Markieff Morris continues rise from bust to beast

PHOENIX — We haven’t identified the exact moment Markieff Morris became self-aware, but we do have a bead on when the best example of this transformation arrived.

That would be the 9:02 mark in the fourth quarter of the Suns’ 101-94 victory over the Pelicans on Sunday night. The third-year forward — who has yet to start a game this season — didn’t knock in any of his 23 points at that time. And he didn’t grab a rebound or produce one of his two steals.

No, what Morris did at that moment was — while poised in triple-threat position above the 3-point line at US Airways Center — fake a reasonably open shot from that distance before passing the ball.

This was another demonstration of how Morris has gone from suspected bust to (for the moment, at least) beast. In the last three games for the 5-2 (and still unbeaten at home) Suns, Markieff has made 30 of 38 shots from field and averaged 24.6 points.

In the most recent effort, he used his full, tightened-up arsenal to go 9 for 12.

“Just more efficient,” is how the slightly older Morris twin explained an uprising that — including a 17-point effort during last week’s triumph in New Orleans — now spans four games. “I’m just taking the shots … and talking a lot to (assistant coach) Kenny Gattison. He was saying, ‘Get two or three moves and master ’em, and that’s how you become more efficient at your position.'”

As a card-carrying power forward, Markieff’s geographical position has changed from lurking beyond the arc or near the elbows as an aspiring “stretch” four-man to lurking along the baseline for better opportunities.

Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek recently explained that, with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic requiring the lane area for purposes of dribble penetration, the Phoenix bigs can do damage at the end of those drives.

Still, with the help of some high-level post-play tutoring from Suns assistant coach Mark West, that aforementioned self-awareness has been quite a revelation. Through six games (he was suspended for the season opener after elbowing the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka in a preseason tilt), Morris has squeezed off a grand total of six 3-point attempts. Including Sunday’s 1-for-1 effort, that selectively has helped him make 50 percent of his shots from long range.

In his rookie season, Markieff — having been inappropriately encouraged to explore his inner Channing Frye or demonstrate his potential to work at small forward — fired up three or more triples in a game 23 times. After a hot start from 3-point range that season, he finished at 34 percent from distance and only 39 percent overall. His second season was just slightly better.

Along with being more selective on his perimeter adventures, Morris has heeded the advice from the coaching staff and worked hard to perfect his moves in the post. His pregame sessions with West include spinning off of contact or facing up, dropping the shoulder and attacking when a large defender tries to snuggle.

The offensive salvo certainly has been impressive, but the win over New Orleans also offered a few big plays from Markieff in other areas.

At 8:04 of the fourth, he caught a kick-ahead pass in transition and dropped a slick dime to Goran Dragic to give Phoenix an 80-75 lead. With 1:28 remaining and the shot clock on life support, Morris rescued Eric Bledsoe with a timely ball screen that enabled the Suns point guard to step into a 3 that made it 95-85.

And he was pretty solid on defense as part of a five-against-the-ball unit that helped harass Pelicans star Anthony Davis into a 5-of-13 performance from the field.

“He’s getting rebounds and he’s helping out, except for a few plays here and there,” Hornacek said of Markieff the defender. “I think he’s been much better than he has in the past.”

For Morris, the byproduct overshadows any personal accomplishments.

“The thing is to just stay consistent,” he said. “I’m worried about the wins.”

If anything near this caliber of play continues, the Suns won’t have to bother with tanking-related accusations. But they will have to save some of their cap flexibility to keep him.