Phoenix Suns forward Markieff Morris rose from an also-ran on an also-ran team to one of the best bench players in the entire league. He has earned strong consideration for the league's Most Improved as well as Sixth Man of the Year.
This time last year, Phoenix Suns second-year forward Markieff Morris had just finished up a really frustrating, disappointing second season in the NBA.
Two years after being drafted onto a playoff regular to fill a needed role, Morris found himself on an island of misfit toys. The only saving grace was that his brother had joined him, yet Marcus' presence didn't spark any magic in their first three months together. In fact, Marcus' game resembled Markieff's so much that former coach Lindsey Hunter appeared have trouble putting them in the same lineups. At the same time, Marcus did something to get himself into the doghouse and off the playing court.
But then summer began. The GM who drafted Markieff was fired, replaced by a GM who wanted to upgrade the team's talent top to bottom. His two NBA coaches were long gone, along with their coaching staffs, replaced by a rookie coach known best for helping people learn how to shoot the ball.
Yet the Morris brothers were determined to succeed. They stayed in Phoenix most of the summer, helped work out draft prospects, willingly signed up for Summer League and found themselves on a good track by mid-July.
While nearly all of their 2012-13 rotation disappeared around them by the time training camp started, Markieff and Marcus Morris were two of only four returnees from the previous squad (with Goran Dragic and P.J. Tucker).
It was a bad year for Markieff. When he was engaged and aggressive, he was a good NBA rotation player. In games where Morris earned 30+ minutes of time, he put up 15.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Those are good numbers for any NBA player, let alone a second-year man with sketchy player development support.
Yet, those good games were few and far between. Only 13 times out of 82 games did Markieff earn 30+ minutes. And it's not like he had a lot of competition. By January, there was no need to play 32-year old Luis Scola big minutes on one of the worst teams in the NBA. But Scola played anyway because he put up consistent effort each night.
You can blame coaching and environment for Morris' waning effort and focus, and you'd be right. But still, players like Dragic and Scola were consistent contributors no matter bad it got. Morris was not.
Still, the Suns knew they had a talented player on a good, rookie contract who still had a ways to go. A better coach and better system might just be the tonic Morris needed.
McDonough and Babby traded or released 10 players from last year's roster. None of them were named Morris.
The Morris brothers vowed to return with a vengeance and improved games for the 2013-14 season. The first evidence of this turn of events was the Las Vegas Summer League. The Suns, behind the coaching of Jeff Hornacek, went 7-1 and generally dominated their competition. The leaders on that team were unquestionably the Morris brothers along with P.J. Tucker.
Markieff began to finish his big drives to the rim with more frequency than ever before. And he began taking fewer 15-20 foot shots. Most of his shots were within 15 feet of the basket.
The transformation wasn't yet complete in the preseason, though. Hornacek had the guys taking a ton of three-pointers as a staple in the arsenal of the offense, but Markieff and the other bigs were not invited to the party.
Instead Markieff was supposed to dive to the basket on offense and become the post-up presence the Suns did not otherwise have. For the most part, Markieff followed orders but still occasionally set up behind the three-point line on offense when he wasn't supposed to be. At least once I heard Hornacek imploring him to get into the paint, with Morris replying (as he ran back down the court) "But I was open, coach!". Morris wasn't being defiant. He was just following his instincts instead of the offense.
Regular season 2013-14
All summer and preseason, Markieff was a starter. He expected to remain a starter, while his brother would come off the bench as the first SF sub.
But then Morris was suspended for game one, giving Hornacek the chance to put Channing Frye in the starting lineup. The Suns went on to win that game, shocking the Trail Blazers. Literally. Blazers guard Damian Lillard said the Suns shocked them with their effort and solid play.
Morris never started another game. Being demoted like that could have been a killer to Morris' attitude, but on the contrary Morris and his brother found solace with each other.
Markieff and Marcus would become a great pairing on the second unit, now that Markieff had transformed his game to get scores closer to the basket.
"He's my twin brother," Markieff Morris says of how they play so well when paired on the court. "We're a team within a team."
Where they had both competed for mid-range shots in February and March, now their games didn't resemble each others at all. Marcus spent more time behind the three-point line, while Markieff stayed inside 15 feet of the basket.
"We don't want those guys floating around the free throw line," Hornacek said of the Morris brothers. "We have two guards - Goran and Eric - who want to penetrate. So if you sit in that area, you're basically just clogging it up."
"Those guys will penetrate, they'll dish it off to you," Hornacek said of the message to Markieff. "You'll get just as many shots on the baseline as you would standing around the free throw line. And then they will be higher percentage shots, dunks, takes to the basket where you get fouled. I think he's trying to do what we ask. Sometimes he forgets and he floats back up there, but that's a process with all these guys."
And they both flourished.
"I love it," Tucker said of how the Morris twins played. "The twins have accepted coming off the bench, playing together. With Ish coming off the bench with them, the way he pushes the ball you're going to get looks. The team scores, he gets it right back on them and they don't even know the ball is coming. That whole [bench] lineup is tough."
Markieff won the NBA's Player of the Week in November, putting up 22.8 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals per game in a 3-1 stretch for the upstart Suns. Morris closed the week with three straight outings in which he connected on .750 or better from the field (11-of-13, .846 on Nov. 6; 10-of-13, .769 on Nov. 8; 9-of-12, .750 on Nov. 10).
That week was just the start for Markieff. He spent most of the season in discussion for Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year (not yet announced). Morris' best month was March - where he scored 16 points, nabbed 7 rebounds and threw 2 assists in only 28 minutes a night.
His 11 double-doubles off the bench led the league. He scored the most bench points in the NBA. Jamal Crawford had more total points, but a big chunk of those were in the starting lineup.
But most of all, Markieff Morris became a hallmark of consistency after having a career marred by the opposite. He played 20+ minutes in 73 of 81 games, scored 10+ points in 59 of 81 games (including 40 of his last 43), and pulled down 5+ rebounds in 52 of 81 games. And he only committed 5+ fouls in 11 of 81 games.
In 20 games of 30+ minutes (again, all off the bench), he averaged 18 points and 8.5 rebounds and 2 assists.
For the year, he put up 13.8 points, 6 rebounds and 1.8 assists in just 26.6 minutes a night. He was often in the game in the fourth quarter as the Suns closed out wins, and just about the only post-up player on the team. By the end of the season, Morris' game resembled more of LaMarcus Aldridge than anyone else.
To his credit, he never once complained about not starting. Morris is a winner, and all he cares about is doing what it takes to win games. Who cares if you start as long as you're there to finish.
And Morris is an intimidator. He was never shy of stepping in for a teammate during scuffle. Morris earned 12 technical fouls, among the league leaders in that area. But nearly every one of them was earned in support of someone else. He didn't complain about getting fouled. He didn't harp on the refs. He just stepped in during scuffles, stopped them, and earned the T that way.
Markieff Morris has arrived. Where can Markieff go from here? Who knows. I'm certainly not going to predict it, since I was so off last summer. Chief Kieff has his destiny in his own hands.
Grade for the season: A