Morris Almond’s return to the NBA felt somewhat like a reunion on Monday, as he warmed up with assistant Ryan Saunders before the Wizards upset the Chicago Bulls and saw several of his former Utah Jazz teammates on the other side of the court. Kyle Korver acknowledged Almond with a wave before taking a jumper and Almond looked up at the United Center rafters, reflected and smiled.
After a long delay, Almond was back in the familiar surroundings of an NBA arena, a place he never thought he’d miss.
“It brings back memories. This is where I started at as a professional,” Almond said as he gazed around. “It’s a top league in the world. So you don’t take it for granted this time around.”
When Almond was drafted 25th overall out of Rice in the 2007 draft, he had visions of contributing to a playoff team in Utah and having a long productive career in the NBA. But he was out of the league in just two years and had to wait three more years for another shot – when the Wizards signed him to replace Roger Mason Jr., who was waived after having season-ending surgery on a broken left index finger.
Almond didn’t play against the Bulls, but he is hoping to get some time on the floor in the Wizards’ final five games to show that he belongs in the big show. He only appeared in 34 games for the Jazz, averaging 3.1 points and 1.1 rebounds, as he spent most of his time playing for its NBA Developmental League affiliate, the Flash. He has since bounced around to the Springfield Armor and Maine Red Claws, and also made stops in Spain, Italy and Ukraine.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. Just play hard and do what I do. I’m 27 now and I graduated, I was class of ’07. So I’ve been around the loop, in terms of everything, from being a draft pick, 10-day, D-League to Europe. I’m just trying to enjoy myself and have fun.”
Almond put up some huge scoring numbers in the D-League, averaging 24.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in 119 career games and posting two 50-point games as a rookie, when he led the league in scoring. His performances caught the attention of a Jazz fan, who held up a sign at a game that read, “Free Morris Almond.” Almond turned the sign into a movement, and a Twitter account, @FreeMoAlmond.
“I couldn’t get off the bench, so I was just having fun. That’s kind of the time period I was in when I started and it just stuck,” Almond said. “I’m still active on that. I’m dwindling, but I’m still a part of the Twitter universe. I just try to have fun on there.”
His opportunity never came with legendary coach Jerry Sloan and the Jazz, unable to crack a perimeter rotation that, at the time, featured Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Miles and combo guard Ronnie Price. He eventually did get his freedom when the Jazz declined to pick up his third-year option. But he doesn’t quite understand why it never worked out.
“I went in there with high expectations, like any rookie would,” Almond said. “I was on a playoff team, a veteran team. A lot of guys drafted in the late first round and going to a playoff team, it’s tough for them to kind of break into the rotation, so to speak. And a veteran coach that felt rookies got to pay their dues and whatnot. So I can’t really explain it. You just can’t predict anything in this league.”
Almond started this season playing for BC Cherkasy in Ukraine, but left in January to join the Maine Red Claws of the D-League. “I was out in the Russian league, Eastern Europe. I had played in Spain before and I played in Italy. Western Europe is more my speed. Eastern Europe is a little different for me,” Almond said. “For whatever reason, it didn’t work out. But I had a brief stint out there. I wouldn’t say it was too cold. It was more a matter of wins and losses for the team.”
He averaged 23.4 points on 54.3 percent shooting and 6.0 rebounds in 29 games with Maine and his season came to an end last week. When he got the call from the Wizards, he was glad that he decided to bail on the Ukraine. “I’m glad it worked out that I could end up here, instead of finishing there,” Almond said. “It feels good. It’s been a long season, literally and figuratively, and this is a good way to wrap things up.”