Monte Morris always stays locked.
Scroll through Morris’ Instagram or click through his latest posts on Snapchat and you’ll see the Iowa State product’s favorite emoji plastered all over his latest pictures and videos. Sometimes Morris tags the locked emoji onto the end of an IG caption. Sometimes it stands alone accompanying a video.
Morris started using the emoji over a year ago. It began as a secret code of sorts, something that he sent into social media world to represent the laser-like focus that he brings to the court. Now, fans and teammates flood the comment section of his posts with the same gold and silver lock, pledging their allegiance to Morris’ movement.
“It’s just about being locked in,” Morris said. That’s all.”
Morris’ locked-in mindset has been front and center of one of the biggest storylines from the Nuggets’ first 20 games. Denver’s bench is the most dangerous second unit in the league.
Led by Morris and his league-best assist-to-turnover ratio, Denver’s second unit is trouncing opponents. The Nuggets have played a predominantly bench lineup (three or more bench players on the floor) the second-most minutes this season league-wide behind the Magic. The Morris, Malik Beasley, Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee, and Jamal Murray lineup has outscored its opponent by 24 points in 98 minutes, good for the second-best point differential among the league’s most-used second units.
Meet the cast of characters that make up the best bench in the league.
No one on the Nuggets has benefited more from Morris’ pure point guard play than Plumlee. Out of Plumlee’s 21 made field goals this season, Morris has assisted on 14 of them. Typically, it’s Morris hitting Plumlee with a lob or a perfectly placed pass while the big man is rolling from the top of the key.
Plumlee has also benefited from Morris’ willingness to get to the rim. Morris is shooting under 50 percent from 5 feet and in this season and isn’t exactly an expert finisher, but Plumlee always follows the ball to the rim and is usually in the right spot to clean up his misses.
Plumlee is shooting 60.6 percent from the field, his highest percentage since his rookie year. He’s also up to 71 percent shooting at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass, which slots Plumlee in the 75th percentile among NBA bigs. Plumlee even sunk the first three of his career this season in a late shot-clock situation against Utah.
His counting stats (6.9 points, 5.0 rebounds per game) don’t jump off the page, but the Nuggets are a better team with Plumlee on the floor. Plumlee leads the Nuggets in Net Rating, he’s second in the league in Defensive Rating and is fifth overall in ESPN’s Defensive Plus-Minus statistic. He’s also averaging nearly a block per game and had four rejections versus Oklahoma City.
Plumlee nearly sent Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot back to France with this second-quarter flattening.
“From an impact perspective, he is a sixth-man of the year candidate,” Malone said.
One of the reasons why Plumlee has a little more bounce to his step this season? He’s fully healthy following offseason surgery to repair a core muscle injury that he played through last year.
“A lot,” Plumlee said when asked how much the injury hindered him last season. “… I feel very healthy. I had a really good surgery. I feel like I’m moving better for sure.”
A clean bill of health has injected the typically reserved Plumlee with some swagger. He’s throwing Jokic-esque over-the-shoulder passes to cutters and breaking out the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag when blocking shots.
Plumlee is hoping the finger wag brings some attention to his rim protecting ability that he feels has gone unnoticed at times by scorekeepers.
“I got in a tiff with the league, and I told them ‘I’m blocking shots and ya’ll aren’t counting them,'” Plumlee said. “So I guess it will draw some attention to it.”
At 6-foot-5 with a high-arcing three-point shot, Beasley has developed into an integral piece to Denver’s bench unit this season as he consistently flashes the upside that would have made him a lottery pick in 2016 had a leg injury not hurt his draft stock.
Beasley is the Nuggets’ best athlete and a powerful dunker who gets his teammates off the bench with a single leap. Even his layups are exciting.
But what Beasley has started to show on a night-to-night basis, which will likely determine just how high he can climb in the league, is an improved and consistent jumper. Beasley is shooting 37.1 percent from three this year, up from the 34.1 percent clip he hit three-pointers at a season ago. He’s also hitting a healthy 38.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes.
