Timberline High School’s boys basketball team looks different when Eli Morton is not on the floor.
The ninth-ranked Blazers are known for their ruthless pressure defense, combining for 11.3 steals per game, and frequently converting turnovers into transition baskets.
Morton, Timberline’s three-year starting point guard, often provides the spark that gets that started.
“He might be the glue that keeps us together,” Timberline coach Allen Thomas said. “He’s an extension of the coaching staff on the floor. When he’s not out there, it just looks different, it feels different.”
Timberline (13-3, 9-1 3A South Sound Conference) has lost just three games this season. Two of them, at a holiday tournament in University Place in late December, Morton was absent.
“Obviously he’s been running our team for three years. He can handle the pressure,” teammate Erik Stevenson, a Wichita State signee, said following Timberline’s loss to O’Dea that weekend.
“Without Eli, it’s going to be tough.”
The Blazers scratched out a win against Curtis to finish that tournament, and Morton returned when 3A SSC play resumed against Gig Harbor.
Since, Timberline has won six consecutive league games by an average margin of 25.3 points.
“He’s impacted the program and the community so much,” Thomas said of Morton. “That’s a testament to how much he has improved over the last three years.”
Morton, a senior, transferred from Wilson before his sophomore season. He knew Stevenson from playing AAU basketball together, and immediately earned a spot in Timberline’s starting lineup.
“He came in and he beat out a couple guys who were older, and he just never looked back,” Thomas said. “He’s been so crucial for our winning the last couple of years.”
Morton says the move to Timberline was the perfect choice.
“It’s a family,” Morton said. “It’s a real brotherhood, and it’s not only during the basketball season. It travels off the court.”
Morton said he works on maintaining relationships with his teammates in the classroom and in the hallways at school, which tends to lead to success on the court.
“Being the point guard, I control who gets what shot, and where they get it,” Morton said. “I have to understand everybody’s sweet spots, where they’re comfortable and not comfortable at, and build a relationship with every single person on the team, as well as the coaches.”
Allen and Stevenson both point to Morton’s leadership as one of his most important contributions on the basketball court, but Stevenson says Morton “does everything well.”
The 5-foot-10 point guard averages 15.6 points per game, and has scored in double digits in 12 of his 13 appearances this season.
He leads the Blazers in assists per game (4.5) and 3-point percentage (45) among players with more than 10 attempts.
Morton is a dependable free-throw shooter, making 80 percent of his attempts to lead Timberline, and adds 2.6 steals per game.
“He’s always been a big piece of what we do,” Thomas said. “Every year, he’s getting better at handling the pressure, better at being the floor general on the court, and doing a better job of taking full range of the team.
“His shot selection has improved, and his decision-making has improved. He makes it a lot easier on guys like Erik and Casson (Rouse).”
During the offseason, Morton said he changed his diet and cut 10 pounds as part of a goal he set with his family.
On the basketball court, he says he feels light on his feet. His lateral quickness has improved and he feels less pressure on his legs late in close games.
That has translated into even more positive production at both ends of the floor.
“He’s willing to take on more responsibility,” Thomas said. “Whether it’s scoring, whether it’s (guarding) the other team’s best player on defense, he really wants that challenge.”
Morton’s pursuit on defense has held some of the league’s best scorers to season lows. Last week, in Timberline’s win over Capital, he limited standout guard Chris Penner (15.8 points per game) to a single basket.
“He really takes it personal when people score,” Thomas said. “It’s just a mindset. He knows he can affect the game on offense and defense, and give us that necessary cushion we need to pull away from teams.”
A strong defensive effort is what Morton believes is vital to Timberline’s success moving forward.
“If you play tight defense, the crowd gets into it, and you start to have a lot more fun,” Morton said. “Everybody scores, you can start celebrating as a team, and the opposing team will begin to shut down.”
Friday’s win over Capital gives 3A SSC title implications to Wednesday night’s game, when the Blazers host their crosstown rival, No. 6 North Thurston (16-0, 10-0).
Morton, as usual, will be tasked with sparking Timberline’s defensive effort, as it tries to lock up a team that has two players averaging more than 20 points per game.
Those high-pressure moments, Thomas and Stevenson agree, are when Morton thrives.
“Any moment we need a big stop, any moment we need a big shot, any moment we need a big play, he’s usually involved in it,” Thomas said. “It’s cool to see him mature into the player he is.”