The Alexis Morris Effect: Baylor surviving, but Rutgers needs her

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 05: Bayor (11) alexis Morris calling out to her team as she directs traffic versus Texas Univsersity during the Big 12 Women's Championship on March 05, 2018 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. (Photo by Torrey Purvey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 05: Bayor (11) alexis Morris calling out to her team as she directs traffic versus Texas Univsersity during the Big 12 Women's Championship on March 05, 2018 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. (Photo by Torrey Purvey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Alexis Morris effect, measured.

Last season, Baylor freshman point guard Alexis Morris was thrust into a starting role after senior Kristy Wallace tore her ACL on February 26. The rookie delivered, scoring in double figures in the team’s final five games, including a career-high 19 points in the Big 12 title game against Texas. After that game, Mulkey said of her young floor general, “Guys, that was no fluke. The kid can play … She’s got a swagger about her … we’ve seen it every day.”

Mere months later, though, Morris was out of Mulkey’s good graces. On September 11, Baylor announced that Morris “has been dismissed from the Baylor Lady Bears basketball team for violation of team rules, effective immediately.” Morris ended her Baylor career averaging 9.4 points and 3.4 assists per game, shooting an eye-popping 46.2% from three-point range and posting a 1.93 assist-to-turnover ratio.

With Baylor’s heir apparent at point guard suddenly gone, fans and the national media fretted over what this would mean for the Lady Bears’ Final Four aspirations. On October 16, head coach Kim Mulkey admitted that she still wasn’t sure who the team’s starting point guard would be, but quipped, “how difficult is it to tell somebody to throw the ball inside to a 6’7” and a [6’4”] kid and let them go to work?”

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By all appearances, it hasn’t been very difficult for the Lady Bears. To complement the formidable post tandem of 6’7” Kalani Brown and 6’4” Lauren Cox, Mulkey has started guards DiDi Richards, Juicy Landrum, and Chloe Jackson. Richards and Landrum have averaged a combined 17 points and 8 assists per game, but it has been Jackson, a graduate transfer from LSU, who has primarily run the point despite playing shooting guard at LSU. Her transition has been smoother than anyone probably expected, as she ranks eighth nationally and first in the Big 12 with 6.8 assists per game. She is assisting on over 30% of her team’s baskets while she is on the floor and scoring 10.9 points per game.

The one thing Jackson has not done well is shoot 3-pointers. She has only taken four of them this season, making one. Richards is not a 3-point shooter, either, causing some people to push a new concern: three-point shooting, not point guard play, could prevent Baylor from reaching its full potential this season.

But that narrative is also flawed. Mulkey would surely love to have Morris to provide another threat from behind the arc, as the Lady Bears are shooting fewer three-pointers this season than they did last year. (By herself, Landrum has hit half of the team’s total this season, shooting 40.3% from 3.) But Baylor has not typically relied much on the three-point shot: in each of the past four seasons, the Lady Bears have ranked in the bottom 5 percent of all Division I teams in the percentage of their shots that have come from three-point range. In that span, they’ve made three Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights. In addition, Baylor is currently shooting 37.5% from 3 as a team, which ranks 20th nationally and outpaces last year’s 37.0% mark.

Baylor has also taken care of the ball extremely well despite the uncertainty at point guard at the beginning of the season. Entering Wednesday’s game against Oklahoma State, the Lady Bears led the country in assists per game (23.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.77:1), and both numbers represent improvements from last season. (Baylor also leads the country in blocks per game (7.1), which is an unusual—and formidable—combination.)

So, for all the hand wringing about what Morris’s dismissal would mean for the Lady Bears, they are rolling right along this season. On January 3, Baylor defeated then-No. 1 UConn behind Brown’s 22 points and 11 rebounds and Jackson’s 11, 7, and 8 assists. Landrum chipped in three three-pointers (on only 4 attempts) and the Lady Bears registered 19 assists against just five turnovers. They are currently ranked No. 1 ahead of a much-anticipated showdown with Texas on February 4.

None of this means that Morris isn’t a dynamic and talented player, or that she wouldn’t have helped the Lady Bears this season. Surprisingly, though, Baylor hasn’t seemed to need her—at least, not as much as her new team does.

Last week, Rutgers announced that it had signed Morris and that she would be eligible to play for the Scarlet Knights in January 2020. Rutgers is one of this season’s biggest surprises: last season, the Scarlet Knights went 20-12 (8-10 in the Big Ten) and missed the NCAA tournament, but this year, they are 16-4 (8-1) with wins over ranked Maryland and Michigan State teams. This year’s Scarlet Knights do a lot of things well, but three-point shooting and turnovers are relative weaknesses. They shoot 32.4% from three-point range, more than 5 percentage points below Baylor, and they average more turnovers (15.7) than assists (14.1) per game. They also turn the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions, which ranks 200th out of 351 Division I teams. These are statistics that would probably look a lot better with Morris in the lineup.

Turnovers and poor three-point shooting have also been major factors in all four of Rutgers’s losses. Against Gonzaga in November, Rutgers shot 3-13 (23%) from three-point range and committed 18 turnovers; against Drake a day earlier, Rutgers shot 5-20 (25%) from deep with 16 turnovers. Against Virginia Tech, Rutgers made just one three-pointer the whole game (on nine attempts). Most recently, in last week’s loss to Iowa, Rutgers shot a ghastly 4-25 (16%) on three-pointers.

Looking ahead to next season, Morris can help the Scarlet Knights overcome the graduation of three starters, including their best three-point shooter in guard Charise Wilson (who is making 44.3% of her threes this season). Baylor will also lose multiple starters in Brown and Jackson, who have combined to dish out over one-third of Baylor’s assists this season. So while Jackson has plugged the Lady Bears’ hole at point guard this season, Baylor may just end up missing Morris a year later than everyone anticipated.

(All statistics are courtesy of Her Hoop Stats and represent games through January 29.)