There is a great scene in The Social Network where one of the Winklevoss twins quips, “I’m 6-foot-5, 220, and there are two of me” in response to Mark Zuckerberg having stolen their idea and launched Facebook. It’s a great quote from a great movie. The character says it as though his own imposing size had just occurred to him. Like a switch had gone off and only in that moment had he considered hulking-out on the pipsqueak who stole a fortune from him.
There’s not an easy way to explain the incredible transformation Markieff Morris made this season, but perhaps he simply realized, “I’m 6-foot-10, 245, and there are two of me. The NBA should be afraid of me, not the other way around.”
Markieff and his brother Marcus have ample amounts of youth, talent and size. Nearly three years ago, the Suns took Kieff with the 13th pick in the draft, believing he could be their power forward of the future. He was a rebounding machine from Kansas who shot 42 percent from three. He seemed like the ideal addition to a Phoenix team which loved the pick-and-pop and desperately needed to bolster its frontcourt depth.
But Morris’ first two years in Phoenix were rocky to say the least. As the team was transitioning from Steve Nash to Goran Dragic, Morris struggled to find his place on a constantly changing roster. From Year 1 to Year 2 he made almost no improvement at all, not even when his brother arrived via trade from Houston. Markieff had flashes of great production, but they were always short lived. He looked lost on the court, unsure of where, when and how to use his talent and size. Heading into this season, no one expected anything great from Morris or the Suns, but both Markieff and his team blew the lid off of every box pundits put them in.
Right out of the gate Morris ripped off his most impressive stretch as a pro. Over a four-game span, he averaged just under 23 points per game on 70 percent shooting. Yes that’s right, 70 percent. He also grabbed eight rebounds and two steals a game. The incredible and unprecedented string of performances put him in unique company with Charles Barkley and Dwight Howard, and it earned Morris NBA Player of the Week honors and a spot on the All-Star ballot. Though those four games were followed up by four games of single digit scoring (and four straight L’s for the Suns) they were a sign that Morris was a brand new man this year, ready to show the NBA just how good he could be.
As a rule, NBA players do not improve their field goal percentage by nearly 8 percent from one season to the next, especially when attempting two more field goals per game. Some of the vast improvement can certainly attributed to coach Jeff Hornacek, under whom several Suns became much better shooters this season. Whether he helped improve Kieff’s mechanics or confidence, it’s clear that Morris approached his offense in a totally new way this year.
Shot selection was always the biggest knock on Morris during his first two years in a Suns’ uniform. His three-point accuracy didn’t really carry over from college, and he rarely got to the rim, where his size and strength were a big advantage. But this season, his three-point attempts fell for the third year in a row while his free throw attempts more than doubled from last season. Coming off the bench, Markieff became Phoenix’s offensive change up. While many of his teammates stretched the defense at the three-point line or penetrated to the hoop, Morris exploited the space in-between, becoming the team’s best mid-range weapon.
He led the team in mid-range attempts and makes per game. His shots came primarily off of weak-side ball reversal and pick-and-pop plays with Bledsoe and Dragic. His pull up jumper was almost automatic at times, even with a hand in his face. In March, Markieff shot 54 percent from the field, proving that his early season success wasn’t a fluke.
Markieff also got into the paint more this year. He was in the top 40 in the league in post up points per play and nearly doubled his post scoring touches from last year. Overall, he was third on the team in total points in the paint. He was also an excellent cutter, flashing into the restricted area from the weak side. His movement without the ball often led to dunks and played havoc on defenses which were focused on keeping the Suns’ guards out of the paint. Overall, the Suns scored 110 points per 100 possessions when Markieff was on the floor, an improvement of nine points over last season’s mark. Markieff asserted himself as a capable and effective scorer in 2013-14, and the Suns were much better for it.
While his scoring was much improved this year, other areas of Kieff’s game did not see much of an uptick. His rebounding rate was stagnant, and his assists did not noticeably increase. One of the benefits of operating in the mid-range area is the vision and accessibility it provides. Playing at the elbow, high post and short corner, forwards can see more of the floor and find open teammates with ease. It’s a skill that elite power forwards’s like David West, LaMarcus Aldridge, and especially Blake Griffin have cultivated in their games, and passing is certainly an area where Markieff could stand to improve.
Great passing is a matter of chemistry and one player with whom Markieff did have some excellent chemistry was his brother, Marcus. The two shared the court for 1345 minutes this year, and with Marcus on the floor, Markieff shot better than 51 percent from the field. With Marcus off the floor, he shot just 44 percent. Night after night, the two found open looks for each other. Both of their assist rates went up when they shared the court, and 80 percent of the twins’ total assists were dished out when they played together. Marcus was assisted by Markieff more than any other teammate, scoring 43 times off passes from his big brother. This was the year Suns’ fans finally saw the brotherly synergy Lon Babby promised when Phoenix acquired Marcus a little over a year ago.
The added dimension Markieff and Marcus gave the Suns led to lots of crunch time minutes. Markieff led the team in total fourth quarter minutes played, and he was eighth in the NBA overall in that category. Though Dragic and Bledsoe (when healthy) were the primary scoring options for the Suns late in games, Markieff still found plenty of ways to contribute in the fourth. He led the team in fourth quarter rebounds and was second to Bledsoe in both free throw attempts and usage rate. The Suns and Hornacek trusted Markieff when the game was on the line. So while he didn’t start a single game this year, he finished nearly all of them.
Morris’ stellar performance this season put him in the running for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Though he ran a valiant campaign, he eventually came in fourth behind Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson, and Manu Ginobili. If he embraces his role as a sixth man in the coming year, there’s no reason to think that Markieff won’t be in the running for the award again, so long as the Phoenix roster doesn’t undergo massive change.
Heading into the offseason however, nothing is really certain in Phoenix. The Suns’ No. 1 priority is obviously to re-sign Bledsoe. After that, Ryan McDonough and Co. will look to add an impact free agent and retain P.J. Tucker’s services. Both Markieff and his brother have another year on their rookie deals before they hit restricted free agency. Similar to last year’s unsuccessful push to sign Bledsoe to an extension, the Suns will have until late October to reach an extension with the Morris twins. But unless the twins themselves make a big push to remain in Phoenix, extensions are unlikey to happen this year. The front office cannot afford to jeopardize future cap space now to retain the twins for the foreseeable future. Phoenix is still at least one major piece away from serious contention, but with a big contract headed Bledsoe’s way this summer and the likely scenario that Dragic will opt out next summer, there’s no guarantee the Suns’ will have the money to get that piece without parting ways with guys already on the roster.
Markieff’s stock has never been higher than it is right now. The only way he is getting an extension this summer is if he takes less than he’s worth to stay in Phoenix and play with his brother. The Suns have all the leverage decidedly on their side right now. The most likely scenario is that Kieff does all he can to repeat and improve upon this season’s performance in an effort to get a larger offer sheet from a team next summer. The financial wheels of intrigue will not stop spinning in Phoenix anytime soon.
Whatever happens this summer, Markieff has established himself as a real asset and contributor to his team. He has taken several massive steps in the right direction, but this year of improvement was evidence the Suns haven’t seen the best he can offer. Lucky for him, he has a replica of himself to work out against until the Suns tip off once again. We should all be so lucky.