With Markieff Morris working to balance game, Suns expecting more from last year's first-round pick.
By RANDY HILLFS Arizona
An NBA rookie season often downshifts into an odyssey defined by circumstance and the seeming requirement to establish an identity.
“At times, I was confused,” Phoenix Suns power forward
Markieff Morris admitted of last year, “but I got that season under my belt and I knew what I needed to work on going into this season.”
With a pro season under his belt, the former Kansas Jayhawks star realized NBA assimilation can be simple if you allow it to be. With help from Suns assistant coach Elston Turner, Morris spent the offseason preparing to just be Markieff.
Keeping with the simplicity theme, he is a player who can do a little posting up, make a few shots from the perimeter and even take certain guys off the dribble.
“He’s a little bit of all that,” said Turner, who’s also entering his second season in Phoenix. “He’s learning to use that versatility to take what’s available.”
That means going to his post-up game when the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Morris has a size advantage, driving to the bucket against bigger, slower opponents or knocking in a 3 when those bigger, slower foes back up.
“Exactly,” Turner said. “A lot of what we did was work on concepts of strategy ... How to attack guys when they’re in foul trouble or know who doesn’t want to defend on the perimeter. It’s like putting a goal together.”
When he arrived — after the lockout — from KU, Morris stepped into the NBA with a rep as the inside, grind-it-out half of a twin-brother tandem that keyed the Jayhawks’ attack. But between the end of his college season and the start of his pro career, Markieff — who averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds as a rookie — seemed convinced that working in the Suns offense meant becoming a bit more finesse oriented.
“He shot too many 3s,” Turner said. “And he didn’t use his back-to-the-basket or face-up game enough.”
For the record, Morris was surprisingly good from deep in the first few weeks of the season. He finished the abbreviated campaign at 35 percent (on a busy 124 attempts) on 3-point attempts, but while attempting to find his way back to the safety of the paint, he also ended the season at a tick under 40 percent from the field overall.
“He can put it (ball) on the floor and get to the basket,” Turner said. “He can face up from the post and take bigger and slower guys. I don’t think he used it or showed it enough, though. ... I think he’s a little better runner than he’s shown, too.”
Before doing his post-rookie homework, Morris needed to assess what he’d learned.
“It’s a different game than college,” Markieff said. “Every night you have to bring it and take care of your body. ... it’s a long season.”
With the mandate to be more physically and mentally prepared, Morris spent the long offseason in the weight room with the Suns training staff — when he wasn’t on the court or in the video room with Turner. Before the summer ended, however, the Suns added veteran four-man Luis Scola, a move that, in theory, would diminish the available minutes for Morris and starter Channing Frye.
But a few days before camp opened, a routine physical revealed Frye has an enlarged heart that could keep him out of uniform the entire season. Although Morris has been a big part of the franchise’s plans since he was selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2011 draft, the Suns are counting on him to produce at an even higher rate.
The rookie-to-second-year learning curve — often considered crucial in prospect development — was important for Morris to negotiate with the wheels down.
“It all depends on the situation you’re in, and he’s in a great one,” Turner said of Morris and the timetable for improvement. “Every situation is different. I do think it’s important to make strides every year. But with Channing Frye out, we need Markieff to make early improvement. And he’s shown improvement.”
With Turner emphasizing circumstance-related offensive balance instead of skewing toward power or finesse as a means of self-discovery, Morris seems prepared for that portion of his second season. But his defensive chops, an expected bonus as power-oriented player in college, didn’t quite reach expected levels last season.
In more than 400 fewer minutes than Frye, Morris defeated the starter (179 to 176) for the dubious distinction of most fouls committed by a Suns player.
“Every workout I do includes work at both ends,” Turner said when asked about Morris’ offseason work on defense. “Most of it is being mentally prepared ... seeing plays before they happen. That way, you’re not behind the play and out of position to have to foul.
“But I don’t want to take away his aggressiveness.”
We’re pretty sure the aggression will continue. The confidence shouldn’t be an issue, either.
“I expect myself to be a double-double guy,” Morris said, “and just be hard worker.”