The difference between Monte Morris in October and Monte Morris in December is palpable.
When the Denver Nuggets first began their season against the Phoenix Suns on the road, Morris scored nine points on three three-pointers. He looked pretty good shooting the ball, but over the first few weeks of the season, it became clear that Morris’ outside jumper was hit or miss. His true value was in how he would navigate the pick and roll, set the table for himself and others, and function within a team defense concept.
After a few weeks of getting accustomed to his new role, it appears that Morris is doing well.
Here are Morris’ per game splits by month to start the season:
I asked Morris about his improved play after last night’s win against the Washington Wizards when he had 22 points, six rebounds, and five assists compared to just zero turnovers. Here’s what he had to say:
“I’m finally finding my groove as far as a starter...I still had that thing in my mind that I was coming off the bench for my first three or four years here. So, having that chemistry with [Nikola Jokić] and knowing how to get other guys [shots], things like that...I kinda have the sense of our playbook more and where I get shots from and how to get other guys shots without looking at coach now and just running things so, it’s good to see. I feel good, physically and mentally, just having fun with that game, and I think that’s when I’m at my best, when I’m out there smiling and just making the right play and having fun.”
It’s nice to hear quotes like that, because it was clear to all that Morris was fairly tentative in his role to start the year, not wanting to step on the toes of other starters and doing what he thought was best by fitting in. For awhile, that was fine, but with injuries to Michael Porter Jr., P.J. Dozier, Nikola Jokić for a stretch, and most recently Will Barton, Morris has had to be a guy that consistently steps up in big moments. Only Morris, Aaron Gordon, and Jeff Green have played in all 27 games for the Nuggets so far this season, and they’ve had to raise their individual performances in various instances just to keep the team afloat. Jokić will of course be the straw that stirs the drink, but it’s fair to say that Morris has been one of Denver’s most important players throughout the season.
The aggressiveness from Morris helps the Nuggets starting unit in a number of ways. Providing Jokić with another pick and roll partner capable of hitting mid-range and three-point shots means the paint area becomes that much more open on duck-ins and back cuts. Teams have been unable to leave Morris open on the outside lately with him shooting 42.5% from three in December.
Jokić’s first read on the above play was the cut under the basket to Jeff Green, but he sensed Morris’ defender, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, cheating toward the paint to help on the mismatch. Jokić firing the no-look pass and Morris shooting the jumper with quickness and confidence was what made the play though, because without a quick trigger, KCP recovers and either blocks that shot or forces Morris to pump fake instead.
On the next play, Morris leverages the spacing Jokić creates out of the dribble handoff perfectly. Morris initially dives to the paint but quickly returns to the left slot for the handoff from Jokić. Seeing that KCP is going under the screen, Morris takes a rhythm dribble and quickly rises into his shooting motion. This probably isn’t a shot that Morris takes earlier in the season.
Let’s not get it twisted though: Morris’ best skill is his pull-up jumper in the mid-range area. His comfort level navigating screens and finding pockets of space to fire up a long two would generally be seen as bad shot selection if he wasn’t as incredibly efficient as he is. Among the 78 players to attempt at least 50 shots from 10 to 22 feet away from the basket this season, Morris ranks sixth in shooting efficiency at 52.3%. His ability to turn an inefficient shot into an efficient shot has helped to define his game as an NBA player, and it’s not surprise that the only true point guard he’s trailing is Chris Paul at 53.6% from the field.
When in doubt, the Nuggets know they can get to the Monte-Nikola pick and roll, and when in doubt, they know that a Monte Morris mid-range jumper is a great shot to bust a slump.
In a previous answer to the media, Jokić made sure to be clear that Monte Morris isn’t Jamal Murray, that they’re two different players with different skill sets and timings on the two-man game. It wasn’t meant to be a slight, just a reminder that things are going to look slightly different. Still, it isn’t hard to draw some connections between Morris and Murray, especially with Morris’ added comfort in his situation. Morris and Jokić have been teammates for a long time, but their mind meld on the two-man game is reaching another level.
Morris doesn’t even bother acting like he’s going to fake a screen on the split cut action below, quickly diving to the rim because he knows his defender, Bradley Beal, is about to double Jokić in the post. Morris catches an easy pass from Jokić and lays it in for the easiest two points of the evening.
While nobody can replace Murray, Morris has done his absolute best. His ability to stay efficient as a starter has been important for Denver’s scoring efficiency as a team in the face of so many injuries and absences. They’ve had precious few players to rely upon every single night, and though it took him a bit to get up to speed, Morris is now one of those precious few.
When Murray returns, it will be interesting to see how the Nuggets handle Morris. Objectively, he’s been a top 4 player on the team so far, and that won’t change when Murray returns. Whether the Nuggets immediately place Murray back in the starting lineup and move Morris to sixth man, keep Morris in the starting unit and let Murray readjust in a bench role, or start the two of them together, the Nuggets will (at some point) have options to bolster their starting and bench units. With the way Morris is playing, the decision isn’t an easy one.
Until then, let’s enjoy the growth of Denver’s backup point guard for a number of years, because it’s clear that he’s now a starting caliber point guard and may be just getting started.