DALLAS — Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser once said success is where preparation and opportunity meet. It’s a quote that is especially apt for former Iowa State star Monte Morris.
Last season as a rookie with Denver, the 23-year-old Morris appeared in just three games, playing just under 35 total minutes.
That lack of NBA minutes led to an opportunity in the NBA G-League. And in 37 games for Rio Grande Valley, he averaged 17.8 points, 6.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. The ex-Cyclone who earned first-team All-Big 12 Conference honors in 2017 as a senior, averaging a career-best 16.4 points and 4.8 rebounds, also appeared in two playoff games for the Vipers and averaged 19.5 points, 5.5 assists and four rebounds.
And his G-League success laid the foundation for a productive offseason.
“Just working hard, staying all summer, playing pickup with the guys, just developing my game, working on my 3-point shot so I could be an asset out there,” said Morris, who was selected in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft (51st overall). “Just playing hard-nosed and doing anything I can do for this team.”
This season, it’s been a much different story.
Through 65 games, Morris is averaging 10.4 points, 3.8 assists and 2.6 rebounds while playing just under 25 minutes.
For Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, who has Denver (43-22) near the top of the Western Conference standings, Morris’ numbers are due to him making the most of his chance to play consistent NBA minutes for the first time.
“I do think the experience down at Rio Grande helped him, playing in the G-League while playing on the ball, off the ball. He had a great summer league for us,” Malone said. “Every time we had a camp, whether it’d be in Atlanta, Vegas, Denver, Monte was there working his butt off, working on his shot. He’s just taken advantage of a great opportunity.”
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One reason Morris received the opportunity to be Denver’s backup point guard behind Jamal Murray is because Isaiah Thomas, a former two-time All-Star in Boston who signed a one-year contract with Denver during the offseason, was injured.
But even after Thomas made his Denver debut last month, Malone remains adamant Morris still has an important role to play in his guard rotation as the Nuggets look to return to the playoffs after near-misses the past two seasons. Malone said he has no reservations about playing Morris and Thomas together when he decides to go with a small, guard-heavy lineup.
“In those 15 or some-odd games that Monte was our backup, he went out there and showed the NBA and showed everybody why he’s one of the most improved players, and a guy that should have been in the Rising Stars Game (during All-Star Weekend),” Malone said.
And Morris, who helped lead the Cyclones to back-to-back Big 12 tournament titles in 2014 and 2015 and earned a spot on the conference’s 2015 all-tournament team, knows the roots for his NBA success come from his four years in Ames (2013-2017), experiences he’s incredibly grateful for.
“It helped me develop my game and mentally to be ready for this,” he said. “My time at Iowa State was very, very fun.
“Yeah, I talk to them (my former teammates still at ISU) a lot. We don’t really play on Saturdays, so I get to watch them play on Saturday.”
Morris not only relishes his time at ISU, but also takes immense pride in being one of six ex-Cyclones currently drawing a paycheck in the NBA.
“Yeah, it’s good. It shows the type of program we’ve got, some decent pros,” he said. “There’s going to be more pros to come.”
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Denver remains one of only two NBA teams without an exclusive G-League affiliate, which explains why Morris played much of last season with RGV, the Houston Rockets’ G-League affiliate. But even while spending much of last season away from Denver to play in the G-League, Morris always realized he and the Nuggets have been a perfect fit from day one.
“Everybody (helped me adjust to the league last year),” he said. “They (my teammates) believe in me, give me confidence and coach has got confidence in me. He (Malone) lets you know what he wants, expects you to just go out there and just play hard. He doesn’t like coaching effort.”
One adjustment Morris had to make — which is unique to Denver — is acclimating to playing at altitude. And after returning to his home state of Michigan for the recent NBA All-Star break, going back to Denver meant re-acclimating himself to the thinner mountain air.
“Yeah, it’s real. You feel the altitude for sure when you’re out there playing,” he said. “When you take some days away and go back to it, it’s definitely real.”
Morris jokes he’s even enjoyed the banter between himself and Nuggets assistant Ryan Bowen, an Iowa product.
“We joke here and there, but nothing too serious,” Morris said. “At the end of the day, we both represent the same state, Iowa, so it’s all love.”