When Monte Morris attacks the rim, it’s all about the details.
It’s about how when Morris gets into the paint, he’ll use his off arm to create just enough separation between himself and the defender. Not enough to get whistled for an offensive foul, but just the necessary amount to create a large enough window so that he can finish effectively.
When Morris drives the lane against a taller defender, he’ll loft the ball towards the rim at the perfect angle, well above his head and out of a shot-blocker’s reach.
Implementing those particulars into his floor game was always going to be a requirement for Morris if he wanted to carve out an NBA career. The former second-round pick is a fine NBA athlete, but he’s no prime Russell Westbrook. Honing his technique around the rim was always going to be key.
Early in his fourth NBA season, Morris hasn’t just fixated on those details. He’s perfected them.
Morris was spectacular in the Nuggets’ 130-126 overtime win over the Phoenix Suns Friday, finishing with 17 points off the bench on 6-10 shooting to go with three rebounds, and three assists. He captained a Nuggets’ second unit that cut the double-digit first-quarter deficit it inherited from Denver’s starters in half by the six-minute mark of the second. To open the Nuggets’ scoring in the fourth, Morris sunk a much-needed triple after Denver turned the ball over and missed its first two field goal attempts of the quarter. From there, he closed the game alongside Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Gary Harris and finished as a team-high +17 in his 32 minutes.
“It’s not surprising,” Michael Malone said of Morris’ play Friday. “Monte has been incredible.”
Morris was efficient around the rim as well. He shot 4-6 from the restricted area, 5-7 overall in the paint, and had two gorgeous finishes at the rim over the seven-foot Frank Kaminsky.
It’s all about the details.
Morris’ play and his efficiency at the rim is a storyline from this Nuggets season that needs way more attention. Morris is currently shooting 28-37 (76.3%) in the restricted area — up from 66% last season — which slots him as the NBA’s second-best finisher at the rim among guards behind Zach LaVine (76.8%).
Through 15 games, Morris is shooting better in the restricted area than Montrezl Harrell, Bam Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo, albeit on significantly less attempts.
His success at the rim isn’t coming by accident. Morris focused on that aspect of his game during the two-month break Denver had between its run to the Western Conference Finals and training camp, and the lead-up to the season.
On the Nuggets’ second floor practice court inside Ball Arena, assistant coach John Beckett would put Morris through drills where he worked on finishing high off the glass over Denver’s long-limbed player development coach Boniface N’Dong. Away from the facility, Morris and his longtime trainer and current Nuggets Director of Youth Basketball Kieon Arkwright worked on similar drills with 7-foot-2 Bol Bol standing in to contest Morris’ shots at the rim.
Another ingredient to Morris’ improved interior finishing: added strength and muscle from workouts with Nuggets strength coach Felipe Eichenberger. Morris says he can absorb more contact around the rim now than in years past.
On the season, Morris is averaging a career-high 11.7 points (53.1 FG%, 35.3 3p%) to go with 2.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. In the pick-and-roll he’s been elite, averaging a stunning 1.51 points per possession as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations. That mark leads the NBA out of players with at least 40 pick-and-roll possessions. Kawhi Leonard is second at 1.27 points per possession.
Morris also opened the season by not recording a turnover over the first 100 fourth-quarter minutes that he logged. He’s turned the ball over just twice in 141 fourth-quarter minutes.
“I just love how confident and aggressive he’s playing,” Malone said. “We’ve said that for a couple years now. When Monte plays like that he’s a difference-maker. And that’s how he’s played every night for us.”
Morris’ night combined with another big-time showing from Jokic (31 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, three steals) got Denver above .500 for the first time this season. The Nuggets sit at 8-7, which at this point in the season is good for eighth in the West. Denver has successfully weathered the storm after a rocky start to its 2020-21 campaign.
Against Phoenix, the Nuggets also got strong offensive games from Gary Harris (19 points (8-12 FG’s) and Will Barton (17 points, four rebounds, two assists), who went 6-6 from the free-throw line in overtime. Murray tallied 18 points, seven rebounds and nine assists and hit a dagger 13-foot pull-up to ice the game in overtime after missing a potential game-winning jumper at the end of regulation.
But Morris’ play Friday and this season continues to shine, especially when Denver seems to need it most. He’s the perfect connector and second-unit captain who can step in with the Nuggets’ starters or closing five and set up Jokic, Murray and eventually Michael Porter Jr., who played 20 minutes in his first game back from a 10-game absence to due the coronavirus.
Morris is a facilitator first, which fits well alongside all members of that trio, but he’s also a threat with his jumper and in the pick-and-roll. It’s why Malone will have a hard time taking him off the floor at the end of games going forward.
“I just like how he controls the game,” Porter said of Morris. “He plays the right way. If he scores 20 one night or five one night it doesn’t matter to him. He’s just trying to play the right way and get his team a win.”
Morris also entered the season with a clear head and a laser focus. He signed a three-year, $27 million contract extension with the Nuggets prior to the season. Getting the deal done when Morris and his agent did was a priority.
“It got me at peace,” he said.
Now, Morris can play this season without having to think about his next contract. He doesn’t have to worry about stats or his role. Morris can just play his game, which is when he’s at his best.”
“I’m going out there focused, playing for other guys with a clear head,” said Morris. “And just trying to be the best version of me to help the team win.”