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Monte Morris is the answer to the Nuggets' backup point guard question

Harrison Wind Avatar
October 26, 2018

LOS ANGELES — Jamal Murray is getting tired of telling everyone how good Monte Morris is.

Murray has battled against his understudy in every practice since the start of training camp. He’s brought the ball up against his backup’s full-court pressure defense and has had to defend the slippery 6-foot-3 guard who comes loaded with a deadly pick-and-roll game in organized scrimmages dating back to this summer. If one player, coach or executive within the Nuggets’ organization knows just how talented the second-year pro out of Iowa State is, it’s Murray.

“It’s not surprising at all,” said Murray, reflecting on Morris’ career-high 20 points in the Nuggets’ 121-114 loss to the Lakers. “If you guys watched the practices, you don’t, but he’s like that.”

For most of the 108 minutes Morris has logged through five games this season, he’s been the player that Murray has lauded over the last few months. Thursday against the Lakers, Morris turned in a standout performance with 20 points and seven assists. Morris shot 6-9 from the field and hit both of his three-point attempts.

The least surprising portion of the “true” point guard’s stat line, as Paul Millsap labeled him, after Thursday’s loss? His seven assists and zero turnovers. After leading the country in assist-to-turnover ratio in three of his four years at Iowa State, Morris has handed out 22 assists to just two turnovers this season. He has the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league so far this year.

Morris’ pick-and-roll savvy was on full display against the Lakers.

Morris is giving the Nuggets a steady hand at backup point guard after a 2017-18 season where Denver spent most of the year searching for consistency at the position. Denver began last season with Emmanuel Mudiay behind Murray, an experiment that lasted just two months. Collectively, the Nuggets were 7.9 points per 100 possessions worse with Mudiay on the floor, and he was benched and then dealt at the deadline to New York as a part of a three-team trade. The Nuggets got Devin Harris from Dallas in return, and the veteran was serviceable for Denver down the stretch.

Morris is an upgrade from both Mudiay and Harris because he’s not only creating for himself and others, he’s also contributing on the defensive end of the floor. Morris has recorded five steals through five games, and on the season, Denver is giving up just 97.1 points per 100 possessions when Morris is on the court.

“He’s really handsy,” Murray said.

The 23-year-old, who only played 25 minutes for the Nuggets last season on a two-way contract, is rounding into form as a reliable backup for Denver. But it wasn’t a seamless transition. After Morris went scoreless in 13 minutes in the Nuggets’ home opener against the Suns, which marked just his third game as a pro, his phone lit up with a text from his coach. Malone wanted to ask Morris why he was playing so tentative and getting down on himself when he’d miss a shot. He also wanted to reinforce to the young point guard that he has a long leash as the captain of Denver’s second unit.

“He said he forgets that it’s my third official NBA game,” Morris said, describing his coach’s message in their 1-on-1 meeting. “So he’s just gotta let me go out there and play free.”

Morris took it upon himself to play more aggressive and live with the results, good or bad after that chat. Fortunately for Denver, they’ve been good. Morris is shooting 14-31 (45.2 percent) from the field after starting the year by hitting just three of his first 12 shots.

Against the Lakers, Morris dribbled into two threes, showing a quick and confident trigger on the jumper he recalibrated over the summer so that his guide hand wasn’t as involved in his shot, as was the case last year.

“I’ve always had good relationships with my coach,” Morris said. “And he wanted me to be aggressive, and it showed. When he let me know that, it definitely helped my confidence going forward.”

Thursday, Morris was on the court to end the first half and played nine fourth-quarter minutes. With Murray shooting an inconsistent ball to start the year, Morris is getting ample opportunities to play significant minutes late in games.

“I like big moments,” Morris said after Denver’s nationally televised loss to the Lakers.”I like games like this.”

Morris also got a chance Thursday to play alongside Murray. For once, the two point guards didn’t do battle against one another but got to play in the same backcourt. It’s something Morris and Murray hopes would happen after forming a promising chemistry when the duo often filled guard spots on the same team during pick-up runs throughout the summer.

“The best thing is I get to go out there and play the two, mess around a little bit. I already know the plays, which is great,” Murray said of playing with Morris. “And he does a good job running his team and controlling the tempo. I really like playing with him on the court.”

With the trust of his coaches and teammates, Morris is off and running as Denver’s backup point guard. The Nuggets signed Isaiah Thomas this summer to a veteran’s minimum contract, but he’s still without a timetable to return to the court. Once Thomas is healthy, Denver will face a dilemma: whether or not to continue to roll with Morris, or hand over the reigns to the Nuggets’ second unit to the former All-Star.

If Morris keeps up this level of play, he’ll make that decision for the Nuggets a difficult one.

“My confidence is at an all-time high right now, all because of coach,” Morris said. “Coach is a great coach and for him to take time out of his day to text me and then we met up and talked. It just meant a lot.”

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