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).

2012-13 revisited

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.

Summer 2013

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.

Preseason 2013

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.

Summary

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

P.J. Tucker was already a valuable player due to his defense and rebounding, but his improvement as a shooter allowed him to take a big step forward this season.

Humble Beginnings

P.J. Tucker was one of the very few bright spots from the 2012-13 season. He went from out of the league to a summer league invite to a roster spot and eventually a starting role. He won over fans, teammates and coaches alike with his heart and hustle.

Tucker was very good in his role as a defender, rebounder and all-around hustle guy. However, at 28 years old with limited offensive skill and physical upside, there did not appear to be much room for improvement for the journeyman. Fortunately for the Suns, nobody told Tucker that.

Making the Jump

Tucker returned to Las Vegas for another run with the Summer Suns, and nearly led them to a championship. He provided value to the team as he was, but to play a bigger role he knew he had to become more of a threat offensively. So he determined to turn himself into a shooter.

He locked himself in a gym and came back this season with a new weapon: the corner 3-pointer.

Last year, Tucker took just 70 3-pointers and shot 31.4 percent. This season, he MADE 74 and shot them at a 38.7 percent clip. Tucker nearly tripled his attempts and quadrupled his makes from deep. Adding this one tool to his arsenal opened up the rest of his game and allowed him to be a much more effective player overall.

Report from <a href="http://www.basketball-reference.com/" mce_href="http://www.basketball-reference.com/">Basketball-Reference.com</a>.

Tucker started 81 games and was second on the team in minutes, and his scoring and rebounding numbers spiked. Tucker's newfound ability to space the floor and make teams pay for leaving him open allowed Jeff Hornacek to play him more minutes and it paid off or the Suns.

Pj_padlock_medium

Report from <a href="http://www.basketball-reference.com/" mce_href="http://www.basketball-reference.com/">Basketball-Reference.com</a>.

Tucker's advanced numbers improved as well. His offensive rating jumped from 109 to 113 and his defensive rating dropped from 109 to 106. While he didn't have the highest win shares per 48 minutes, he did finish third on the team in total win shares (tied with Gerald Green) due to his durability and reliability.

Excluding shots around the rim, the area where Tucker took most of his shots is the right corner. He shot 93 of them and made 33 for a fairly average percentage of 35.5. From the left wing, he only took 73 but his percentage spiked to nearly 50 percent. He was just 6-23 on above-the-break threes.

Unfortunately, Tucker's smart shot selection and knowledge of his own limitations did not extend inside the arc. Tucker's 2-point percentage dropped from 50.3 to 45.0. He shot just 50 percent in transition and 37.5 percent on offensive rebound plays. Tucker is a strong player in the open court and a beast on the offensive glass, but he is still just 6-foot-5 and has trouble finishing against the length one finds around the basket in the NBA. He can definitely get tunnel vision, but considering how hard he plays every second he is on the court, that's a trade-off I think the Suns are willing to make.

Despite his limitations, Tucker's improvement as a shooter means he is no longer an offensive liability. And that's all you're looking for, considering his best asset is his defense and rebounding.

Cleaning the Glass

Tucker really is one of the best inch-for-inch rebounders in the entire league. The only player 6-foot-6 or under with a higher rebound percentage than Tucker is Chuck Hayes, who is basically a midget center. The only other two perimeter players in double digits percentage-wise are Lance Stephenson and Russell Westbrook. Tucker is as strong a player as you'll find an he has long arms, great hands and terrific instincts. Toss in his high-intensity motor, and it's no surprise he's such a good rebounder.

Lockdown

Defense is how he made the Suns in the first place, and as his offensive game has improved he hasn't allowed his defense to slip one bit. Tucker was asked to guard the opposing team's best player every night, and not once did he ever back down. He isn't the quickest or most athletic of wings, but his strong, physical style of play and relentless effort allow him to make even the best of scorers work for every shot they get.

Tucker's tendency to get up in opponents's shirts and never leave earned him the nickname "Padlock" from Bright Siders.

Individually, Tucker locks down opponents as well as anyone. Per Synergy, opponents shot 32.3 percent against him in isolation, 35.2 percent as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and 29.3 percent off hand-offs. In comparison, Andre Iguodala - widely considered one of the very best perimeter defenders in the NBA - held opponents to 37.7 percent, 40.8 percent and  43.9 percent on those three play types. Iguodala forced more turnovers, but overall Tucker's results (on a much weaker defensive team) are very comparable.

In summary, Tucker is second on the Suns in minutes played and rebounds, third in 3-point percentage and win shares and the best perimeter defender on the team. And he did all of that for less than $1 million this season, making him the most underpaid player in the league according to Forbes.

