The Denver Nuggets have been through several ups and downs this season. Nikola Jokic took until December 3rd to get going on the season. Jamal Murray went through a midseason lull before sitting out 10 games with a sprained ankle. Paul Millsap missed games. Jerami Grant took a couple of months to get used to Jokic. Gary Harris took decidedly longer than that.
At the beginning of the season, it looked like Monte Morris may be going through a regression himself. Through the first 32 games, the third-year point guard scored in double figures just eight times. The three-point shooting, despite being over 40%, was a minimal contribution based on the number of attempts. The assist-to-turnover ratio was still sparkling, but Morris’ overall contributions were nothing to write home about. 6.8 points and 3.2 assists in 17.6 minutes per game off the bench represents average backup point guard numbers, and a 49.3% True Shooting mark was dragging down Denver’s bench offense.
It wasn’t until a blowout loss against the Houston Rockets that Morris started to elevate his game. The Nuggets lost by 26 on the road, and the only silver lining was Morris’ performance: 18 points represented his season high to date, and 8-of-12 shooting, 4 assists, 3 steals, and zero turnovers added to a strong scoring performance to truly showcase his capabilities off the bench.
Starting with that game as a pivot point, Morris has found his rhythm by serving as Denver’s primary facilitator off the bench and morphing his game when playing with the starters. In the last 31 games, Morris is averaging 10.8 points, 3.9 assists, and 1.0 steals in 25.7 minutes per game with a 58.5% True Shooting mark. His versatility has allowed him to remain on the floor in different situations, and his instincts have repeatedly won Denver games in the year 2020. When Murray went down with injury in mid January, Morris stepped up as a starter. When Murray returned, head coach Michael Malone started started playing the two point guards together more frequently.
Here’s how Morris has turned things around:
Relocation and spacing
It’s very easy to remain stuck on the perimeter when other players have the basketball. For Monte Morris, a floor general point guard used to having the ball in his hands, being an elite off-ball player is something I never expected him to become. Fortunately for the Nuggets, that’s exactly what has happened.
It’s very subtle, but Morris’ movement after passing the ball is very good here. He hangs out at the elbow just long enough to lull Terry Rozier to sleep defensively, thinking he’s in good position to double Mason Plumlee in the post one Plumlee dribbles to the middle of the paint. Morris hangs around, then pops to the top of the key, wide open because Will Barton relocates to the corner as soon as Plumlee makes his move.
Morris attempts 2.2 three-pointers per game, and 1.6 of those are in catch-and-shoot scenarios. This is one of the keys to Denver’s offense in general. Almost every guard and wing has the ability to shoot off the catch AND shoot off the dribble. Morris makes 39% of his catch-and-shoot threes, a number of them due to his off-ball movement.
With the Nuggets operating out of the post through either Jokic or Plumlee as often as they do, Morris has a responsibility to become an elite off-ball option to make the most of his minutes. Whether as a cutter or floor spacer, Morris makes an impact consistently, and his chemistry with Plumlee in particular gives the bench unit a boost.
Morris is averaging 3.0 threes attempted per game since that turning point against the Rockets on New Year’s Eve, and every single three is crucial. In the instances when the Nuggets go with lineups that include Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and Mason Plumlee next to Morris, the ball often finds its way into the post. Plumlee is a great passer on the move, and Morris has made the most of those passes this year. On a team that struggles to space the floor in certain setups, Morris being a consistent threat makes a big difference.
Becoming more dynamic
Much of Morris’ game is understated and in control. He always has that college point guard feel, making fundamental decisions, maximizing every movement, and being a technician all over the floor. That mentality shows itself with how he works the midrange out of the pick and roll or a dribble handoff.
Morris makes the fundamental decision here, reading that Jokic has set a nice screen on which Bojan Bogdanovic has been walled off. He also reads the coverage from Rudy Gobert, who starts near the level but is backpedaling in drop coverage. Morris easily knocks down the midrange jumper, something he has done well all season. Among the 61 players to attempt at least 80 shots from 15 to 22 feet away from the rim, Morris ranks 3rd in FG% at 53.8%. Among him are Josh Richardson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Khris Middleton, and D’Angelo Russell, some notable midrange shooters.
But opposing teams are often willing to live with midrange attempts for good reason. There’s a ceiling to how efficient an offense can be if that’s the only shot a team can generate at a reasonable rate. For Morris to be more impactful, he had to find new ways to create offense for himself.
A larger percentage of Morris’ shots are being attempted from zero to three feet from the rim, and Morris is shooting an absurd 73.3% on those looks. Among all guards to match or exceed Morris’ 90 field goal attempts from that distance, only George Hill and Luka Doncic have been more efficient.
It’s very rare for a player of Morris’ stature to be so efficient around the rim. He maneuvers around the defense, finds the seams, and attacks the glass on layups. Last season, Morris was efficient, but he was also a bit more selective with his drives. This year, the point guard has thrown his body around a bit, and he’s growing into a player who can be trusted to hit shots in a crowd, even while taking contact.
Drawing attention in new ways
This season, the Nuggets are utilizing Murray and Barton frequently as starters that bridge the gap for the second unit. Both have playmaking capabilities, and often, Morris will find himself playing off the ball. He has quickly learned how to navigate the floor from the wings, and the passes he makes in these situations are very important.
Because Morris has turned himself into a dangerous midrange shooter with the capability to get to the rim, opposing defenses have to respect him. His passing in these situations are reminiscent of the facilitating point guard he usually is, but he’s not initiating the ball. In the above situation, it’s Jokic on a DHO with Murray at the top of the key. Below, it’s Will Barton passing him the ball at the slot and Morris knifing his way through the defense to deliver a pass to the open corner shooter in Craig.
Denver’s offense relies heavily on this versatility. Murray and Barton are ball handlers with the capability to operate off-ball. When Morris shares the floor with them, he has to make certain concessions, but adding another dynamic playmaker to the fold has helped Denver’s bench offense immensely.
When Jokic sits, the Nuggets are hoping for Morris to be a difference maker. That could mean creating shots for others and racking up assists, or it could mean playing off of others and hitting a few outside shots. How Morris accomplishes that goal can differ from game to game, but his ability to come off the bench and impact the outcome in a positive way may determine just how far Denver goes in the playoffs this year.
It’s very evident that the Nuggets have seven players Michael Malone trusts the most and will be prevalent in any playoff series: Morris, Grant, and the five starters. Mason Plumlee is also likely to join that group to help get Jokic some rest time on the bench, and then maybe Torrey Craig or Michael Porter Jr. will get a look. But the first seven are basically shoo-ins for major playoff minutes.
Last season, Malik Beasley averaged 20.1 minutes per game across all 14 playoff games. Morris averaged just 16.0 himself, but with Beasley gone, there’s no way Morris plays just 16 minutes a night off the bench again. There are too few players in the rotation capable of executing playoff offense. Morris will have a major role, and that means he has the capability to change the game when he comes off the bench. Last year, Morris wasn’t ready for the playoffs, shooting 0-for-13 from three-point range and appearing uncomfortable with the moment. He’s looking to acquit himself this time around, and he will certainly have the opportunity to do so.
But the Nuggets are going to need a classic Monte Morris game at some point. 15 points and 7 assists in 25 minutes off the bench to give the team a boost. It could be in the first or second round. It could be in the conference finals if the Nuggets are lucky enough to get that far.
Whatever the case, Morris has to be ready to go. The Nuggets are counting on him.