The problematic prospect

The father of the most intriguing NBA free agent in years sounded somewhat startled to hear of the sudden scramble surrounding his son. No one in the pros has called Ralph Morris about his kid Randolph at the University of Kentucky, but rest assured, the junior's status has sent several franchises searching for a simple answer to a complicated question.

Do we have a shot to sign Randolph Morris right now?

"As far as I know, he's not entertaining any thoughts of leaving Kentucky during the season," Ralph Morris said by phone from his Atlanta home on Sunday.

Since the start of the college basketball season, several NBA teams closely have studied the unusual circumstance surrounding Randolph Morris. They've made calls, asked around to agents and kept checking with sources to make sure no one else was beating them to a contract offer.

Suddenly, more and more executives are hustling to decide how they should handle the reality that the center is no longer an immature, poorly conditioned 6-foot-11 project, but a leaner, more polished prospect. In this climate, the kid just needs to say the word and he never has to wake up for another 8:30 a.m. class.

Morris could sign a contract today, leave school and wear an NBA uniform immediately. "A team would be within our rules to do that," NBA spokesman Tim Frank said.

Even the worst teams in the league don't need him now, but they don't want to risk losing Morris later. This isn't so much a salute to a prodigious talent – he's good, not great – but the reality that draft-day size is still the most fleeting of commodities.

"He's a big freebie of a No. 1 pick," one Eastern Conference official said. "Most teams won't be in a position to get someone like him. This is a backdoor way of getting a second No. 1 pick in the draft."

After a so-so freshman season, Morris entered the 2005 NBA draft only to have a series of lethargic workouts sour everyone on him. No executives could find a positive thing to say about Morris, except that he ought to go back to school. No one touched him on draft day, and eventually he returned to Kentucky for his sophomore season. The NCAA rules let him back into the college game, but the NBA's collective bargaining agreement prohibited his re-entry into a future draft. Right away, Morris was a free agent.

And if for no other reason than teams didn't expect his development would demand all of this and could become an issue, there has been confusion with some franchises about his status. One NBA team contacted by Yahoo! Sports believed that Morris wasn't eligible to sign until July 1, and another Eastern Conference general manager had no idea at all that he was a free agent.

Still, most executives knew the loophole that made him a free agent and were charting his progress. Nevertheless, everything changed with his performance against North Carolina on Dec. 2.

A Western Conference official scouted Morris against the Tar Heels and couldn't believe his eyes. This was Randolph Morris? He watched Morris deliver a 10-for-11 shooting performance against Carolina's lottery-pick frontline of Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright and discovered a transformed player.

"He outplayed both of them," the official said. "He was the best player on the floor. Listen, I couldn't stand this kid for two years. He was out of shape. He didn't seem like he cared at all. But from what I've seen out there, most teams can't get a guy like Morris in this draft. You just can't find quality bigs out there.

"Everyone has something to think about right now. You'd take some heat for signing him, but hey, the rule is the rule. He's available."

While the NBA wouldn't be thrilled with the public relations fallout of poaching a college player in midseason, Morris' situation is far more an issue of NCAA legislation than NBA. Once college basketball decided to let these underclassmen return to school, it opened itself up to this kind of hassle. Commissioner David Stern and NCAA executive director Myles Brand have been talking about a cooperative relationship between the pros and college ball, and they would be wise to find a way to clean up this loophole.

Even so, Morris probably is an aberration. He was a skilled big man, but his work ethic and commitment was so suspect that NBA executives almost took a personal affront to it.

There was a belief that Morris would've been a first-round pick if he had gone pro straight out of his Atlanta high school. After his freshman year, several executives and agents say that Morris still might have been picked in the first round, if only he hadn't exposed himself to private workouts with teams.

"Just maturity has changed him," Ralph Morris said Sunday. "He's just decided that this is something he wants to do."

After the season, the father agrees that there are "major benefits" to his son's free-agent status. Randolph can inspire a bidding war, pick his own team and ultimately free himself of the rookie salary cap structure. "That would be an intriguing possibility," Ralph said.

Still, the father wouldn't declare that his son is on the market. "In terms of this season, to be honest, he wouldn't leave his team," Ralph said. "He's committed to Kentucky."

Still, the rule is the rule. Randolph Morris is available. Just say the word and the bidding begins.