DALLAS — Monte Morris was a second-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but after playing just three games with Denver during the 2017-18 season, he was technically still a rookie last season.
It’s safe to say the former Iowa State standout made the most of his opportunity, appearing in all 82 games for the Nuggets last year, making six starts and averaging 10.4 points, 3.6 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game.
Last spring, he also got his first taste of playoff basketball, appearing in 14 games and averaging 5.4 points, 2.6 assists and 1.4 rebounds as Denver won its first playoff series since 2009, dispatching San Antonio in the opening round before bowing out in seven games to eventual Western Conference runner-up Portland in the conference semifinals.
“It was good,” Morris, 23, said of his rookie campaign before a recent road win in Dallas. “It was just showing me where I was at as a person and as a player to just deal with the traveling, the game prep and all that. It was a lot for me physically and mentally, but now I’m a lot wiser, a lot stronger.
“When I get the opportunity this year, I’ll be way better in that regard. But it just matured me as a man honestly on and off the court.”
This season, he’s appeared in all 43 games and is averaging 7.4 points, 3.5 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. Denver head coach Mike Malone is among Morris’ biggest fans and Malone likes seeing this ex-Cyclone apply all the lessons he learned last season as a rookie on the floor.
“He had a hell of a rookie year for us,” Malone said. “Like a lot of young players, in the playoffs kind of struggled a little bit, struggled to make shots. That was his first experience playing on that stage. This year, (I like) just his confidence, his maturity, his understanding the league having been though it a full season, knowing what his role is, embracing that role.”
Malone also called Morris one of the key cogs of a bench currently averaging 35 points per game.
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“To me, he and Mason Plumlee are the key to our second unit. Monte, in terms of running his team, valuing the ball at such a high level,” Malone said. “But when he plays well, he plays aggressive. He plays downhill. When he hesitates, when he’s a little bit passive, he’s not nearly the player I know he’s capable of being.
“And I’m seeing that more and more often, especially as of late, so that’s a good sign for him and us.”
One big adjustment for Morris and his teammates this season is they realize after surprising many with 54 wins in 2018-19, a Northwest Division title and winning their first playoff series in a decade, Denver is now receiving maximum attention and effort from every opponent.
But raising the proverbial bar to meet these additional challenges is something Morris and his teammates welcome.
“It’s really just we’ve got expectations now, so you just got to come out and be ready to go every night,” Morris said. “Last year we were doing the hunting. Now teams are trying to hunt us because we’re really, really good and we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. That’s just the biggest change for me from last year to this year.”
A denizen of Ames between 2013 and 2017, the Michigan native continues to take immense pride in representing the Cyclones every time he steps on the court in the NBA. And as a member of the ISU NBA fraternity, he was especially happy to see that group add a seventh member this season in Talen Horton-Tucker, currently on a two-way contract with the Lakers.
“It’s good, especially when I go back and play pickup with those guys,” Morris said. “After my first year, he was still at Iowa State and I was telling him, you do your thing this year you can be in the NBA. He did his thing and took off over there in that organization in LA. I’m proud of him and all my Iowa State guys that’s in the league right now.”
Morris feels one reason he and the Nuggets have become a contender out West so quickly is due to the tutelage of Malone, a coach who is hard on his guys when he needs to be but someone who also gives them the freedom to make their own decisions on the court.
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In fact, after a recent road win in Dallas, Malone said he isn’t the type of coach who likes to call offensive plays for every trip down the floor. He instead is known to occasionally defer to his assistants or players to let them determine what play will work best.
And glancing at Denver, 30-13 this season and tied for first in the Northwest Division, and how well it has performed over the past year-plus, it’s not hard to see Malone’s approaching is working.
“Yeah, it’s more like a college atmosphere, locker room,” Morris said. “You don’t have just one guy taking over and everybody’s looking to him for advice. It’s a collective effort. Everybody’s got different personalities, but everybody embraces it.”
However, that doesn’t mean Malone lets his players skate whenever he sees something in their game which needs correcting, a quality which Morris clearly appreciates.
“Yeah, he’s always telling me I can get to the basket whenever I want to. Sometimes I’m my biggest opponent, just taking plays (off) and chilling sometimes as far as just being in attack mode (all the time), but that’s me growing every day as a player,” he said. “The difference I’ve made most was if I was to come out 0 for 5 or 0 for 6, I would go in my shell and stop shooting. Now, if I’m open, I’m going to shoot the ball. That’s just me with growth. Coach likes when I play downhill and in attack mode. I just got to bring it every single night and do it.”