When Markieff Morris was picked at #13 overall in last June's draft, the collective moaning began. Conventional wisdom had him a worse player than several power forwards still on the board - including Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried and twin brother Marcus - as well as rookie scoring revelations Iman Shumpert and Marshon Brooks.
But the moment Suns fans and coaches saw Markieff play his first NBA game, they realized they had a gem. Morris is a tough guy who hustles, rebounds, blocks shots AND can score from the post as well as hit 3-pointers with aplomb. He's got all the skills wrapped up in a Philly-raised package of toughness and moxie.
Morris' comment before the Laker game this month, thanks to Paul Coro:
"If they leave me open, I'm going to shoot it. If they're not watching tape, I'm just going to keep popping it and be an unexpected shooter."
But Markieff does have an achilles' heel. He is a starry-eyed rookie when it comes to current or former MVP candidates he's been watching his whole life. Some of his worst NBA games have come when he's matched up against Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett.
Here's Morris talking about playing these guys, to Paul Coro of the Republic and azcentral.com:
Question: Is it uncanny to you to be going against guys you watched on TV last year?
Answer: Yeah, but I'm still waiting on the Kobes and LeBrons. I was star-struck when I played against Dirk (Nowitzki). I was just like, "Man, I'm really here playing on the floor with these guys." I'm just happy to be part of the team.
Q: How much did you end up covering Nowitzki in the game?
A: Two possessions. I even fouled him. I was happy to foul him at least.
His line against the Mavericks: 2-4 shooting points (0-1 on threes), 5 rebounds, 4 fouls in 17 minutes
His line against the Lakers: 0-4 shooting (0-1 on threes), 3 rebounds on 15 minutes
His line against the Celtics: 0-3 shooting (0-1 on threes), 4 rebounds, 4 turnovers in 20 minutes
And even beyond these stat lines, Morris has looked as awestruck as he said he was. His shots were rushed, hitting off the back iron or even missing the hoop entirely.
His line against everyone else*: .50% shooting (51% on threes), 6 rebounds, 10 points in 22 minutes
*(includes a 1-minute stint against the Hornets in game 5. No idea what happened there...)
He did play well with Tim Duncan on the floor, and laid an egg against the likes of journeyman Kris Humphries, so his struggles are definitely not confined to superstar opponents.
Rookies have highs and lows. They don't yet know how to mentally prepare for the NBA schedule, and if you're not mentally prepared then your body and energy will fluctuate unexpectedly.
But for a guy who seems have it all figured out, and who seems to prove it on most nights by making hustle plays on one end (steals, blocks) followed by draining an open jump shot on the other end, he just seems to lose a bit of that luster when the opponent is someone he's been watching since he was a kid.
And now that he is a starter for the foreseeable future, he will be facing superstar power forwards on a regular basis. Let's hope he gets over those rookie, starstruck jitters fairly soon.