Stuck in the middle: How the Morris twins reflect the Suns' uncertainty

There’s no rule book on being a bad NBA team. It’s one reason for the ongoing discussion of tanking being a legitimate option or a sorry excuse for what used to be called “rebuilding.” The Phoenix Suns and especially president of basketball ops Lon Babby have maintained they are against it. And though they’ve done things such as rest Goran Dragic, it’s arguable whether they are indeed tanking.

The Suns didn’t approach this season with the intention to tank — clearly. Because they’ve been so bad, it’s hard to determine what looks like tanking and what is simply losing.

The Suns are stuck in the middle, and part of that issue stems from their rebuilding ideology prioritizing building culture rather than developing young talent. It’s not necessarily the wrong move for the Suns to take a different approach. Again, I see the value in building a hard-nosed locker room. And we won’t know until, one would think, next season as to whether this culture sticks to whomever returns to Phoenix.

Back to the ideological arguments we go.

Like the team, the Markieff and Marcus Morris are stuck in the middle on another level. While I agree that there’s no such thing as a “tweener,” they can be labeled just that, because neither has a basketball identity.

The Morris twins’ future as either pieces or assets is the most concerning issue heading into the offseason. Where teams like Orlando and Cleveland, not to mention some playoff powers, have seen their second-year pros grow by leaps and bounds, it’s a wonder what’s gone wrong with the Suns’ two second-year forwards.

Establishing individual identity and confidence

Hunter is an old-school coach but is OK with mistakes, and he’ll tell you that every opportunity given. What he’s not OK with is any lack of effort. Whether Michael Beasley and the Morris twins can find consistency at this basic level is a very obvious issue.

Yet, the problem with the Morris twins is deeper than anything about Beasley, Kendall Marshall or Wesley Johnson. We know who the last three players can be in the league, regardless if their potential is tapped. Beasley can be an elite scorer if he finds mental stability. That’s been recounted. Johnson also projects as a pure scoring threat. And Marshall has a role as a mini Andre Miller if he improves.

Meanwhile, the Morris twins are what, exactly? Add motivational issues to the list of concerns, and it’s a wonder how the Suns will deal with the twins. While Marcus was apparently the spotty Markieff battery, Hunter has recently been faced with finding a Marcus battery. So much for that “synergy.”

“I was challenging him also because I felt like he was kind of feeling sorry for himself,” Hunter said of Marcus before last week’s game against Golden State. “I don’t know where he was mentally – we had a good talk and I said, ‘Look, if I’m not playing you or whatever the situation is, the best way to do it is to come bust your butt in practice and prove to me you deserve to play.’ That was my message to him.”

Schematically, Marcus has proved to be a more perimeter-oriented player than Markieff, but he also has no go-to move.

Neither of the two are efficient enough shooters to be volume shooters, and neither have any stand-out ability to attack the rim from the perimeter, the post or otherwise. Marcus is 202nd in the NBA in true shooting percentage this year while Markieff comes in at 334th, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Marcus leads the Suns by finishing around the rim at an impressive 85 percent, according to HoopData.com, which alludes to his ability to slash off the dribble on pump-fakes and off the ball as well. After that, neither has any semblance of a mid-range game.

At the least, the two either aren’t being utilized property or aren’t being developed. Markieff, for example, has only been used off pick-and-rolls on a 10th of his total attempts this season (0.92 points per possession) but his most-frequent shot is the spot-up. See the lack of improvement in Markieff’s game from his rookie season, and it’s hard to put anything on coaches, either. Defensively he allows the same 0.92 to opponents in isolation situations and 0.98 overall, according to mySynergySports, not good considering he’s viewed as a defense-first type of player.

So what if the two lottery picks were selected 13th and 14th for their defense? That’s problematic for the time being as well.

Both have lapses significantly longer than a play here or there, and even when locked in, they always appear to be a step behind. During last season’s exit interviews, Alvin Gentry openly hoped Markieff would capture a mindset similar to Kenneth Faried. It wasn’t just a true thing that the forward needed to work on playing with a consistent motor, but a chillingly blunt comment considering Faried was selected nine picks later in the 2011 draft.

Meanwhile, Faried’s established NBA role isn’t the only one that has made readers at VotS fill comment threads with updates on players selected after the Morris twins. All of the below have taken major steps in their second season in the NBA, at least in terms of proving they have one skill that gives them potential to become long-term pros.

The Morris twins still have time to be late bloomers, but it’s uneasy to consider the improvements of several of their 2011 NBA Draft classmates.

The following might be painful to read for Suns fans, but it’s evidence that this upcoming draft has potential no matter the expectation. It’s also a hopeful reminder that we shouldn’t yet throw Marshall into the pit of busts before next season comes to a close.

A not-so-short list of 2011 NBA Draft selections taken after the Morris twins

Kenneth Faried (22nd overall) — The undersized power forward is a key figure in the athletic Nuggets’ team. He’s a rebounding machine who resembles former Suns forward Shawn Marion in a number of ways. He doesn’t need coddling to produce and doesn’t need plays to be run for him. Every ounce of his production comes off energy. And he’s an example that effort should not need be taught.

Kawhi Leonard (15th overall) — An established wing defender, Leonard was picked right after the Morris twins at No. 15. At the very least, he’s already proved to be a key contributor to a championship-caliber team. He can play solid defense and hit open shots, enough to have already carved out a long NBA career.

Iman Shumpert (17th overall) — The gem the Suns wanted to grab but didn’t, Shumpert is playing for an injury-plagued Knicks team that recently was shipping out Carmelo Anthony as a center. That means Shumpert was playing small forward and doing just fine, thank you.

MarShon Brooks (25th overall) — Though he’s been hidden in the Brooklyn rotation, Brooks has an identity. He’s a pure scorer in the purest sense, and he’s capable of going off when given the chance to play extended minutes. Though he’s known as a gunner, he is shooting a fine 46 percent from the field in his second season.

Chandler Parsons (38th overall) — A jack-of-all trades type of forward, Parsons will fill up the box score. He’s a perfect fit for Houston’s up-tempo, spread the floor system because he’ll take what defenses give him. He’s simply a smart basket-ball player who reaps the benefits despite any physical limitations. He shoots 38 percent from three and averages 15.3 points, 3.5 assists and 5.4 rebounds per outing.

Nikola Vucevic (16th overall)– An unlikely but worthy Most Improved Player candidate, the center out of USC is a double-double machine and one of Orlando’s several steals this past year. The rebuilding Magic would take the 22-year old for Marcin Gortat any day. He has 15 games of 15 or more rebounds.

Tobias Harris (19th overall) — Another impressive grab for the Magic, Harris was a bench-scrub for the Bucks who is showing star potential since given the opportunity. He and Vucevic went for 30 points each on Wednesday, and Harris contributed 19 rebounds to boot. In 24 games with Orlando, he’s averaging 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, two assists and 1.4 blocks a game.

Jimmy Butler (30th overall) — The injury-plagued Bulls have relied on Butler’s defense often, but in the often-criticized offense of Tom Thibodeau, it’s arguable Butler has untapped offensive potential. He is averaging 16.2 points per game in his last 10 while playing heavy minutes.

Isaiah Thomas (60th overall) — OK, so the Suns and everyone else missed on Thomas. The undersized point guard is still making everyone outside of Sactown pay. As the Kings’ season winds down, he’s playing 32 minutes per game and rifling in 19.7 points and 5.2 assists per game over his last 10 games.

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