Markieff Morris could feel it from 1,300 miles away. Just by watching his television screen as Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Thunder bunch battled with other NBA foes, Morris could tell there was something different about being a part of this Oklahoma City Thunder group and playing in this state. That inkling, plus a recruitment effort by the Thunder’s leaders and front office, resulted in an official signing on Wednesday and Morris’ first two practices with the group before this weekend’s home-home back-to-back.
“You can just see the passion they play with, the smiles, how happy they are for each other when the other one is going good,” said Morris. “That as a player, that’s one of the best things you look for when you’re trying to pick a team, the family atmosphere and how guys feel about each other.”
“The atmosphere is unbelievable. Every time I came to play here I always said this is one of the toughest places to play,” added Morris. “It’s right up the street from Kansas, so I’ve been here plenty of times and I’ve played here over 20 times when I was in college, so I’m used to it.”
Morris was a Kansas Jayhawk in college, playing alongside his twin brother Marcus, who plays in the NBA for the Boston Celtics. Markieff, a native of the City of Brotherly Love, knows more than a bit about brotherhood on and off the basketball court. He recognized it immediately when watching the Thunder play, particularly noting that the team’s two superstars completely clicked.
“You can tell it’s genuine between those guys. I told those guys when I was talking to them, the whole team, the whole organization, you can tell is a family atmosphere,” said Morris. “Both of those guys, in general, they do it on both ends of the court. They pride their selves on going hard. PG is on another level. Russ has been on another level. PG is top three in the MVP right now in my eyes.”
“We welcomed him with open arms,” added George. “We had fun, walked him through plays and stuff, so he’s up to speed. But that was mostly everything that we wanted to give him. He’s a baller, he knows how to play. We just wanted to make him feel comfortable right away and just welcome him.”
Video: Meet Markieff Morris
Part of being in this Thunder family means earning what you get, and Morris will be fighting for playing time in a way that only elevates the group. Over his 8 seasons in the NBA, Morris has been an extremely consistent power forward with an ability to do a myriad of things well on the floor. From 2013-14 through 2018-19, Morris has averaged between 11.5 and 15.3 points per game in each season and for his career has shoot 45.0 percent from the field, 33.8 percent from three and 77.9 percent from the free throw line while chipping in 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.
Morris also has the intelligence, physicality, quickness and toughness to guard in the Thunder’s various schemes, whether it be aggressively trapping a smaller ballhandler, switching out onto a guard or banging in the post.
“Markieff has always looked at himself as a defensive-orientated player that can guard a lot of different positions,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “He’s got the ability to move his feet and play people on the perimeter and I think he’s got the size, the strength and the physicality to play guys from the low post.”
“Whatever makes the team better. I can show up, I can blitz a pick-and-roll, I can switch, whatever’s comfortable for the team,” Morris said.
After playing the last four seasons with the Washington Wizards under former Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks, Morris even has a sense of the terminology the Thunder likes to use defensively. Earlier this season, Morris took a tough blow above the shoulders suffered from transient cervical neuropraxia, which causes neck and upper back stiffness and hasn’t played since Dec. 26, but he was cleared completely by doctors two weeks ago and even spent the All-Star Break battling his brother Marcus in some one-on-one.
“The one thing that was very, very evident, being around him is how hard he works to maintain his conditioning,” said Donovan. “Sitting out the amount of time he’s sat out without playing, he’s had to do a lot of different things to keep himself in conditioning and in shape… He’s probably done as good of a job that you probably can do to maintain his conditioning.”
Morris will be finding his basketball rhythm with this Thunder group, but in the meantime his teammates know that the mentality he brings is one that will fit right in. On a squad with pure competitors like Westbrook, George, Dennis Schröder and more, Morris has that grit and determination to rise to the occasion for his teammates. The 29-year old has played in 19 playoff games and is a flexible forward who can even be a small-ball center at times.
“(Morris) is a guy that prides himself on really being able to do a lot of different things: defending, rebounding passing, posting up, shooting,” said Donovan. “He wants to do whatever he can do to try to help improve our team and to try to help contribute to our team.”
“Kieff is battle-tested. He’s a playoff player,” noted George. “He has that toughness and that experience coming towards the playoffs. So our job for right now is to get him comfortable with us, get him used to the swing of things, our offense, our defense, because we’re going to need him. He’s a bigtime player come playoff time.”
Even to Donovan it is unclear exactly when or for how long Morris will suit up with this Thunder squad, but on an already talented team there is still room at the table for one more veteran. Morris picked the Thunder out of a handful of contending teams that he could have chosen. The opportunity was right. So was the culture and the mission.
“I just came to try to help the team push to the ultimate goal and that’s winning a championship,” said Morris. “I’m just ready to play man. I’m excited to be here. I know a bunch of guys on the team already and I’m ready to go.”