One reason for his uptick in three-point percentage is a grueling offseason workout regiment where Beasley estimated that he attempted around 20,000 shots over the summer months. Beasley tweaked his form with trainer Marc Campbell, who noticed that his client had developed a bad habit of leaning backward when shooting.
‘When I shoot, don’t fade back,” Beasley said. “I stay in my shot. Like I’m posing for a picture.”
Beasley is 9 of his last 15 from three. The mechanical tweaks he made this summer are paying off. The four threes he hit last week in Milwaukee were a career high.
Beasley could be getting more consistent minutes than the 13-25 he regularly plays for the Nuggets if he was on a lottery-bound team instead of one that’s fighting for homecourt advantage in the first round. He knows that, which is why he’s attacking this season hungry to improve every day. The 22-year-old loves being a part of the Nuggets organization and has his sights set on entering an NBA starting lineup one day. He’s enjoying the grind of pushing Harris and Denver’s starters on the practice floor.
“Its always been a goal,” Beasley said. “Right now, I’m behind Gary Harris. He’s making me better every day. I’m a starting shooting guard who happens to play off the bench. That’s how I see it.
“I have all the respect for Gary. I’m just going to keep working hard, and my time will come, whether it’s playing with him, or playing on a different team, or whatever it is. I’ll start someday.”
Like most other Nuggets, Lyles is mired in a harsh shooting slump to begin the season. After breaking out in a 20-minute per game role for Denver last year and hitting better than 38 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, Lyles is shooting just 16-62 (25.8 percent) from three this season.
To compensate for an absent three-pointer, Lyles is drifting closer to the basket when looking for his offense. It’s working.
Lyles is shooting 77.4 percent from the restricted area over his last 10 games. In a league where teams are more focused than ever on finding mismatches within their regular offense, Lyles is making sure he punishes smaller defenders when defenses try and switch.
“With our unit, we do a good job of finding mismatches,” Beasley said.
“When Trey starts making his threes, which we know he will, then he’s really going to take off,” Malone said. “But if you’re not making shots, ‘Well how can I impact the game in another manner?’ And Trey has done a really good job lately of just driving the ball getting to the rim, scoring for himself and making plays for his teammates.”
Throughout the preseason, Lyles was the unquestioned offensive focal point of the Nuggets’ second unit. The second that Lyles had a smaller defender pinned on his backside, Morris and Denver’s other ball handlers would audible from Denver’s organic offensive flow and look to get the ball in the hands of their 6-foot-10 forward.
That chemistry, which was developed over the summer during pick-up runs on Pepsi Center’s practice floor where the Nuggets would conduct full-squad five-on-five scrimmages that pitted Denver’s starters and bench against one another, has started to show up once again.
Denver’s starting point guard ties the Nuggets’ bench together, and playing with Denver’s second unit highlights Murray’s best skill at 21 years old: his shotmaking.
Murray still logs plenty of minutes with the Nuggets’ starters and he’s still viewed as a franchise cornerstone in Denver. But with Jokic, Harris and Paul Millsap off the floor, Murray can look for his shot early and often alongside lower usage players like Morris, Beasley, Lyles and Plumlee.
While Morris brings the ball up, Denver loves to run Murray off screens, where he’s underrated as an off-ball mover. The Nuggets can also send ball screen after ball screen towards Murray, giving the playmaking guard all the tools he needs to find an offensive rhythm.
With a pure point guard like Morris setting the table, Murray has found success as of late as a scorer. He’s not doing it in a terribly efficient manner – shooting under 40 percent from the field – but Murray is averaging roughly 17 points per game over his last five matchups. A lot of those buckets have come while he’s played alongside Denver’s bench.
Malone counseled Murray after a practice last week in Milwaukee following a 4-14 shooting night against New Orleans and stressed to his young point guard that if his shot isn’t falling, then he’s got to impact the game in other ways like with his defense, rebounding and by making plays for his teammates.
