To the surprise of many diehard Phoenix Suns fans, Markieff Morris is moving at lightning speed toward winning back the fanbase while adding a better three-point shot to his already deadly midrange shooting and passing game.
Nothing wins the fans back better than playing an exciting style that gets them on their feet. A midrange game is effective but it's not sexy. Drives and three-pointers are sexy. Too often last year, Morris would pop out of a pick and roll into the 20-foot range rather than pop three more feet to the money line. Or he'd just set up on the block for an entry pass and go to work from there.
Here's Morris' 29 points against OKC last year. (Notice Brandon Knight in the lineup with Bledsoe.)
Morris took a couple of threes and made a couple of good drives in that game, but often worked in that midrange 10-21 foot area. Morris made 44% of those shots compared to just 32% of his threes. But when you factor in the extra point involved in a three-pointer, most of Morris' three-point attempts were actually more valuable to the Suns (50% eFG on left corner and above-the-break attempts) than his midrange shots.
"The last two years for us was about letting these guys develop and figuring out what they can do," coach Jeff Hornacek said before training camp on XM Radio. "We let guys get outside their comfort zone and maybe it was a little individual to see how they can grow as players. Our offense guided our defense."
Hornacek was talking about a lot of players here. Eric Bledsoe was allowed to find his playmaking ability and ended up as one of the worst assist/turnover ratio guards in the league, but really flashed his talent. Brandon Knight is in the same boat. Both need to cut down on turnovers this season.
Markieff Morris was also one of those players allowed explore his individual talents the past two years, developing from fringe NBA player to Sixth Man of the Year candidate to solid starter. During the process, Morris honed his mid-range offense, creating shots from the outer post, while eschewing some of the other qualities (three-point shooting, dogged rebounding) the coach craved from his starting power forward.
Morris was 4th in the league in shot attempts per game from 10-14 feet, behind only LaMarcus Aldridge, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, and 18th overall on shots in between the paint and the three-point line.
Morris, along with the rest of his teammates, also got away with losing focus on defense too often and wasn't held accountable by his teammates and coaches because the Suns needed his offensive skills so badly.
He was 61st in rebound percentage among all F/PFs in the league, and a paltry 32nd among those who started at least 40 games. Defensively, he was 23rd in defensive win shares and 32nd in DRtg (a b-r advanced stat on points per defensive possession).
"This year its going to be reversed," Hornacek said. "We know what kind of players you are, and you might have to sacrifice part of what you can do to make this team better and get us to the playoffs. And that's gonna start with defense. Weak side help, all that stuff we were probably not as good as we should be will really be emphasized."
The major talking point for coach Jeff Hornacek this season is sacrifice. He's ready for his players to do what's best for the team instead of allowing them to grow their games individually, potentially at the expense of the team. But that doesn't mean Hornacek is going to change his style. He still allows players to play to their strengths and stretch themselves. He just wants them focusing when they don't have the ball in their hands, or they might not get the minutes they're used to getting.
I asked coach what he thought Markieff Morris thinks of the request to sacrifice, either in minutes or in scoring opportunities in his comfort zone.
"I hope it will be a positive," Hornacek said of Markieff's potential reaction. "He's been great throughout training camp."
Morris has a locker room full of supporters. Tyson Chandler has said nothing but positives about Morris, as have his returning teammates.
"He's a team guy," Eric Bledsoe said at Media Day. "I can go to Keef and pretty much say anything to him and he's not going to take offense to it. He's just going to play his game. To me, he's one of the best power forwards in this league. Some nights he held the team down himself.
"I love playing with him and everybody on the team loves playing with him."
Hornacek has always trusted Morris when the game is on the line, so he trusts Morris to adjust to what the team wants this season. Morris doesn't seem to be affected by whether he plays big minutes or short minutes, or moving from the starting lineup to the bench. He started most of the 2012-13 season, but then moved seamlessly to the second unit in the 2013-14 season where he nearly won the Sixth Man of the Year award.
"You think back two years ago, he was slotted to be a starter," Hornacek said. "Certain guys are competitors they want to win and so whatever it takes and I think [Markieff] is one of those guys."
Morris knows what's expected of him this season, and he's prepared himself appropriately. After sticking to his typical midrange shots in the preseason opener (making only 2 of 13 shots), nearly every attempt against the Jazz was a three pointer (3-3) or drive to the hoop. He didn't settle for the midrange.
"Coach emphasized I got to take more threes, I got to shoot more threes," Morris said of this season. "You know, I gotta shoot them. I'm open. That's what I was just doing."
Watch these highlights of Morris on Friday night. His shot selection does not look the same as last year at all.
Morris doesn't have to become a dead-eye three point shooter. He just has to be passable and he has to take them when he's open. Last year, Morris often ran himself off the three-point line to drive into a closer shot, allowing the defense to sag back on every catch. But if he can just take the shot without hesitation, and make 34% or more of them, the defense will have to play him tight. And if they have to play the four man out to the line, along with the weak side guard and small forward, driving lanes will open for everyone including himself.
"That's the way it is," he said of having an easier time driving once he'd made his first couple three pointers.
Morris, who put up 15 points a game last year, will be even better if he can stretch out his game beyond the money line. That takes him out of his comfort zone, which is the midrange, but he's showing he's ready to take that next step after a summer of hard work.
"Three pointers, for the most part," he said of what he worked on this summer. "I shot them terrible last year. I'll shoot them better this year."
His shot release is faster than ever, if we can take Friday's game as evidence of his work.
"He's going to play hard," Hornacek said. "He's part of our team. This is a city that's always been big Suns supporters. I hope they will cheer us on."
The fans, indeed, have cheered him on so far. After a smattering in the scrimmage, nary a boo was heard in either of the first two preseason games. On the contrary, he's been cheered more than most of the team during starting lineup introductions.
"Me and the fans, we got something special," Morris said, discounting any loss of fans over the summer.
Morris arrived on Media Day - and the official first day of training camp - after protesting the summer moves with his absence, but has been nothing but a pro since returning to the team.
"I really want to look forward to this up and coming season," Morris said on Media Day, just before answering every media question. "I'm glad to be back with my teammates, and glad to be back with the team."
He's been great throughout camp and stayed extra long for autographs after the Suns scrimmage at the Madhouse on McDowell.
He doesn't want to dwell on the past. Instead, he'd rather just be one of the guys on the team and for media and fans to let him move forward. He doesn't have to like the front office, or the media. He just has to play hard for his teammates, and the fans will respond in kind (as long as he doesn't call them out again).
All in all, with an expanded game and tighter lips (and tweeting fingers), Morris is making quick work of repairing his image in Phoenix.
"I've been on a couple talented teams," Morris said on Media Day. "But I think, you know, this probably is our best team with the addition of Tyson and a couple other guys. I think we can definitely make a big step this year."