Apr 14, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Markieff Morris (11) dunks against the Memphis Grizzlies during the second half at US Airways Center. The Grizzlies won 97-91. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Markieff Morris' evolution and where it needs to go

The 13th pick in the 2011 NBA draft, Markieff Morris, has had his ups and downs but broke out this past season. With Phoenix losing Channing Frye to Orlando, it is looking like Morris will hit the big-time as the Suns will likely insert him into the starting lineup following his fantastic play that earned him Sixth Man of the Year votes.

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2011-12

After being drafted, Keef played in 63 games in a Suns uniform, starting seven while averaging slightly less than 20 minutes per contest. He only scored 7.4 points per game and his overall shooting percentage was an abysmal 39.9 percent. While he made the occasional jumper and shot an acceptable 34.7 percent on threes, the ball tended to stop or stick when it got to him, killing the flow of the offense. He hesitated too much when he got the ball, allowing the defense to get back in position. This basically killed the play, allowing Markieff to jack-up a long-two that clanked off the rim. Another wasted possession.

Let’s look at his shot chart.

From deep, he shot extremely well (56 percent from the left corner and 60 percent from right corner) but in very limited attempts. Morris was basically cold from everywhere else on the perimeter except the right wing where he shot 41 percent from only one certain spot. He definitely took too many threes for a 6’10” player who isn’t a knockdown shooter.

From mid-range, he was just downright horrible, but continued to chuck-up shots. His percentages were quite bad, including a miserable 18 percent on the left side just out of the paint. On the positive side, Markieff finished well around the rim, using his strength to power through defenders and dunk the ball.

Outside of his shot selection, Morris was also mediocre. He was only averaging 4.4 rebounds per game, not nearly enough for a power forward. He was only averaging one assist and less than a block per game, while being a below average defender and a sub-par free-throw shooter at 71.7 percent. He sure didn’t even get to the free throw line enough for such a big guy and took less than two free throws per game.

This certainly paints the picture of a rookie who needed some improvement if they were to stay in the league for a long time.

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2012-13

Markieff wasn’t a rookie, but he still struggled to take major steps forward in a tumultuous year.

He played in all 82 games, starting 32 of them and averaging about three more minutes per game, but he only upped his scoring average by .8. He improved his field goal percentage by the same margin to 40.7. His three-point shooting actually got worse and his rebounding barely improved to 4.8 per game, which is not even average for that position. He still took less than two free throws per game and shot .732 percent from the charity stripe.

Let’s go back to the shot chart, but look at the 2012-13 season.

Markieff went completely cold from both corners, and really everywhere from behind the arc except the top, where he’d get the ball following a broken play and drain the shot. He had a few mid-range areas where he shot over 40 percent (near the elbows) and 38 percent (right short corner, inside three-point line). Markieff did improve his conversion percentage inside the paint, though.

After two years in the league, Markieff looked like another missed pick by Phoenix, a potential bust (by people, including me) if this continued for one more year. His trade value was basically replacement level. He was a dime a dozen. But then things changed.

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In the latter half of the 2012-13 season, the Phoenix Suns acquired Markieff’s twin brother Marcus from the Houston Rockets. They had played together in high school and college, got drafted in consecutive picks and now got the chance to play together again. As you would think, they seemed to complement each other quite nicely. Both players started playing better. Together with P.J. Tucker, the “veterans” took the Summer Suns to the 2013 Summer League finals where they would lose to the Golden State Warriors.

Then, 2013-14 happened.

2013-14

In the final preseason game of the year, Markieff got ejected and missed the first game of the regular season. He played in all the other contests that year, starting none. He was so electric off the bench, playing alongside Marcus, there was no need to bench Channing Frye in favor of the budding Markieff.

Morris averaged 26.6 minutes per game and we were finally seeing his potential realized as he scored 13.8 points per game. He even single-handedly won a few games for Phoenix as the bench unit closed for Jeff Hornacek’s squad. He upped his field goal percentage nearly eight hundredths of a point to an above average .486 percent. His three-point percentage went down a bit, but he shot significantly less from deep. Markieff attempted double the amount of free throws per game from his rookie year and shot a respectable 79.2 percent from the line.

His rebounding came up to six boards per game, which is definitely better though still not quite where you want it.

Let’s look at this last year’s shot chart for Keef.

Markieff severely decreased his long-range shooting, but shot a blistering 48 percent from the top of the key. His mid-range game has evolved as he shot 42 and 43 percent from the extended elbow areas and a fantastic 58 percent from the left corner. He still finishes well around the rim in the low 70s.

I’m not nearly as “scared” when Markieff has the ball. He doesn’t hesitate as much and can knock down shots at a decent clip, if he’s in the right place.

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Markieff has really changed his game, become smarter, taking better shots. It’s hard not to give a great deal of credit to stability and Jeff Hornacek’s coaching staff, who have clearly sold Morris on developing his low-post game rather than forcing himself to become the stretch power forward the previous regime hoped he would.

But how will this all work next season?

It’s looking like the Suns are confident Keef’s dominance at the power forward position against second-string players will translate at some level against starting caliber opponents. They’ve also brought in Anthony Tolliver to seemingly slot into Keef’s backup minutes.

One question comes to mind. How will the twins play be affected with Markieff starting and Marcus coming off the bench?

They’re both professionals so it probably won’t affect them too much. The twins tended to play “brother ball” while on the court together, and at times they struggled to involve the other three players. We saw this in the season-long highlight reel of brother-to-brother alley-oops and give-and-gos. On the positive side of things, it lends evidence to the fact that Markieff does have the ability to grow as a playmaker — he just has to trust his other teammates as much as his brother.

In the coming season, Markieff is going to have to continue to evolve his game as he enters a new role. Under the reasonable assumption Bledsoe comes back, he and Dragic will be bringing the ball up and driving to the basket, Tucker will end up in one of the corners, and Plumlee will either be down on the baseline waiting for a dump-off pass or playing the two-man game with one of the guards.

That means Markieff, on top of his elbow touches, might need to be a selective but effective three-point shooter from the wings and up top as well. He’ll also have to be lethal from the free throw line extended. He will need to increase his rebound totals per game from six to about eight or nine to turn last year’s weakness with Frye into a strength for this Suns squad. A bonus would be assists. If Markieff has the ball in or around the paint he will hopefully have the awareness to dump it off to Plumlee or out to a shooter instead of chucking up contested shots.

As it stands, the Suns’ roster didn’t acquire what was often named as the biggest need. But perhaps a versatile low-post presence is already on the roster, ready to take the next step in his evolution.

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