Like baseball before it, basketball has become a numbers-driven sport, awash in metrics and analytics that break down every aspect of the game to an infinite degree. What to make of them all?
Every now and again a player or team produces a number that stands out in a crowd -- a statistic for the ages that everyone can clearly understand. A statistic like this one: 4.65-1.
That belongs to Iowa State’s 6-foot-3 senior point guard Monte’ Morris, a man Cyclone fans will miss more than their weekly paychecks. In four seasons, under the tutelage of two coaches, Morris crafted the best assist-to-turnover ratio in NCAA history. And that’s not just in Division I. We’re talking all classifications.
If a point guard hands out two assists for every turnover he commits, he’s operating in rarified air. He’s a coach’s dream. Now consider what Morris did. For four years, he took that 2-1 gold standard and obliterated it. And though he passed for a school-record 768 assists, all those dimes weren’t the most impressive part of the equation.
In 140 career games, Morris committed just 165 turnovers, an average of 1.1 per game. That’s a ridiculous number made all the more impressive considering Morris played more than half his games against teams from the Big 12, a league traditionally filled with great guards who can apply withering defense.
It’s safe to say none of those guards were able to consistently push Morris out of his comfort zone, or force him into careless mistakes. Morris doesn’t do careless mistakes, and that’s his ticket to the NBA.
“A couple of scouts told me down the stretch of the season they think he can be a second or third point guard in your rotation, play 15 minutes a game and not hurt you,” said David Hobbs, special assistant to Iowa State coach Steve Prohm, a former head coach at Alabama and for the nine seasons before this one, an NBA scout. “That sounds like a lukewarm endorsement. But that’s actually a good endorsement.
“Scouts are always looking for a guy who can give their starting point guard 15 minutes of rest, and while he’s in the game, not hurt their team. Just go in there, be solid and do the right things. That’s Monte’.”
"I knew if I worked hard, I would have a chance to be legendary."
Hobbs isn’t suggesting Morris is one-dimensional, and of course, in a game of numbers there are plenty to prove he’s not. Iowa State’s all-time leader in steals, Morris was also one of the best rebounding guards in the country -- as his 17-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple double against The Citadel last November would attest. And he can score, especially at the rim and in the midrange, but increasingly from distance. More on that later.
“I haven’t heard anything that people don’t like about him,” Prohm said. “He checks all the boxes. Coaches will like to coach him. He can play any style of half court offense or up-tempo. He can fit in with all type of guys. And he’s been around winning [two state high school championships in Michigan, three Big 12 tournament titles]. He understands that, at the end of the day, it’s about winning first.”
Morris learned early -- on the playgrounds of his native Flint, Mich. or in youth leagues -- a key to winning. Taking care of the basketball was a great place to start. That was affirmed by his mother, Latonia, who played and coached basketball. Her advice to toughen up her son, who was a little on the small side in his younger days, was to play against older competition.
“When I was like, 11, 12 years old, I was playing against guys 14 or even older,” Morris said. “I was always playing up, and guys were faster, and bigger and stronger. I had to find ways to win games, so I had to value the basketball. Once I started playing with people my own age, the game had slowed down for me, and it was a normal thing for me to take care of the basketball.”
Though Morris led Beecher High School to a couple of state titles and was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in 2013, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo decided not to recruit him, a decision he later came to regret. Morris was disappointed but not crushed. At Michigan State, he would have been one in a long line of stars, many of them from Flint, who helped maintain one of the top programs in college basketball. Morris eventually decided he would rather go to a place where he could make his own mark.
“I wanted to go somewhere and leave a legacy,” Morris said. “I didn’t want to go to a program that produced a Monte’ Morris every year. I chose Iowa State because I thought I had a chance to do something special. And now, I’m the winningest player in school history and the all-time leader in assists and steals.
“Not everybody can say that. I knew if I worked hard, I would have a chance to be legendary.”
Morris helped former coach Fred Hoiberg win Big 12 tournament titles in his first two seasons. After Hoiberg left for the Chicago Bulls and was replaced by Prohm, there was an adjustment year as player and coach became familiar with one another. But the Cyclones carried on, winning 23 games and advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. In Morris’ senior season, Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament again and lasted two rounds in the NCAAs.
“You honestly don’t know how things will work out,” Morris said of adjusting to a new coach. “But at the end of the day, you’ve got to take a chance. And I love coach Prohm. He’s been everything to me, and I’ve become like a part of his family.”
Prohm is intensely loyal, one reason Hobbs, his former boss at Alabama, is on the staff at Iowa State. The presence of Hobbs has helped Morris improve his NBA Draft stock.
Last summer while scouting Chris Paul’s point guard camp for the Utah Jazz, Hobbs ran into Morris at the hotel where both were staying and introduced himself. By coincidence, the next day Prohm called Hobbs and offered him a job.
He’d been out of the college game for several years by that time, but Hobbs eventually decided he missed working with young players. Though it meant leaving behind his beloved Birmingham, Ala., where his children and grandchildren live, Hobbs moved to Iowa, carrying with him a file on Morris. More specifically, Hobbs, as were other NBA scouts, was concerned about Morris’ jump shot mechanics, even though he’d always shot a decent percentage from 3-point range.
“When I first got there, I said to Monte’, ‘Hey man, why do you jerk your head around all the time when you shoot?’ ” Hobbs said. “And the reason was he didn’t really have a good set point. He had to move his head in order to peek around. He didn’t have an open window to the basket.”
For most of his career, Morris had launched the ball from in front of his face, because his right elbow chicken-winged away from his body. That forced his right forearm into his line of sight.
“He’d have to jerk his head to the side to be able to see,” Hobbs said. “And anyone who’s ever studied shooting knows you need a quiet head. That head weighs 40 pounds; you don’t need it to be moving around. To Monte’s credit, he understood that.”
Morris went to work last summer, hoisting 1,500 jump shots a day as he tried to groove the new stroke. He shot a solid 38 percent from 3-point range this season, up from 36 percent a year ago, but more important as it relates to the NBA, improved his range.
Thus, another of those boxes Prohm spoke of -- call it “can he make that funky shot work at the next level?” -- had been checked off. His shot was no longer funky.
No examination of Monte’ Morris would be complete without mentioning another box that was filled in basically the day he was born. Raised with tough love by a basketball coach, Morris, say those who know him best, is a high-character guy who’s always thinking of others.
That much was evident in February, when Morris helped raised awareness for Flint residents, whose drinking water had been contaminated after an ill-advised decision to switch the source from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River.
After Iowa grocery chain Hy-Vee heard Morris’ impassioned plea, it sent 11 truckloads of water to Flint. Morris was taken aback.
“I got tears in my eyes,” he said. “It felt good to be able to do something, to use whatever influence I have beyond the game of basketball, to help my hometown. They’ve had a rough time up there. I definitely wanted to try and help them.”
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