Season in review: Monte Morris and a behind-the-scenes breakout

Denver Nuggets guard Monte Morris (11) reacts in the fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings at the Pepsi Center.
Feb 13, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Monte Morris (11) reacts in the fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

When the Denver Nuggets embarked on their 2018-19 season, only one question remained about the roster: the backup point guard position.

The year before, Denver was set with Jamal Murray as the starter and Emmanuel Mudiay as the backup, but one player was left lurking in the shadows. That player was none other than Monte Morris, who spent most of his rookie season in the G-League and only played in three regular season games for the Nuggets.

Morris’ rookie season certainly did not provide him the opportunity to show what he could do, so the Nuggets let the former second-round pick in 2017 (51st overall) play Summer League last offseason. Not only did Morris excel for the Nuggets summer league squad, but he was arguably the best player at the tournament, which led to Denver signing him to a three-year, $4.8 million contract extension.

With the Nuggets offering Morris a long-term deal, it all but locked him into Denver’s rotation to start the season. Things got a little tricky when the Nuggets signed Isaiah Thomas in July, but the veteran point guard was still rehabbing to the start of the regular season anyway, which meant Morris’ spot was set in stone.

After averaging just 3.3 points and 2.3 assists per game in 25 total minutes during his rookie season, the Nuggets were taking a chance on Morris. That gamble certainly paid off as Morris played in all regular season and postseason (14) games for Denver en route to becoming one of the most reliable bench players in the NBA.

In the regular season, Morris averaged 10.4 points, 3.6 assists and 2.4 rebounds, while playing 24 minutes per game. In the playoffs, Morris’ numbers dipped as he averaged just 16 minutes per game — smaller rotations — and averaged just 5.4 points and 2.6 assists per game.

The number that really stands out from Morris’ year was his assist to turnover ratio (6.00), which was sixth best in the NBA. Morris did a phenomenal job all season long of distributing the basketball, while also having the presence of mind to take care of it.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into how Morris developed in 2018-19 and some areas of his game he could still improve on moving forward.

Ways Monte Morris grew as a player

Where to begin is the real question here as Morris took a tremendous jump in his sophomore season. After playing just 25 minutes during his rookie season, Morris took advantage of the opportunity and put together a campaign that arguably could have made him the most improved player in the NBA.

Morris bounced back and forth between the G-League and the NBA during his rookie season and went into last offseason having to prove the Nuggets organization his worth. After accomplishing just that, Morris has grown into one of the best backup point guards in the NBA — if not the best — and has become one of the Nuggets most consistent all-around players.

Here are the three biggest takeaways from where Morris improved this past season.

Trust 

It is a small five-letter word, but trust is what Morris instilled in his coaches, teammates and fans with his play this season. From barely seeing the floor during his rookie season to playing meaningful playoff minutes, Morris became a player that coach Malone could rely on night in and night out.

“He has proven it,” Michael Malone said on Morris after a December victory over the San Antonio Spurs. “Trust is such a hollow word at times, but we try to live by it. The thing about Monte Morris, for me, is that he has proven to be trustworthy. End of the game, after the free throw they were shooting, I said, ‘Monte. I want you handling in the pick and roll. I want you making the play.’ Because he has shown me time and time again that he is capable of doing so.”

“Littlest guy on the floor — least experienced guy on the floor — coming up in big, big ways time and time again. I am thankful he is a part of our family.”

Morris became such a trustworthy player that often closed games with the Nuggets starters as he provided Denver a ball handler that always made the right play. Also, having one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the NBA backed up what the eye test saw, which was Morris constantly playing at a high level, no matter the scenario.

Balanced scoring from three-point range and in the paint

We have already touched on how Morris always seems to make the right decision on where to go with the basketball, which goes hand-in-hand with his abilities as a scorer. This past season, Morris scored a career-high 10.4 points per game and shot a scorching 41.4 percent from three-point range. Morris made 94 of the 227 three-pointers he attempted, which was the third most makes — Malik Beasley (163) and Jamal Murray (152) — by anyone on the Nuggets roster.