Grade: A-

Tucker gets a slight downgrade for his transition adventures and struggles to finish among the tress, but taking everything into consideration he maximized his ability and played a huge part in the Suns' surprisingly successful season.

The Valley of the Suns crew is going 5-on-5 to reflect upon the Phoenix Suns’ memorable 2013-14 year. First up, we give our two cents on what we think are the most memorable games of the year....

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After years in hibernation, the Sunday Buffet is returning (at least momentarily) to the internets: a veritable plethora of basketball thoughts for your Sunday morning consumption.

No one asked my opinion on non-Suns topics, but I'm going to give them anyway.

Some people may remember me from years and years ago on the SportingNews fan blogs. I used to post every Sunday something called the Sunday Buffet (or maybe it was called 'Sunday Brunch'; it's been a long, long time).

Sunday Buffet is a smorgasbord of breakfast options centered around interesting news from all sports. As I am now solely on a Suns blog, I stuck that concept on the shelf for several years but decided to dust it off today in the wake of some interesting developments in the world.

Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes

The New York Knicks hired one of the best coaches in the history of the game to... run their basketball operations. And now, Phil jackson is reportedly interested in hiring one of the brightest young front office minds to... coach the team.

Brilliant! What could go wrong?

Well, let's see. Do you think there's any chance Phil might have an opinion on how Steve Kerr coaches the team? Of course, Phil will attend practices and such and their philosophy on coaching the team will be sympatico... until things go sour.

But even during the honeymoon, how many times will we be watching a Knicks game on TNT and there's a camera shot of a Knicks assistant whispering something in Kerr's ear during a timeout while handing him a folded up piece of paper? How many times will the camera shoot up to Jackson's seat to get his unvarnished reaction after a bad play or (gasp) a bad play call?

I really hope for Kerr's sake this marriage doesn't consummate.

Irish Weekend Fry Up

All I can do is shake my head. I've been surprised all my life at the racism that still exists in the US when it crops up from time to time. Of course, I know there are different races, but I don't ascribe to the notion that there is any qualitative difference between people of different colors and I don't suffer people who express an opposite opinion.

I can only hope that the NBA has the gumption to make a serious stand against the Clippers owner. Baseball did this years ago with Marge Schott - suspending her twice for racist and anti-semitic comments - and it is necessary to do it again. Eventually, Schott left her ownership position.

I truly hope the Clippers players win the whole championship now. All of it. Every single game from now on. All while their owner is being forcibly removed from his position.

And that's all I will say on this subject.

Breakfast Flambe

CTLVCOF

Man, that was a big-balls shot by Vince Carter yesterday to win the game over the Borg. 1.7 seconds left, pass into the corner, pump fake the bald spot, then BOOM!

Finally, after six frustrating years, the Roger Mason Christmas Day shot got turned around on those suckers. Suns fans will remember. Christmas Day 2008. Suns up by 2 after a glorious Grant Hill back door cut to lay the ball in with mere seconds left.

Spurs get the ball, with Tony Parker at the top of the key. Grant Hill guarding him. But Jason Richardson left Roger Mason to help on the Parker drive, got stuck in the middle, Parker tossed it to Mason and BOOM. Merry g@$$amn Christmas, Suns fans.

Finally, that three-to-win-the-game got turned on the #1 seed Spurs, who find themselves at a 2-1 deficit to the 8th seed. I have to admit, I love seeing the Grizzlies and Mavericks taking it to the vaunted Spurs and Thunder early in the first round of the playoffs.

The Suns fought hard to make the playoffs, but got sent home by the Mavs and Grizz in playoff-atmosphere games in the final weekend of the season. Mike Conley of the Grizzlies recently credited that round-robin for getting the Grizzlies into playoff mode early. Now the rest of the NBA gets to taste their moxie, and I'm loving it. The Western Conference is a BEAST.

Scrambled Eggs, Bacon, Cheeses and Sausage

There's nothing like playoff basketball in general. Intensity spikes. Players with big cajones step up, while others fade into the background.

Eventually, talent wins out for the most part, but early games in early rounds can be a wonderful testament to how much parity there is in professional sport.

#8 Atlanta is tied with #1 Indiana, 2-2

#6 Brooklyn leads #3 Toronto, 2-1

#5 Washington leads #4 Chicago, 2-1

#8 Dallas leads #1 San Antonio, 2-1

#7 Memphis is tied with #2 Oklahoma City, 2-2

#5 Trail Blazers lead #4 Houston, 2-1

That's six out of eight series either tied or upside down, and nearly every game coming down to the wire. I must say I've never enjoyed a non-Suns playoffs as much as this first round. Quite a scramble!

----------------

Got any more breakfast analogies, folks?

