Denver Nuggets Friday Film Study: Monte Morris’ playmaking

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

Denver Nuggets point guard Monte Morris was selected with the 51st pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. After four years at Iowa State University, he played in just three games during his rookie campaign while on a two-way contract. Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Nuggets converted his contract to a fully-guaranteed deal. Although the team added veteran Isaiah Thomas to the point guard group to create some competition for the backup spot behind Jamal Murray, Morris was given the opportunity to be the team’s backup as Thomas recovered from previous injuries.

The rest was history.

Morris seized an opportunity presented to him and showcased his dependable play from the point-guard spot. The 24-year-old guard did exactly what he needed to do to be effective as both an on-ball initiator of the offense and an off-ball support player, which is exactly what he did in college.

Across his four years at Iowa State, Morris set the NCAA record for assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.65. Furthermore, Morris has four of the top seven single-season assist-to-turnover ratios that have been recorded by the NCAA (the data goes back to 2008).

That trend continued for Morris last season, as he finished with the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league at 5.71. Even when Morris attacked the basket and had to navigate around several defenders, he was still dependable with the ball. Morris posted the lowest turnover percentage on drives (1.8 percent) in the league during the 2018-19 season. On 439 drives, the third-year guard turned the ball over on just eight occasions.

“Coach Malone usually tries to run plays that I’m more comfortable with and that fit me, so it allows me to show off my skills,” Morris said during an appearance on the Nuggets 24K podcast back in November. “He always tries to put me in a position where I have to read a single guy and find the lob or the open shooter. He lets me play downhill and play free, so I give a lot of credit to him for doing that.”

Earlier this week, Morris spoke to Nuggets.com about his summer training and broke down some of his assists from the past season. In the video below, he explains his thought process when a play is unfolding, going through alley-oop lobs to Mason Plumlee, passes to corner shooters, and more traditional pick-and-roll plays.

“For him to come in as the backup point guard, which was a role people questioned coming into the season, I don't think there are any questions about it now and that's all because of how he played,” Will Barton said in his end-of-the-season availability. “How he ran the team, never turned the ball over, he was steady the whole year. To have a young guy like that in his first season, that's big time.”

While the recognition from national media and highlight packages wasn’t always there due to Morris’ focus on making the smart play at all times rather than look for the flashy pass, the Nuggets benefitted tremendously from his steady hand. You won’t see Morris attempting many no-look, behind-the-back passes. Instead, he will methodically breakdown a defense to find an open shooter or a big man around the rim.

“I go out there to just play basketball. I don’t try to do anything too flashy,” Morris said on the Nuggets 24k podcast. “I do what the defense tells me to do. Growing up I had friends always trying to make the flashy play. My mom was a point guard, so she kept telling me to look for the simple play. She told me to focus on the meat and potatoes. The more possessions we have without a turnover, the more chances we have to score.”

In the end, Morris averaged 10.4 points and 3.6 assists per game in 24 minutes per game, as he played in all 82 regular-season contests. As a starter in six games, Morris’ numbers increased to 15 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game, and he connected on 55.4 percent of his shot attempts (including 43.5 percent from three). Per-36 minutes, Morris averaged 5.4 assists to just one turnover.

Furthermore, when Morris was on the court this past season, Denver’s team turnover percentage dropped by two percent, which placed Morris in the 92nd percentile for his position.

Given the importance of bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense as the point guard, Morris’ ability to read the defense, make every type of pass and limit his turnovers is crucial for Denver’s second unit. As seen in the video below (which only included Morris’ first 22 games of the 2018-19 season), the former second-round pick can make any and every pass on the floor.

Alley-oop lob passes

Morris and Plumlee quickly formed a connection on the second unit and proceeded to terrorize opposing defenses with their pick-and-roll combination, which often ended with an alley-oop. In the below video, Morris uses his craftiness to manipulate the defense before throwing the lob pass, while Plumlee provides a nice big throwing target on the receiving end.

"I'm never really watching the guy that's guarding me,” Morris told Nuggets.com. “I'm more focused on the second guy or the third guy, the guy guarding the pick-and-roll or the weakside defender. I just go off of that and that shows me where to put the ball."

Often times, a situation may involve delaying the pass or faking a shot attempt to trick the opposing big man into leaving his defensive position around the rim, thus opening up the path for the alley-oop.

With Jerami Grant being added to the second unit, Morris will have another athletic, above-the-rim big man to throw lobs to.

"Jerami can bring (a lot of) the same things (that Mason can) but he can also shoot it really well,” Morris said. “He's also a lob threat, so he can get out in transition, run the lane and we can get some good lobs with him. With him, Mason and Malik, I think it'll be big time. I'm happy he's here because he can add another dimension to our game."

Passes to shooters

Another key pass for Morris is his ability to find open shooters after a pick-and-roll or drive to the rim unfolds. One of the key aspects of breaking down a defense is reading the off-ball and weakside defenders. Whether it is taking advantage of a defensive miscommunication or firing a quick pass to the corner shooter, Morris is always aware of where his teammates, and perhaps more importantly, where the defenders are on the floor during a given possession.

With the role that the 3-point shot has in the modern NBA offense, having a point guard that can initiate a pick-and-roll and survey the defense before firing a pass to an open shooter does wonders for the offense. Given the defensive attention that the Morris-Plumlee pick-and-roll attack generates, off-ball shooters such as Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez were able to capitalize in the second unit. During the 2019-20 season, that same opportunities should be presented to Michael Porter Jr. and Jerami Grant, with many of them created by Morris’ handling of the offense.

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