Next men up: Replacing Morris will require team effort

By Zach Rosen

On Friday, the Wizards announced that Markieff Morris will miss six to eight weeks after having successful sports hernia surgery in St. Louis. Morris, the team’s starting power forward, developed discomfort over the last month and it was determined that surgery was necessary.

Morris averaged 14.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season. His offensive production, defensive versatility, and mental toughness will be missed as the Wizards begin the 2017-18 season. Morris was undoubtedly one of the Wizards’ most important players last season. When Morris was at his best, he was the glue that made the Wizards stick. He finished the regular season shooting 48.0% from the field and 39.1% from 3-point in the team’s wins. But, in the Wizards’ losses, Morris only shot 42.3% from the field and 32.1% from beyond the arc.

Who will replace Morris in the starting lineup? We may not know officially until opening night, but there are a few solid candidates.

Last season, when Morris missed six games, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Jason Smith split starts. When Oubre was in the lineup, Otto Porter Jr. went from the three position to the stretch-four. Oubre broke out for a 15-point game on 7-for-12 shooting against the Hornets on December 14 in Morris’ absence. When Smith went in, he filled in as a taller stretch-four alongside Marcin Gortat in the frontcourt. Smith had 17 points and seven rebounds against the Nets on March 17 with Morris banged up.

The coaching staff will also look to newcomer Mike Scott to step up. Scott played his first five seasons in the league with the Hawks before being traded to the Suns and waived the next day. In 2015-16, Scott’s last full season, he was an important part of the Hawks’ 48-34 team. His 95.3 Defensive Rating was 7th in the NBA among players who played in 30 or more games. Along with this impressive defensive season, Scott made 52.5% of his 2-pointers and 39.2% of his 3-pointers. Scott's ability to guard multiple positions and play as a stretch-4 defensive specialist makes him a valuable asset.

When it comes down to it, second year head coach Scott Brooks and his players have made it clear that Morris’ absence simply means it’s the next man up. The starting role is up for grabs right now, but Brooks isn’t short of options.

“It’s not the ideal situation when you have one of your starting players out for an extended period of time with surgery, but it’s part of the game,” Brooks said at Media Day. “You have to have that next man mentality, which we have, and it’s going to open up opportunities for guys to step up.”

“We have versatility; we have depth; we can go in many different directions. We can go small, we can throw Kelly [Oubre Jr.] in there, we can throw Jason [Smith] in there. Mike Scott we can put in there. But there’s a lot of players that we can throw into the mix. We will miss him, but I feel confident in the group.”

Smith worked primarily on extending his mid-range game to the 3-point line this summer. He watched film and worked with the team’s development staff to make sure John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Porter can see him in the right spots when they drive to the rim. Smith was the team’s energizer off the bench last season, providing a spark in big spots all season long. He was the first guy off the bench to high-five his teammates. Smith started one night for Morris and didn’t play the next. He embraced that role, but now he wants to prove he can be a more consistent player.

“I know Keef is going to be out for a little bit, but we also have the next man up mentality,” Smith said of Morris’ absence. “With the addition of Mike Scott, with me coming back this year, with Ian [Mahinmi] being healthy, and also we could go with the small lineup too.”

Oubre, still only 21, worked tirelessly over the summer on his game. He specifically worked on changing his shot, moving his elbow out and away from his eyes to improve his vision when he shoots the ball. Oubre is a lock-down defender who is only getting better on that end of the floor. His “three-and-D” potential is evident, and he’s not shy about what starting in Morris’ place will mean to him.

“Just being that body that is going to be there to fill in,” Oubre said when asked about starting with Morris out. “Next man up. Just being prepared and being ready for whatever situation is thrown my way. I’m ready for the moment whenever I’m blessed enough to be in that starting lineup. I’ll definitely give it my 110 percent all.”

By inserting Oubre in the starting lineup, Porter would move to the four-position. The Wizards saw success with a small-ball lineup of Wall, Beal, Oubre, Porter, and Marcin Gortat last season. That lineup was among league leaders in net rating in the NBA, according to Porter is familiar with the stretch-four role, and he knows Brooks will feel out the situation and give the team the best chance to win with whatever lineup he rolls with. Brooks acknowledged that the team will consider using the lineup, but does not want to overextend any player’s minutes to fill the void.

“It's a position I've played before and I think I can definitely step up and fulfill that role until he gets back,” Porter said at Media Day. “But we have guys here [too]. Mike Scott, he can step in as a veteran guy that can come in and play the four with me also. We can go small. Coach Brooks is going to definitely evaluated the situation and put us in the best situation moving forward." 

Scott is less explicit about his starting expectations, but he’s certainly an option the coaching staff is considering. Scott’s teammates have raved about his play over the summer, and he hopes to prove that he can be an important player off the bench. Scott is a pick-and-pop 3-point and defensive specialist who can really fly. Whether or not he’s inserted into the starting lineup doesn’t seem to really be on his mind.

“I just want to come in, I don’t want to do too much,” Scott said recently on Off The Bench. “I just want to fit in, I feel like I can fit in, provide for the team shooting, being versatile, and that’s all I’ve been doing. Just playing my game, not trying to do too much. This team already is a great team and already has a great base. I just want to fit in where I can.”

“I feel that I can be that guy off the bench, just a spark of energy. That’s the main thing, play with a lot of energy; change the game. Kind of the same thing I did the first four seasons I was with the Hawks.”

Whomever the next man up is, Brooks will not allow the team to have excuses.

“The thing that we will always do and that mindset we always will have is that no excuse mentality,” Brooks said. “We had it last year. Even when we had a tough start, we didn’t point fingers, we didn’t blame it anybody, we didn’t feel sorry for ourselves, we just kept doing our jobs. And I think that’s a good approach to have. He [Morris] will be back soon, don’t know soon. But he will be back.”