Aneesah Morrow is the biggest person in the room without taking up too much space.
The 6-foot-1 forward plays with focus and intensity on the court, but off it she’s quiet, reserved yet fully aware of the impact she’s having not just at DePaul, but also on women’s basketball.
“Aneesah talks about goals,” coach Doug Bruno said last month after Morrow surpassed 1,000 career points in a 78-69 win against Providence. “She’s got individual goals for every game and individual goals for the season. She’s got individual goals for when she graduates from DePaul. But to reach those goals, she has to keep getting better.”
Halfway through her sophomore season, Morrow has racked up all kinds of accolades and recognition.
As the national freshman of the year last season, she led the country in rebounding (13.8 per game) and offensive rebounding (5.8) and finished in the top 11 in double-doubles (27, second), steals (89, ninth) and scoring (21.9 points per game, 11th).
She became only the fourth player to record 30 points and 10 rebounds against Connecticut. The other three — Candace Parker, Angel McCoughtry and Jackie Young — were all No. 1 picks in the WNBA draft.
Her standout freshman season put Morrow on opponents’ radars, and now she is swarmed by double- and triple-teams.
“That’s respect,” Morrow told the Tribune. “You have to respect the respect that you’re given. They triple-team me in practice as well. I feel like our practices at DePaul are harder than our games.”
After going 22-7 and 14-6 in the Big East last season and losing to Dayton in an NCAA Tournament First Four game as a No. 11 seed, the Blue Demons are 11-8 and 4-4 in Big East play in Morrow’s second season. Entering Saturday’s game against St. John’s at Wintrust Arena, she was averaging 25.2 points (fourth in the country) and 11.9 rebounds (fifth).
Morrow reached 1,000 career points in 43 games — only 12 women in NCAA Division I history have done it faster — and she broke the single-game school scoring record with 45 points last month in an 81-63 victory over Northwestern.
“I have always been confident about sport overall because I feel like I can’t be denied if I continue to work,” she said. “That’s something that you can’t take away from me, my work ethic. You can’t teach that.”
In the midst of basketball stardom, Morrow also balances family, academics and generally growing and maturing as the world around her watches.
A hometown kid from Simeon, Morrow chose to stay in Chicago two years ago and play for DePaul even as larger-profile schools came calling. A big reason? She wanted her family nearby.
Morrow’s father, Edward, played linebacker at Nebraska, and her mother, Nafeesah, was an all-conference forward for the Cornhuskers basketball team. Her brother Ed played basketball at Simeon and went on to play at Nebraska and Marquette. Older sister and former Simeon teammate Nazlah played for Miami Dade junior college before joining Aneesah in Lincoln Park.
“My family is super close,” Morrow said. “That’s how I was introduced to basketball — being around my mother and my father. My mother was a high school coach and she coached almost all of us. That’s one reason why I chose to stay here in the city was to be able to allow them to enjoy my career with me.”
The Morrows, according to Aneesah and Nafeesah, are a competitive but fun family. Nafeesah believes the spirit of competition within the family is part of what pushes Aneesah to perform at the highest level.
With her own experience as a high-level student-athlete, Nafeesah is the person Aneesah turns to for not only basketball guidance but also life guidance. Aneesah talks to her mom every day.
“We talk about a lot of stuff,” Nafeesah said. “I try to keep it off sports all the time just because you’ve got to think outside the box. Sometimes this game is more mental than it is physical. And so I used to talk a lot about the mental aspect of just being a great person more than just being a great basketball player.
“She’s very strong-minded. If she puts her mind to something, she’s going to do it and she’s going to go above and beyond what she puts her own expectations to be. So it’s kind of like you never really know what you’re going to get out of her, but you’re going to be happy with the output.”
Morrow, who turns 20 next month, is “really just a baby,” her mom says. She’s the youngest of the girls in the family and still climbs into her mother’s lap. She keeps family and her faith close while trying to remain humble and do the work.
“Aneesah is one of my children who prays a lot,” Nafeesah said. “She’s always been that way, probably since I noticed that (when she was in) sixth grade. (It) doesn’t shock me at all that she would get off to herself and ask God to let her do well there and want to be productive and prosperous and be a great person, all the things you’d go over at home.”
With her ultracompetitive family behind her, Morrow bounced back from three knee surgeries before college and has landed in the conversation for national player of the year. After experiencing knee discomfort last summer, Morrow says she can feel herself getting stronger and stronger week after week, and it’s showing in her performance.
“I would say I’m super resilient,” she said. “I go through a lot on a day-to-day basis. I feel like we always pay attention to what’s going on on the court, but it’s a lot more to that.
“I guess I carry it well. I just want to be a great person and I try to be positive around everybody. Even if I’m having a bad day or I’m struggling with my academics or something, I’ll just always find a way to push through.”
One way she does that is by focusing on how she can be a great teammate and uplift those around her.
“I just want to see my teammates become the best players that they possibly can too,” Morrow said. “A thing that coaches tell me is great players make their teammates better.”
For Morrow, wanting to be great means not only looking for ways she can help her team but also striving to improve — constantly. Despite the awards and records, she is unwilling to accept any one night’s performance. She sets goals from game to game based on her performance.
“I would argue with anybody that Michael (Jordan) is the best basketball player I’ve ever seen on this planet,” Bruno said. “And we can have the debate till we’re blue in the face about who’s better than him or not. But at the same time the man was working very, very hard at the end of his career to get better. He never stopped working to get better.
“I just think that’s an important character trait of great and special athletes. They’re never satisfied. They obviously are pleased with accomplishments and achievements, but they can never be satisfied.”
Morrow isn’t satisfied. In addition to studying for classes, she studies film and watches DePaul men’s basketball and WNBA games to work on her skills. She has borrowed some of her techniques from WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson of the league champion Las Vegas Aces.
“I’m self-motivated,” she said. “I feel like it’s something that you can’t teach. You can’t teach effort, grit, resilience … and it’s something that I come in with every day.
“I have set goals on a day-to-day basis. And of course sometimes we fall short. But if you set your expectations high, when you fall short they’re still above others. So I know that I have to come in and set goals every day. And I always set a goal to be better than the day before. And if I fall short, sometimes it’s still a lot better than my performance the day before.”
One of her goals from game to game, outside of things found on the stat sheet, is to remain calm. The outside noise can be a distraction, and Morrow wants to put herself in the best mindset to play with intention and intensity. She prays and listens to artists such as Rod Wave, SZA and Summer Walker to settle herself pregame.
“I know when you’re coming to the game, you play with a lot of anxiety about winning or about accomplishing something. And I feel like I have some of my best games when I come in calm. It really depends on my mood. Some days I could be super hyper and other days I could be mellow and calm so it’s just trying to find that balance.”
As her career has progressed, Morrow says she plays with a chip on her shoulder because of her upbringing on the South Side. She saw things she shouldn’t have and has been through a lot, and she wants to set an example that one can stay in Chicago and still make good on their dreams.
While the accolades keep rolling in, Morrow still feels excluded from larger women’s basketball conversations.
“Overall I feel like I am in the top tier right now,” she said. ”And I’m talking about it with my coach: I do feel like I’m kind of overlooked. I feel like numbers don’t lie. And at the end of the day, my numbers are not lying.”