelling. Morris, the most reliable player off the bench, has appeared in every game this season, averaging 3.8 points and 2.0 rebounds. Earlier this month against St. Bonaventure she set a career-high with 13 points.
But the Philadelphia native’s transition from high school to college hasn’t been entirely smooth.
At Central High School, Morris led the Lancers to three straight Public League championships. She also earned honorable mention honors from Street & Smith’s magazine.
Now, Morris finds herself with less playing time than she had at Central. She’s also had to adjust to coming off the bench. Morris believes her transition to a lesser role has been a valuable learning experience.
“I came onto a team that was already a winner. They were Atlantic Ten champions,” Morris said. “They expect big things out of me, and those good things will come in 10-, 15-minute playing intervals. You have to work hard and find what it is that you need to contribute, whether that’s offensively or defensively. That’s how I’ll be successful.”
At 5-foot-5, Morris doesn’t appear to be the most intimidating Owl on the floor. But her small stature and speed play to her advantage. With Morris’ quickness, the Owls can attack a defense two different ways-either with steady starter Cynthia Jordan or with Morris, who can quickly ignite the offense. Morris said both backcourt styles satisfy her coach.
“With two point guards on the court, we’re both seeing different things,” Morris said. “I’m a faster player and [Jordan] slows the game down. She tells me to use my speed but to also back it up and see what options I have to pass. She shoots the ball darn well and I get shots up when I can. It’s just really good for both of us to be out there at the same time and it makes Coach proud at how good we both can be.”
Staley, a point guard for the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting, acknowledged that the Owls’ future starting point guard is going through some growing pains. Averaging 2.3 turnovers versus only one assist per game, Morris’ play has been atypical of what Staley expects from her point guards. Staley said she has been patient with Morris’ on-the-job training and progression. It’s something every point guard goes through, she said.
Staley said Morris must devote attention to her own play, rather than that of the whole team. Overcoming this takes a level of maturity that Morris has yet to develop.
Does Staley, a fellow Philadelphia native and graduate of Dobbins Tech, see any comparisons between Morris and herself?
“She is Philly. She is competitive and has a will to win,” Staley said. “She is open to learning. I was open to learning when I was her age and now I see that in her. You move a lot faster than you can comprehend it or apply it.
“[Jordan] didn’t have it her first year and just started learning it her second year. Ashley will get it. There is a lot that we’re throwing at her. It’s a talent that takes time to attain. But she’s going to be a great guard to come out of our university.”
According to Staley, Morris has the tendency to fall into repetition while on the floor. Several times during a 59-43 win over Massachusetts earlier this month, Staley told Morris to “run what [play] you want.”
When asked why she gave Morris so much play-calling leeway, Staley compared Morris’ flaws to a character in the Peanuts comic strip.
“The only reason I do that is because I know what play she’s going to call,” Staley said, laughing. “It’s her comfort play. You know how you have one of those blankets like Linus? Well, this play is like her blanket. She learns from it that you can’t always rely on that same comfort zone to win games.”
Though she admits to a few bad habits, Morris said playing for pride is one habit she’s not ready to toss aside quite yet.
“My family… doesn’t miss a game. Old friends come out. Old Central teammates come. Everyone comes,” Morris said. “Everyone wants to see me play well and I want to continue to make them proud. It’s a good combination.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.