ong before Boston College power forward Milan Bolden-Morris’s name was among the next crop of ACC recruits, before she twice broke her high school basketball team’s record for three-pointers made in a season, before she became her school’s all-time leading scorer, she was just a tall-for-her-age middle school softball catcher who’d played the game of basketball.
As a catcher, Bolden-Morris had the role on the diamond that many compare to basketball’s point guard position.
Like their basketball counterparts, they orchestrate much of the game–signaling pitches, adjusting outfielders, and acting as the eyes for the fielders in front of them. Still, softball is an excruciatingly slow sport in comparison. It’s stop-and-go, with time between pitches or sustained action beyond a minute at a time. Catchers may have the same basic job description, but a point guard has to be explosive and quick for the entire game, constantly adjusting and attacking defenses.
So, when Bolden-Morris decided to take up basketball at the suggestion of the middle school coach who saw her height as a sign of potential, she was destined to emerge as a leader—even if that seemed like a stretch at the time.
Five years later, she was polishing off an impressive high school career at Cardinal Newman. She went from simply leaning on her height in middle school to evolving into one of the most effective 3-point shooters in the state of Florida. This 5-foot-10 product of Belle Glade, Fla. was also called upon heavily to run her team’s offense. And run it she did.
Bolden-Morris finished her senior year with a remarkable stat line, averaging 22.3 points per game to go along with 12.5 rebounds, three assists and nearly four steals. The path to that impressive senior year with D-I programs knocking on the door wasn’t easy, though, especially due to the fact that she started playing the game so late.
ecoming a sharpshooter takes years of practice. These players grow up taking shot after shot, gradually expanding their shooting range. They eventually reach a level of mastery where they know where the ball will hit on the rim, the instant it spins off their fingertips. Bolden-Morris clearly had some catching up to do, but there’s no doubt she was up for the task.
“You just have to do little tedious things,” she said, casually brushing off the commitment of endless hours spent drilling. “It may seem boring once you figure it out, but it works significantly. It makes a huge difference.”
It wasn’t an immediate jump to 3-point shooting, however—she had to learn the game first. Instead of simply chucking up 20-footers like most kids do when they walk into a gym, she started in the paint. Bolden-Morris had a height advantage in middle school, so she focused on learning the fundamentals in front of the basket. She slowly took steps back, working further out from the paint. A year later, as a freshman, she had developed into a near-50 percent shooter from the field, but hit just 28 percent of her shots from beyond the arc.
Then came the first leap.
"Her intangibles are off the charts, and nobody can outwork her. That’s how she got here.” - Dennis Miles, Cardinal Newman head coach
s a sophomore, Bolden-Morris exploded as one of the top 3-point shooters in her division, connecting on 38 percent of shots and coming up just shy of the impressive 50-40-90 club, a mark of a truly elite shooter: 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 90 percent at the line. She became her school’s record holder for 3-pointers made after just three years of playing organized basketball, a product of both her work ethic and innate talent.
It started with drills comparable to those that NBA star Stephen Curry repeated time and time again. Morris would start shooting from outside the block, taking 20 shots. Next, she’d back up and take pull-up shots off dribbles from both her left and right hands. She’d slowly back up, gradually ending up behind the 3-point line. All of the little things she’d worked on came together, building on each other to create a fluid shooting motion that she can now replicate almost effortlessly. Her improvement was evident, one night in December of her sophomore year, when she dropped 30 points, connecting on 5-of-7 three-pointers and missing just four of her 13 shots in a highly efficient outing.
Still, she wasn’t going to settle as a one-dimensional offensive weapon. Bolden-Morris began to focus on strengthening different parts of her game, and it paid off .
“She came in as a shooter,” Cardinal Newman head coach Dennis Miles said, “but she’s a student of the game. Her intangibles are off the charts, and nobody can outwork her. That’s how she got here.”
She started focusing more on ball-handling, then attacking the paint, then further developing her game in the post. The result was a transition from a pure shooter to a multi-faceted weapon, as was evident in a 37-point performance against Palm Beach Gardens near the end of her senior year. Bolden-Morris hit just two threes, with the bulk of the points coming inside. She finished 15-of-16 from the charity stripe and shot almost 60 percent from the field.
“She became so well-rounded and we leaned on her heavily,” Miles added. “She became confident attacking the lane, and worked so hard on ball-handling. She just had absolute consistency–there were no slumps, she was out there and getting her [points] every game.”
Oftentimes, Bolden-Morris would simply take over for her team.
