The Houston Rockets were prepared to draft former Maryland standout Terence Morris with the last of the team's three NBA first-round picks last night. Then the phone rang, with the New Jersey Nets calling to offer former Seton Hall standout Eddie Griffin for all three picks.
There was one stipulation: The Rockets had to draft Pepperdine guard Brandon Armstrong at No. 23, the pick with which Houston was hoping to take Morris.
It was the first in a series of telephone calls that finally ended with the Rockets obtaining Morris, who had been picked early in the second round and 34th overall by the Atlanta Hawks, for a future draft pick. In the end, it meant that the Rockets had drafted a player they had been watching for the past two years.
"We've been very, very interested in Terence," Rockets' scouting director Dennis Lindsey said last night from Houston. "Obviously, we had to make the Eddie Griffin trade. As soon as we consummated that, we were back on the phones trying to get Terence. We felt he was a first-round pick."
The series of last-minute deals allowed Morris to be reunited with former Terps teammate Steve Francis, now considered Houston's franchise player. While Morris had a breakout season as a sophomore playing alongside Francis, Lindsey said that made little impact on the team's decision.
"Steve and I have talked about Terence the last two years," Lindsey said. "But we took Terence on his own merit. He had a good junior year after Steve left Maryland, arguably better than his sophomore year."
Morris was once considered a potential lottery pick, after averaging 15.3 points and 7.1 rebounds as a sophomore and improving those numbers to 15.8 points and 8.6 rebounds as a junior. But Morris' numbers - and his NBA stock - fell last season, when he averaged just 12.2 points and 7.7 rebounds and shot a career-low 43.2 percent from the field.
The stature of the 6-9, 221-pound forward was clouded further by his decision to skip pre-draft camps in Chicago and Phoenix. Instead, he worked out privately for a number of teams, including both the Hawks and the Rockets.
Asked last night whether he made a mistake not going to the camps, Morris said, "It might have hurt me not going, but it's a chance I took."
Speaking from his family's home in Frederick, Morris had not yet learned that he had been traded to Houston.
"It was tough sitting through the first round," said Morris, who was aware of the speculation that the Rockets were considering taking him at No. 23. "I was happy to see my name called, and I'll be ready to go when camp opens."
Morris will likely have an easier time making the Rockets' roster than he would have in Atlanta, which is expected to trade the No. 3 pick in last night's draft, Pau Gasol of Spain, for Vancouver Grizzlies forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The Hawks also have last year's first-round pick, DerMarr Johnson, and shooting forward Toni Kukoc.
The Rockets might have some slots in their frontcourt if they don't re-sign free agents Shandon Anderson and Matt Bullard. Anderson split the starting job at small forward with another former Maryland standout, Walt Williams. The team's other small forward is Dan Langhi, who played a limited role after being a second-round choice out of Vanderbilt last year.
Maryland coach Gary Williams was happy that Morris was brought to Houston to rejoin Francis.
"Terence is funny; he got a lot of attention before Steve got to Maryland, but he was OK when Steve got most of the attention," Williams said. "He was happy to tag along."