Thursday night in Cleveland, Monte Morris logged the 200th minute of his NBA career.
You’d have thought it was his 2,000th.
For a player as inexperienced as Morris is, he’s as prepared as they come. Glancing over his resume, it’s not hard to see why.
It wasn’t all that long ago when the dynamic point guard was tearing up the college basketball scene. A standout at Iowa State for four years, Morris left plenty of marks in the Big 12 record books, but, most importantly, he holds the conference’s all-time record in minutes played.
From raucous crowds at the Hilton Coliseum to the wild confines of Allen Fieldhouse, to a worldwide audience during March Madness—Morris had witnessed it all over the span of 140 games at the collegiate level.
So when the Denver Nuggets made their national television season debut against the Los Angeles Lakers last week, it was only appropriate that Morris reminded everybody of how dangerous he can be in his element.
“I mean, honestly, me being [in school for] four years and seeing every hostile environment, it definitely helped me for moments like this,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of how staying through his senior year readied him for the next step.
“I played on the biggest stages in college basketball on ESPN with the whole world watching. I’ve been a part of atmospheres [that are] hostile before, so it’s just kinda second nature for me.”
At the Staples Center, taking on LeBron James and company, Morris dropped 20 points, spread out seven assists and snatched three steals in 27 minutes of work, playing like a Cyclone in a Nuggets’ uniform.
He was reluctant to say it because Denver let its lead slip late and came up short, but Morris did acknowledge it was one of his better individual games so far.
Seeing him accept the challenge with that kind of spotlight, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone admitted Morris might be ahead of schedule in his development.
It’s not the first time Morris has made an impact this year, though. Statistically, the L.A. game has been the most eye-popping. However, in arguably every contest as the headman of the second unit, he has added an intelligence to the court that the Nuggets haven’t had at their disposal in quite a while.
Asked about the time he spent playing college ball, Malone believes Morris will be able to make a consistent impact due to his four years at Iowa State.
“You’re not 19 years old playing against grown men,” Malone said. “He’s older, he’s more mature and he’s ready to handle everything that’s thrown at him.
“I think his confidence increases every game…as long as he’s running his team, he’s valuing the ball, he’s taking care of it, making his teammates better and defending at a high level—those are the things that he should be worried about. And I think he’s doing a heck of a job in all those areas.”
A staple of Morris’ game is how well he secures the basketball. Back at Iowa State, his turnover percentage was the lowest in the Big 12 his senior year. It’s been a trend throughout his entire career, and Malone said it’s the very reason Denver drafted him.
In seven games, Morris has only coughed it up five times. That’s not a typical skill most inexperienced point guards have from the jump, but there aren’t many players who key in on film study like he does.
Constantly digging into his upcoming matchups on screen, Morris picks out tendencies and devises a plan. Understanding most big men in the NBA are going to drop in their coverages, he’ll adjust to either make the pocket pass or pull up instead of forcing the issue.
“Just knowing what the defense is going to do before the game,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Defensive schemes that they try to do, I try to exploit it with poise and being just solid with the basketball, making the game easier for my teammates.”
Morris’ on-court success began with his stint in the G-League on a two-way contract. Going against former NBA players like Alonzo Gee, Kendrick Perkins and Donald Sloan, he quickly learned the competition was full of guys battling to ascend back to the association.
Including two playoff appearances, Morris played 39 games with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In the regular season, he averaged over 17 points, six rebounds and four rebounds in nearly 35 minutes per game.
“It helped my development tremendously,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I was able to go down there, be aggressive, be myself, run the team.
“The G-League definitely shaped me to who I am today, to make me remember it can be taken away from you as fast as they can give it to you. I just don’t want to take nothing for granted.”
The work didn’t stop there. With one year of exposure to the professional ranks under his belt, Morris was told to focus on improving his shooting. He took the challenge to heart during NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
In four games, Morris flourished as one of the best players of the tournament and most improved from last July. During his second go-round in Sin City, he increased his field goal percentage by nearly 10 percent, his three-point percentage by over 23 percent and his scoring average by eight points per game.
“I worked hard this summer man,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Trying to get my body in shape, trying to get as strong as I could and worked on my jump shot to spread the floor.”
The Nuggets took note of his progress and converted Morris’ two-way deal into a standard contract—a three-year agreement worth $4.8 million, the first two seasons of which are guaranteed.
Malone has wasted no time in throwing Morris to the wolves. The 23-year-old has played in every game thus far, and none of those minutes have been meaningless. In fact, his contributions have played an integral part in Denver’s 7-1 start.
“We’ve been locked in, dialed in,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of the team.
Along with Malik Beasley, Morris has to make up for Will Barton’s absence. The veteran recently went down with a hip injury, and—though he’s not a point guard—there’s a responsibility to produce.
The five-man lineup of Morris, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic has played only 21 minutes together, yet they’ve got the highest net rating on the team together—and, not to mention, the whole NBA (min. 20 minutes).
Not far behind them is the group of Beasley, in place of Craig, running with the starters and scoring 133.3 points per 100 possessions.
“Will being out, some guys gotta step up and my number’s been called, Malik’s number’s been called,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “We just answering the bell.”
Ask some teammates of his and they’ll tell you how easily the game comes to Morris. Millsap gave a ringing endorsement, saying earlier this season that the young man plays “more like a veteran.”
When Basketball Insiders told Morris of the locker room’s feeling towards him, he couldn’t help but crack a smile.
“I mean I wouldn’t say all that,” a grateful Morris said. “I got a long ways to go, but for somebody to be coming into his sixth real NBA game with no experience, I can see why they say I’m looking pretty good out there. But the sky is the limit for me and I’mma just try to keep getting better every night.”
In a recent interview with Nuggets.com, Morris referred to 2018 as “definitely the best year of my life.”
Granted he continues on the path he’s been on, it will only be the first of many.
“Just how my life just did a complete 360,” Morris told Basketball Insiders describing the dream he’s living in. “On a two-way, then getting that contract after summer league and actually playing well out here in an NBA game. Having fun.
“My mom, we prayed on it all the time and now we’re just able to put it all in words.”