Roughly half-an-hour after the Denver Nuggets put the finishing touches on a shorthanded win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Monte Morris was the center of attention in the locker room. He was instrumental to the win, scoring 20 points, including a 4-for-5 performance from deep, and a small crew from Altitude TV had gathered around him as he told a story of the work he’d put in to improve his shooting form. It involved the wrapper from a piece of chewing gum, the rewriting of muscle memory, and it was the second time he had told it in five minutes.
Much like the Nuggets themselves, the Denver media has learned to lean on Morris this season. When the team entered their 1-6 slide in mid-November, no one seemed to have any answers. No one except Monte. When a reporter needs an off the court anecdote, or a more detailed explanation of what was happening on the court, he’s been there, willing and able to provide the quote we’re in search of. Even if he has to repeat himself.
His availability and ability to articulate himself has been a luxury for the media, but that pales in comparison to what he’s meant to head coach Michael Malone and this Nuggets team. At age 23, Morris has been the steadying hand that’s piloted them through the turbulence of a bizarre season.
“I thought Monte Morris was the MVP of the game. He was phenomenal tonight,” Malone told reporters after the win. “His floor game, his shot making, his rebounding, his playmaking, we do not win that game without Monte.”
Morris’ 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists were vital. Denver is without three of their starters and three of their most consistent players in Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap. All told, over half of Denver’s payroll was dressed in street clothes last night. They need someone to step up, desperately, and Morris obliged.
Often complimented for his ability to run an offense, or elevate the game of his teammates, Morris isn’t really known as a scorer. Typically his contributions to wins involve him fulfilling his responsibilities as a floor general and becoming an extension of the coaching staff on the court. But it was his willingness to take and make big shots that stood out on Monday night.
“I’ve known I can score,” Morris told reporters after the game. “People always put my scoring under the rug, because I always get so much attention for my assists. But in college I averaged 17 (points per game) my senior year. I mean, I can score the ball. I’m not just one dimensional.”
Perhaps another reason why Monte’s scoring flies under the radar is that he recognizes the value of prudent shot selection. As we saw last night, Morris is perfectly capable of putting the ball through the hoop, but he’s shown little interest in forcing anything. His partner and de facto co-captain on the second unit, Mason Plumlee, identified that approach as one key to his success offensively.
“I think he takes great shots,” Plumlee told reporters, “He doesn’t force anything, he lets the game come to him. Whether it’s his floater, whether it’s his spot up three—it’s just very steady. That’s the word I would use to describe his shot selection. Very steady.”
Morris’ production in the backup point guard role has been the pleasant surprise of the season, at least to those of us on the outside. He, and those who are close to him, probably aren’t shocked to see him thriving at the game’s highest level. Morris is a relentless worker, and that work he’s put in on his own, with his teammates, and with his coaches—chewing gum wrappers included—has put him in a position to succeed.
“It feels good,” Morris said. “Just knowing—doing two-a-days in the summertime, missing a bunch, and they was just telling me that it’s a marathon. At the end of the tunnel there’s going to be success. It’s hard to take all that in at once because I’m a guy that wants success right away, but if it was easy then everybody would do it. So, I just try to stay the course, and now it’s just paying off.”
Injuries suck. But the silver lining in key players missing time is the opportunity it provides for other players to step up. As the Nuggets enter a “next man up mentality” to close the calendar year, there’s relief in knowing that Morris will be there, first in line, eager to shoulder the additional responsibility—both on the court and in the locker room.