A highlight from a senior-year game against Barron Collier (Naples, Fla.) starts with her running the point. She hesitates after coming across midcourt, with her whole team pushing to one half of the court. It’s just her and her defender, and it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen. She unleashes an array of crossovers, sending the poor defender tasked with slowing her down every which way. Finally, with the clock dwindling, the defender over commits. Bolden-Morris sees the chance and explodes past her into the paint. Despite three opponents converging, she rises up, elevating to sink a floater over the crowded lane.
The sequence had everything Bolden-Morris worked so hard on: ball handling, attacking the lane, fundamentals, and, above all, confidence in her game. Her teammates didn’t skip a beat the entire possession, firmly planted in all corners of the court to give her the space she needed.
“Whatever I feel like will best improve my game and I know I can go to it consistently, I try to do,” Bolden-Morris said of the different facets of the game she was now fully focused on. “It’s not like I try every move or every dribbling drill I see, but if I see something I can use, I’m going to try and do it.”
That perspective is pivotal, as she enters her first season at BC, joining an injury-plagued team that is stuck in a rebuild. With much of the production last season coming from the current sophomore class, there’s a youth movement on the Heights. They’ll be joined by two freshmen expected to play big roles—Bolden-Morris and Sydney Lowery. But for Bolden-Morris, it’s a different one than usual.
olden-Morris is expecting to see a lot of time at the four, or power forward, position this year. She’ll be at a disadvantage, especially when matched up against the likes of Louisville’s Myisha Hines-Allen (6-foot-2), Miami’s Keyanna Harris (6-foot-2), and Virginia’s Lauren Moses (6-foot-2)—some of the many towering forwards in the conference. Still, that doesn’t concern Bolden-Morris, her high school coach, or Eagles head coach Erik Johnson.
“Even though she’s not real tall, she’s very strong,” Miles said of his leading rebounder a season ago, who averaged over 12 boards a game. “She can handle herself inside and isn’t afraid to go in and mix it up.”
Bolden-Morris, likewise, feels ready for the challenge. Johnson simply came in and told her she needed to play the four with the numbers they had, and Bolden-Morris didn’t hesitate in accepting the challenge. Even though it’s been tough adjusting, she’s all for it.
“I actually love it,” she said, emphasizing that it’s a position that will allow her to make the most of her skill set. Coming off a screen in the paint, a traditional ‘big’ would roll towards the basket. Bolden-Morris, though, can come off it and ‘pop’ due to her extended range. It allows her to create more offense, especially because of her ability to shoot, drive, or kick it out for a pass.
The height and presence of experienced forwards will put her at a disadvantage. One thing that won’t happen, however, will be Bolden-Morris backing down. She brings a physicality to the court that dates back to her father, a former Florida State offensive lineman, bringing what he could to his daughter’s training. Michael Morris didn’t know much about basketball, but he did know what kind of commitment and strength his daughter would need to play at the next level.
So he took her to the neighborhood park, introduced her to the guys there, and told them not to take it easy on her. Standing an imposing 6-foot-2, the former lineman offered up a threat if they didn’t play the way they usually do.
“If you don’t foul her or push her,” he said, “I’ll play and I’ll foul you and push you around.”
Her dad’s ‘guys’ were playing a pivotal role in helping her establish her identity on the court. Now, they’re some of her great friends and act as brothers.
Bolden-Morris’s time in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League also helped in preparing for her new role. As a bigger guard, Bolden-Morris spent a lot of her time with the Miami Suns guarding players with three-plus inches on her. The league was home to some of the best players in the country, so it also provided help in preparing her for the toughness and the elevated competition of the ACC.
“I feel like by playing them, it took some pressure off,” she said. “It’s somewhat of the speed that’s going to be played at the next level, so now I kind of know what to expect out of some of these players. Even if it was the next level down, now I know how much more I need to do.”
Five years ago, Milan Bolden-Morris was just a softball catcher. Now, entering her freshman season in a conference dominated by top-25 talent, she’s ready to make her mark. The Eagles are trying to flip 21 losses to 21 wins in Johnson’s words, and Bolden-Morris is fully bought in.
For Bolden-Morris, it’s simply the next step in a journey that started in eighth grade. In five years, she grew from a raw basketball prospect to a refined 3-point shooter who could run the point. Now, she’s being thrown back into the fire, tasked with learning a new position in just a few short weeks.
Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Staff
Photos courtesy of John Quackenbos / BC Athletics