Film Session: Marcus Morris

Thursday February 2, 2012 10:56 AM

Film Session: Marcus Morris

Breaking down the skill set and versatility of Rockets' rookie Marcus Morris

Jason Friedman

HOUSTON - When the Houston Rockets selected Marcus Morris with the 14th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, there was little question that the club derived solid value from its selection. Morris’ college credentials spoke volumes: He entered the draft as the reigning Big-12 Player of the Year, having served as the best player on a stacked Kansas team that spent a significant portion of the 2010-11 NCAA campaign standing atop the college basketball mountain.

The question, then, was not whether Morris would be able to play at the next level, but rather how well he would be able to do so. That, of course, is the primary issue facing most players making the leap to the NBA. But for Morris, the answer to that question lay hidden within yet another riddle: Was the 6-9, 235 pound former Jayhawk better suited for the power forward position he manned at Kansas, or could he be better utilized at the three-spot? Listen to Rockets Vice President of Player Personnel Gersson Rosas speak on the subject and the team’s stance quickly becomes clear.

“We feel like he can be a good player as a power forward in our league,” says Rosas. “But he’s got the potential to be a great player in our league as a small forward.”

What led Houston’s front office and coaching staff to hold that belief? sat down for a film session with Rosas, who also serves as the General Manager of the Rockets’ D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to find out.

The above video shows off a sequence of plays that go a long way in revealing – and reaffirming – the Rockets’ rationale for having faith in Morris’ ability to make a successful transition to the small forward spot. His size obviously would give him an advantage against most players at the position but what really stands out when watching these clips is the smoothness with which he executes the array of moves in his arsenal. Little surprise, then, that he was in the process of tearing up the D-League during the three full games he played before suffering an ankle injury, averaging nearly 30 points and 12 rebounds per game in that stretch.

In the first play, Morris goes to work in the low-post, backing his man down with one dribble before turning over his left shoulder for an easy bucket in the lane. The 22-year-old has the ability to punish smaller defenders like this with regularity given his comfort level operating out of the low block. During his final season at Kansas, Morris ranked as one of the best post-up players in the nation, averaging 1.174 points per possession when posting up according to Synergy Sports. You’d expect that sort of production from a player blessed with his size, quickness and polished skill set, so it’s no surprise that Morris made a name for himself in college putting those gifts to good use at the power forward position.

Now combine that expertise with the gifts on display in the next two plays and you start to see why the Rockets are so enamored with Morris’ potential. In play No. 2, Morris runs down the court as the trailer on the break and receives a pass as the opposing team’s defense is still attempting to find its bearings. In one motion, Morris catches the ball, sets his feet, rises and fires from beyond the arc, effortlessly draining a triple in transition. Then on the final play of this sequence, Morris gets an opportunity to show off his face-up game as he receives the rock with his back to the basket, turns to square up his defender and patiently pauses to assess the situation before demonstrating his great footwork with a sweet spin move that frees him up for a fadeaway jumper that finds the bottom of the net.

Those are the sort of plays that illustrate what makes Morris special in the Rockets’ eyes. His ability to be able to both bully opponents down low and beat them on the perimeter can be a weapon for this team in the future and that goes a long way in explaining the Rockets’ reluctance to pigeonhole him as merely being a power forward.

“We value the versatility of his being able to play the three and the four,” says Rosas. “With a coach who’s open-minded to use him at whatever position is to the team’s benefit each night, his ability to play two positions gives us an advantage.

“Kevin McHale will put him in situations where, if he’s got a smaller perimeter player he can post-up, he can put him on the block and play him almost as a four with his game. And if he’s got a bigger, taller three that maybe can’t move his feet as well, he can put him out on the perimeter and attack him toward the basket or shoot over him, and that’s his game either at the three or the four which gives him, again, that key versatility that we value.”

This play begins with Morris receiving the ball on the wing beyond the 3-point line. Seeing his defender take away the driving lane to his right, Morris makes a quick decision to go left where he bursts toward the basket off the dribble before pulling up in the lane to finish while absorbing contact.

This highlights another significant area of strength for the Rockets’ rookie, who was an absolute handful for opponents a season ago whenever he got near the rim with the ball in his hands. Morris put up elite numbers around the basket, averaging 1.407 points per possession, while hitting more than 67 percent of his shots and drawing fouls nearly six percent of the time according to Synergy Sports.