Feel free to add to the Buffet!

It has almost been taken for granted how greatly the Phoenix Suns improved from last season, and how much they exceeded expectations, but first year head coach Jeff Hornacek saw good things on the horizon for the team last August. The Suns more than lived up to his bold words.

When Jeff Hornacek spoke with Bright Side's own Jim Coughenour in August of 2013 to discuss the upcoming Suns season, the prognosis for this squad was decidedly modest to the vast majority of NBA analysts. Hornacek's own expectations were quite different, however, and he made a few optimistic statements regarding the prospects for the Suns on the offensive end that, at the time, sounded almost delusional in their bullishness.

There were plenty of skeptics then, myself among them, but the Suns easily achieved the specific performance measures Hornacek mentioned. It's easy to use a person's words in the past against them when they don't live up to those statements, so let's give Hornacek credit here for making confident statements, and then seeing his team deliver on them.

First of all, you really should go back and read all of Jim's piece here because it's a fantastic piece of writing, and a great basketball conversation between two sharp minds.

Are you back? OK, wasn't it brilliant? Now, let's break down a few of those Horny quotes.

In response to Jim's question of how many points the Suns will score this season:

"What did we average last year? (It was 95.2 by the way) Over 102.9, we would hope we can get there. If we can get there, I think that's a good start for us in our first year. So, hopefully, I would say yes.

Horny added the qualifier "hopefully,", but that was still a gutsy statement to say that he thought his team could improve their PPG average by 8. The 2012-13 Suns team was 29th in the NBA in O-Rating, and their new starting lineup for this season featured three players who had never been full-season NBA starters before (Tucker, Plumlee and Bledsoe), and another who was returning from a year off missed due to a potentially life-threatening heart ailment (Frye).

103 PPG? No problem! This season's Suns scored 105.2 PPG, and a faster pace wasn't the cause. The Suns were 9th in pace last season and 8th this season, but they were much more efficient with their possessions this year, taking smarter, higher percentage shots, and rising to 8th in O-Rating as a result.

The subject of greater efficiency and smarter shots leads us to our next quote:

"I think what else will help them is when we really get these guys to buy into the teamwork factor that when you don't have the shot right away, then you can drive it and create and dish it out to someone who is open. When you look at the good teams, that's what they do. They either have the shot or they're creating something for somebody else. Consequently, they'll get more open looks, which will help their percentages. I think that every guy that you saw on this team last year can have a better shooting percentage in the coming year."

And that is exactly what happened.

The only returning players from last season were Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris, but I'll extend this view to the Suns entire regular rotation, which consisted of those four plus Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye, Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green and Ish Smith. Effective FG% consolidates raw FG% and 3-point % into one measure, so it's what I'll use here. The Suns rotation, their eFG%s this year as compared to last:

2012-13 eFG% 2013-14 eFG% Plus/Minus
Dragic 49.1 56.1 +7
Bledsoe 47.3 52.2 +4.9
Tucker 49.8 49.1 -0.7
Plumlee 23.8* 51.7 +27.9*
Green 43.5 54.7 +11.2
I. Smith 37.7 42.5 +4.8
Mook Morris 45.2 51.8 +6.6
Keef Morris 44.2 50.7 +6.5
*Extremely small sample size

Tucker was basically flat, but anyone watching the way he added the corner 3 to his game this season could see the way he improved as a shooter. Every other player was a big fat plus, with Dragic transforming from a pretty good player to an All-NBA candidate, Green reviving his career with a huge leap, and the Morris twins growing into solid players before our very eyes.

Hornacek made his bones as an assistant by being a shooting coach. As a player, Horny built himself from being a mutt of a 2nd round draft pick to becoming one of the greatest shooters of his era in the NBA. Shooting mechanics are part of that, but so is smart shot selection and total team basketball.

Green still displayed, as the esteemed Scott Howard noted, an "array of crazy-ass shots," but he also showed discipline in getting to his spot above the break to drill 3s in transition. That was a pretty play, and Green ended up making 204 3-point shots, converting them at a 40% rate. Horny was able to get an amazing performance out of Green, an athletic freak whose career had been left for dead after he flamed out in Indy.

Dragic was honored with the NBA Most Improved Player award, the Suns increased their win total by 23 games, and Hornacek finished 2nd in Coach of the Year voting, narrowly losing to basketball savant Gregg Popovich. Who thought all this was possible? Well, Hornacek, in measured language, saw some of it.

Many coaches speak in vague generalities and cliches, fearful that their statements will later be used against them. Hornacek spoke fairly openly in that August interview, and what he said proved to be well worth the listen. The Hornacek report card will be posted later, and this is not it, but you can probably tell what grade I would give him.

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