Murray has done that as of late. It’s a sign of maturity from the 21-year-old who had one of the best passing games of his career Saturday against the Thunder. Murray finished with eight assists — his second-highest total of the season. He’s also recorded at least five assists in eight of his last 10 games and is averaging 5.2 rebounds over his last five games.
“He’s reading the floor better,” said Malone. “And I’m always on him about over dribbling. He has a tendency to sometimes to dribble too much, dribble the air out of the ball, and he has to learn to be more efficient. When he’s drawing two defenders, he’s done his job and (against the Thunder) he hit Nikola a couple times, big baskets on that pocket pass and Nikola made the right play.”
If you erased just Morris’ name from the stat sheet, his numbers would lead you to believe that the 6-foot-3 guard, who tips the scales at just 175 pounds, making him one of the 10 lightest players in the league, is a 10- or 15-year veteran with thousands of NBA reps under his belt.
Morris played just 25 minutes for the Nuggets last season and entered Summer League in July with a mountain of expectations to play like one of the best lead guards in Las Vegas. Morris not only lived up to the billing but continued to improve as the offseason progressed and at every turn has surpassed what Denver thought it was getting from its backup point guard this year. At the quarter pole of the regular season, he’s emerging as one of the better backups in the league and is giving the Nuggets something they didn’t have for much of last season in a steady reserve point guard.
On the season, Morris has handed out 81 assists to only 11 turnovers. His 7.36 assist-to-turnover ratio leads the league, and Morris is on pace to surpass Muggsy Bogues (5.94) for the best assist-to-turnover ratio in NBA history. Morris is turning the ball over only .8 times per 36 minutes and has committed just one turnover in 144 fourth-quarter minutes.
Unlike Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ leading assist man who’s averaging 7.2 per game, Morris’ dimes aren’t necessarily flashy. He just takes what the defense gives him.
“I always want to go out there and take care of the basketball, and I know if I take care of the basketball, we get more possessions,” Morris told BSN Denver. “But its always been in my DNA to just go out and play. I’ve been playing my same game for years now. I’ve always been blessed to have a good ratio. I don’t try to go out and not make mistakes. I just go out there and play the game the right way.”
Morris’ ball security means Malone trusts the Iowa State product to run his unit when he takes the floor. Morris has the freedom to call plays out of timeouts, a rare privilege for an inexperienced backup point guard on a playoff-caliber team.
“I just try to run stuff for whoever’s hot,” Morris said.
After reworking his jump shot this summer at the coaching staff’s request, Morris has quickly emerged as one of Denver’s more reliable shooters from distance too. His 42.5 percent three-point percentage ranks second on the Nuggets behind Juancho Hernangomez and Morris is hitting an elite 45.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. He’s also been a handsy defender, who’s quickly gaining a rep around the league for the full-court pressure defense he’s deployed on opposing point guards this season.
“He’s just locked at all times,” said DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell. “It looks like it on the court too.”
Trailing by double digits late in third quarter of an early-season matchup against the Bucks, Morris and Denver’s bench flexed their muscle. Captained by their dependable point guard, the Nuggets’ second unit outscored the Bucks 21-6 over the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter. Morris handed out five assists on nine Denver field goals during that stretch. Lyles and Beasley chipped in nine and eight points respectively on a combined 7-11 shooting. Plumlee provided the defense with a blocked shot and also tallied the Nuggets’ final two assists of their early fourth-quarter run. Murray added two baskets of his own.
Denver’s comeback lost its steam a few minutes later when the Nuggets’ starters couldn’t close their end of the deal over the game’s final five minutes. Milwaukee finished off Denver by outscoring Murray, Beasley and the rest of the Nuggets’ starters 16-5.
The spirited run to begin the quarter wasn’t the first time Denver’s second unit has bailed out the Nuggets’ starters this season. And it won’t be the last. Following Morris’ lead, Denver’s bench has stayed locked in all year as the Nuggets have raced out to a 13-7 start.
It’s the most dangerous second unit in the league. With an average age of 23-years-old, they’re just getting started.
“We have a lot of young guys who are trying to prove a point in this league,” said Beasley.