Morris’ percentage from three-point range was the Nuggets’ highest mark. Not only can Morris score outside, but he can do it from two-point range as well, specifically on floaters close to the rim. If Morris is driving through and lane and puts up a floater, it’s basically an automatic two points.

With a crazy ability to get his shot almost anytime he needs it, Morris became a scorer this past season, which not many people projected him to be. Everyone knows about his ability to take care of the basketball, but scoring often goes under the radar for Morris.

Chemistry with everyone on the roster 

We touched on Morris and how trustworthy is and his chemistry with everyone on the roster is what makes that happen. Often times, whether you are a starter or a bench player, you develop special chemistry with the guys you consistently play with. In Morris’ case, he had to find that with the bench and the starters with how many minutes he played in the closing seconds of games.

Morris has an incredible ability to not only know where Mason Plumlee and Malik Beasley are going to be at all times, but to also know how to play alongside Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap and most importantly, Nikola Jokic. Morris ability to work alongside everyone on the Nuggets roster makes him such a valuable piece to have, which is something he displayed time and time again this past season.

Ways Morris can continue to grow as a player 

For a player that does everything as steady as Morris does, finding three things to improve on was a challenge. A few things popped up during postseason play the that did raise some concerns though, which are things he could improve upon going into next season.

Luckily for Morris, everything that needs improvement can be fixed, which is why his upside with the Nuggets moving forward is still incredibly high.

Three-point shooting in the postseason

This was not something anyone could have predicted Morris would struggle with in the postseason considering how solid he was from distance in the regular season. In the biggest moment though, Morris shot zero percent from three-point range as he went 0-of-13 from distance in 14 postseason games.

Morris’ struggles from three seemed like an anomaly at first, but as playoff games went by, he still could not find his rhythm from deep. For a player that shot over 40 percent from three in the regular season, it was a shocking development to see his struggles in the playoffs.

Continue to grind in the offseason to help withstand a long season 

Morris went from playing three games during his rookie season to playing 96 games this year. That has to take a toll on a player and Morris’ struggles from three in the postseason could be a direct correlation to that. Morris played 1,970 regular season minutes and 224 postseason minutes, which is a far cry from the number of minutes (25) he played in 2017-18.

Isaiah Thomas never became the veteran guard off the bench that Denver needed, which left Morris to fill the void all season. One positive was that Morris stayed healthy throughout the season, but his health also forced him to never have a night off.

For a player that was experiencing the grind of his first full NBA season, Morris might have broken down towards the end. Continuing to work on his body, whether that is working out or just eating healthy, will help Morris going into next season. It really is hard to prepare for the run Morris and the Nuggets went on last year, but going through it once already should help him for another postseason run in 2020.

Find a way to improve, again 

After a season in which Morris improved in every statistical category, his goal should be to do it again next season. For a player as polished as Morris already is, there are really no parts of his game that could take a massive step forward. Where Morris can improve on is continuing to be the player he was all last season, while also finding a way to improve on his counting stats.

If Morris is able to average 12 points and five assists per game next season, that is already a major leap forward from his sophomore season. Continuing to grow as a defender is also an area where Morris can improve. Morris averaged just under a steal per game last season, so finding a way to bump that number up could allow him to continue to grow as a defender and lead him to another successful year.

Final Grade 

A

Monte Morris was phenomenal in 2018-19 and he truly built himself into being one of the best — if not the best — backup point guards in the NBA. Morris ability to be a trustworthy guard off the bench that always seems to make the right play is an incredibly valuable asset for the Nuggets to have and it goes hand-in-hand with his abilities as a scorer.

As long as Morris is able to improve on his three-point shooting in the playoffs and continues to build on his frame, there is no reason he can not take another step forward in the right direction next season.

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