To put those numbers in some perspective (and yes, this exercise is merely done as a frame of reference and is not meant in any way to draw parallels between the two players), consider the numbers being posted this year by LeBron James, one of the game’s elite finishers and someone who is having an historic season so far: To date, James is averaging 1.289 points per possession around the basket while connecting on 62 percent of his shots and drawing fouls about four percent of the time. To be sure, there’s a massive difference between what Morris did in college versus what James is doing against the best players in the world. At the very least, however, those results from Morris’ recent past bode well for what he should be able to do near the hoop in the future; a fact confirmed not just by the numbers, but from what the Rockets’ front office and coaching staff have seen for themselves as well.

“I’ll tell you,” says Rosas, “we’ve seen a lot of players here and (Morris) has probably got the best finishing touch around the basket; he’s got strong, quick hands and can make plays in the paint and around the basket which is why he’s such a good scorer. He’s a natural scorer; there are some things you just can’t teach and he’s got it offensively.

“We like him getting in the paint as much as possible. We want him drawing contact and getting to the free throw line. His touch and feel is so great that he makes bad shots, tough shots go in. We feel like he’s got good touch, good range and he’s going to be a consistent NBA shooter. He’s got the ability to separate from opponents with turnaround jumpers and midrange jumpers, but we feel like he can be more effective and more productive by attacking the basket and getting to the rim and drawing fouls because he’s such a physical player and he’s got great finishing ability as you see there. His ability to finish around the basket is pretty impressive for a young player.”

This play is downright special. It begins with Morris receiving the ball on the right wing this time, again with his back to the basket. Once more he faces up his defender before unleashing a ridiculous move that begins with a powerful rip-through, then sees him dribble behind his back before he finishes with a step-back jumper that barely bulges the twine on the way through the net.

Is this a high percentage scoring play? Definitely not. But against NBA defenses there are destined to be times when the best laid plans and offensive sets go awry, requiring someone to rescue the team by creating offense out of thin air. That, in essence, is what Morris displayed the capacity to do during this sequence.

During his introductory press conference with the Rockets, Morris raised eyebrows by invoking the name Carmelo Anthony when describing aspects of his game. And while he obviously has a long way to go in order to reach that rarified air, it’s plays like this – along with all the others – that make you realize what Morris was trying to say: he wasn’t claiming to be Carmelo; what he was saying, however, is that there are familiar traces of ‘Melo-esque skill in his repertoire. 

“He put it out there in his introductory news conference and you hate to put that over a guy, but he is a player who can play at a lot of different spots offensively,” says Rosas of Morris, when specifically asked about the Anthony comparisons. “He can play in the post, he can play at the elbow, he can play out on the wing, he can play behind the 3-point line, and that’s special. I think he’s shown he can score at the NBA level.

“He is offensively very gifted. He’s NBA-ready in terms of his offense. He can score in a lot of different ways; he can shoot from 3, he can attack the basket, he’s a guy who can post-up, if there’s a mismatch he can face-up, he’s got turnaround jumpers – his offensive game is pretty complete; there’s not a lot of situations where he can’t score.”

The Future

So what’s next for Morris? As Rosas mentioned earlier, offensively the rookie is probably ready for the NBA right now. But part of asking him to change positions is making sure he’s NBA-ready on the defensive end too, which is why he’ll likely head back to Rio Grande Valley for another stint with the Vipers as soon as he’s fully recovered from his injury.

“We’re investing a lot in his defense as a small forward and want to make sure that he gets enough opportunities to guard smaller players off the dribble, to chase guys off screens and to be more effective,” Rosas says. “But we feel good in that he’s a guy who works hard, values the game and is just tough; anybody’s who been around him knows he’s got an edge to him. He’s tough, he doesn’t back down and that shows up in his defense and in his rebounding – he’s a guy that will go out and get it.

“We feel as though he’s got some unfinished business left in the Valley. We had some objectives and some goals that we want him to accomplish while he was there. Unfortunately the injury slowed that down a bit but, again, our focus is on developing through playing. He’s worked hard and gotten healthy to a point where he’s going to be back on the floor but he’s a player that, for the objective and goals that we have for him, he’s got to get on the floor and play and there’s only so much you can do in practices here at the NBA level. We don’t want to stunt his growth and we’ve done this time and time again with the Patrick Pattersons of the world, with Aaron Brooks, with guys who need to play to develop and get better so that when they get an opportunity at the NBA level, they’re much more productive and effective NBA players.”

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