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Monte Morris knows he’s a better scorer than he gets credit for.
Despite posting impressive offensive numbers over his four-year run at Iowa State, Morris was known almost exclusively in the lead-up to the 2017 draft for the record assist-to-turnover ratio he registered in college. Morris attempted and converted his fair share of high-leverage shots in Ames, Iowa, but the narrative around his game has always been that he’s a classic, pass-first playmaker and not the modern-day point guard that some of the league’s premier offenses in Golden State and Houston are built around.
“I’ve been known always because of my assist-to-turnover ratio, so when people speak my name, they always think about that,” Morris told BSN Denver. “But in college, I averaged 17 points. So, you know. That’s just the stamp on my name. But it’s cool. I know I can score the basketball and I can score it at a high level when I get rolling. I can’t wait for them to go under my screens this year. I’ll light them up. I get that label, not being a shooter, but I know that I’m not one dimensional.”
Midway through the third quarter of Denver’s preseason opener against the Lakers, Morris let his game do the talking. Standing in the right corner, Morris received a pass from Nikola Jokic and waited for his big man to lumber over to set him a ball screen. Morris took two hard dribbles with his left hand, rubbed off Jokic’s right shoulder and found himself free, with a split-second of airspace when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drifted under Jokic’s 7-foot frame. Morris stopped, composed himself and splashed a 17-footer.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in my game right now,” Morris told BSN Denver. “The coaching staff has confidence in me, and my teammates have confidence in me. Once the whole organizations trusts me and believes in me, it moves my confidence to another level.”
The Nuggets have had confidence in Morris since the night they selected him 51st overall in 2017 under the belief that someday he could effectively run their second unit behind starter Jamal Murray. That confidence has only grown over time, which works in Morris’ favor considering he’ll likely begin Denver’ regular season as its backup point guard with Isaiah Thomas working his way back from hip surgery.
During his rookie year, Denver let Morris hone his skills in the G League, specifically his jumper, which he hit at a 33 percent clip last year. After his G League season, Nuggets coach Michael Malone asked Morris to recalibrate his shooting form so his guide hand wasn’t as involved in his shot.
That process began on May 1. Morris spent his entire summer in Denver, which is somewhat of a rarity among NBA players who typically prefer to bounce between Los Angeles, Miami, and their home base throughout the offseason. At Summer League, in July, Morris debuted his new form at Summer League where he hit 36 percent of his threes.
It wasn’t just his jumper that impressed. Powered by a pregame text from Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, who told Morris he was “the best lead guard” in Vegas, the 23-year-old was among the top players at July’s showcase. He ran his team effectively. He operated flawlessly out of the pick-and-roll. He finished with both hands around the rim, showing off an impressive layup package stocked with floaters and acrobatic scoop shots. Not that it should have come as a surprise based on his college production, but Morris handed out 25 assists to just five turnovers.
Will Barton took notice of Morris’ steady play from his courtside seat.
“The thing about Monte is he rarely makes a mistake,” Barton said. “That’s what you need from your backup point guard and your general off the bench.”
Morris’ mistake-free brand of basketball was again on display at training camp. He drew rave reviews all week long from Nuggets’ executives, teammates and coaches for his ability to take care of the ball.
“I think if you asked all of his teammates about Monte they would say the same thing,” Malone said. “He runs his team, and he never makes any mistakes.”
Murray, who battled with Morris at training camp, would agree. Like he did at Summer League, Morris picked up full-court on defense all week long, trying to tire out Murray and make him uncomfortable. At just 175 pounds, Morris is smaller than the typical NBA point guard. He’s a full 30 pounds lighter than Murray and needs to look for every advantage he can get to make an impact on that end of the floor.
Murray sprained his ankle in Denver before training camp began and was hampered by it throughout the week. He didn’t shoot the ball well at practices but scored 18 points on just 12 shots in the Nuggets’ preseason opener against the Lakers before exiting for good in the second half after he came down hard on that same ankle after a dunk. Malone joked at training camp that Murray wasn’t in the type of shape he normally is because of the ankle but maybe also due to Morris tiring him out at practice.
“He’s done really well,” Murray said while comparing Morris to his former Kentucky teammates Tyler Ulis, another undersized point guard who liked to get handsy with his opponent and make them uncomfortable. “He runs his team, even in the scrimmages, kept the score close. He’s scoring, he’s been everywhere on the court too, full-court pressing me, trying to wear me down.”
“Whenever they scout on me I just want them to know I’m coming 94-feet, picking up and playing hard,” Morris said.
Murray watched from the sidelines Tuesday in Denver’s second preseason matchup as Morris started in his place. Morris found out he was getting the start just before the national anthem but played it off like a 15-year pro. Under the bright Los Angeles lights in LeBron James’ Staples Center debut, Morris finished with 12 points on 5-12 shooting in 26 minutes.
Morris looked like a veteran in his first NBA start. He understands angles on the floor and was able to set his teammates up for open looks out of the pick-and-roll all night long. He only registered four assists but could have had closer to 10 if Denver’s starters hadn’t combined to shoot 16-48 (33.3 percent) from the field.
“He’s a great passer, so when he comes off the pick and roll he’s very aware of the big, if he’s gonna blitz, if I’m coming behind him for a steal. He’s just very aware of everything around him,” Murray said. “He can get into the paint, pull-up for mid-range shot. He can hit those open threes.”
Morris never gets rattled. He’s always calm, cool and collected both on and off the court. He looked especially comfortable against Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo, whom Morris worked out with this summer. The four-time All-Star told Morris Tuesday that the sky is the limit for the second-year pro. Like Rondo, Morris makes plays that don’t show up in the box score. He plays winning basketball.
In his first significant minutes, in practice or game setting alongside starters Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic, Morris continued to see the game slow down for him.
“Last year, he was not bad, but he was going to fast he was making mistakes,” Jokic said. “But right now, probably the game slows down for him, he’s making shots, he’s controlling his team.”
Morris has gained the confidence of his teammates after two training camps. Denver’s front office is also 100 percent behind its backup point guard after signing him to a three-year contract this offseason.
But do those votes of confidence carry much weight unless Morris’ coach trusts him too?
After watching him from afar last season, Malone saw Morris firsthand this summer, first on Denver’s practice court where he showed off the new form on his jumper that he had asked Morris to implement. Then, Malone saw Morris dominate Summer League and impress as one of training camp’s standout performers over the last week.
He’s firmly in Morris’ corner.
“One thing about Monte is you trust him,” Malone said. “He values the ball at such a high level, he runs his team and the biggest thing for him is going to be continuing to make open shots, which he’s been doing a great job of. He’s a natural floor leader.”