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NBA Daily: Maturity Of Morris Making Nuggets Better

Spencer Davies goes one-on-one with Denver Nuggets guard Monte Morris to discuss a fast start to the season, his path to this point and what’s prepared him for the NBA.

Spencer Davies

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Thursday night in Cleveland, Monte Morris logged the 200th minute of his NBA career.

You’d have thought it was his 2,000th.

For a player as inexperienced as Morris is, he’s as prepared as they come. Glancing over his resume, it’s not hard to see why.

It wasn’t all that long ago when the dynamic point guard was tearing up the college basketball scene. A standout at Iowa State for four years, Morris left plenty of marks in the Big 12 record books, but, most importantly, he holds the conference’s all-time record in minutes played.

From raucous crowds at the Hilton Coliseum to the wild confines of Allen Fieldhouse, to a worldwide audience during March Madness—Morris had witnessed it all over the span of 140 games at the collegiate level.

So when the Denver Nuggets made their national television season debut against the Los Angeles Lakers last week, it was only appropriate that Morris reminded everybody of how dangerous he can be in his element.

“I mean, honestly, me being [in school for] four years and seeing every hostile environment, it definitely helped me for moments like this,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of how staying through his senior year readied him for the next step.

“I played on the biggest stages in college basketball on ESPN with the whole world watching. I’ve been a part of atmospheres [that are] hostile before, so it’s just kinda second nature for me.”

At the Staples Center, taking on LeBron James and company, Morris dropped 20 points, spread out seven assists and snatched three steals in 27 minutes of work, playing like a Cyclone in a Nuggets’ uniform.

He was reluctant to say it because Denver let its lead slip late and came up short, but Morris did acknowledge it was one of his better individual games so far.

Seeing him accept the challenge with that kind of spotlight, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone admitted Morris might be ahead of schedule in his development.

It’s not the first time Morris has made an impact this year, though. Statistically, the L.A. game has been the most eye-popping. However, in arguably every contest as the headman of the second unit, he has added an intelligence to the court that the Nuggets haven’t had at their disposal in quite a while.

Asked about the time he spent playing college ball, Malone believes Morris will be able to make a consistent impact due to his four years at Iowa State.

“You’re not 19 years old playing against grown men,” Malone said. “He’s older, he’s more mature and he’s ready to handle everything that’s thrown at him.

“I think his confidence increases every game…as long as he’s running his team, he’s valuing the ball, he’s taking care of it, making his teammates better and defending at a high level—those are the things that he should be worried about. And I think he’s doing a heck of a job in all those areas.”

A staple of Morris’ game is how well he secures the basketball. Back at Iowa State, his turnover percentage was the lowest in the Big 12 his senior year. It’s been a trend throughout his entire career, and Malone said it’s the very reason Denver drafted him.

In seven games, Morris has only coughed it up five times. That’s not a typical skill most inexperienced point guards have from the jump, but there aren’t many players who key in on film study like he does.

Constantly digging into his upcoming matchups on screen, Morris picks out tendencies and devises a plan. Understanding most big men in the NBA are going to drop in their coverages, he’ll adjust to either make the pocket pass or pull up instead of forcing the issue.

“Just knowing what the defense is going to do before the game,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Defensive schemes that they try to do, I try to exploit it with poise and being just solid with the basketball, making the game easier for my teammates.”

Morris’ on-court success began with his stint in the G-League on a two-way contract. Going against former NBA players like Alonzo Gee, Kendrick Perkins and Donald Sloan, he quickly learned the competition was full of guys battling to ascend back to the association.

Including two playoff appearances, Morris played 39 games with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In the regular season, he averaged over 17 points, six rebounds and four rebounds in nearly 35 minutes per game.

“It helped my development tremendously,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I was able to go down there, be aggressive, be myself, run the team.

“The G-League definitely shaped me to who I am today, to make me remember it can be taken away from you as fast as they can give it to you. I just don’t want to take nothing for granted.”

The work didn’t stop there. With one year of exposure to the professional ranks under his belt, Morris was told to focus on improving his shooting. He took the challenge to heart during NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.

In four games, Morris flourished as one of the best players of the tournament and most improved from last July. During his second go-round in Sin City, he increased his field goal percentage by nearly 10 percent, his three-point percentage by over 23 percent and his scoring average by eight points per game.

“I worked hard this summer man,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Trying to get my body in shape, trying to get as strong as I could and worked on my jump shot to spread the floor.”

The Nuggets took note of his progress and converted Morris’ two-way deal into a standard contract—a three-year agreement worth $4.8 million, the first two seasons of which are guaranteed.

Malone has wasted no time in throwing Morris to the wolves. The 23-year-old has played in every game thus far, and none of those minutes have been meaningless. In fact, his contributions have played an integral part in Denver’s 7-1 start.

“We’ve been locked in, dialed in,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of the team.

Along with Malik Beasley, Morris has to make up for Will Barton’s absence. The veteran recently went down with a hip injury, and—though he’s not a point guard—there’s a responsibility to produce.

The five-man lineup of Morris, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic has played only 21 minutes together, yet they’ve got the highest net rating on the team together—and, not to mention, the whole NBA (min. 20 minutes).

Not far behind them is the group of Beasley, in place of Craig, running with the starters and scoring 133.3 points per 100 possessions.

“Will being out, some guys gotta step up and my number’s been called, Malik’s number’s been called,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “We just answering the bell.”

Ask some teammates of his and they’ll tell you how easily the game comes to Morris. Millsap gave a ringing endorsement, saying earlier this season that the young man plays “more like a veteran.”

When Basketball Insiders told Morris of the locker room’s feeling towards him, he couldn’t help but crack a smile.

“I mean I wouldn’t say all that,” a grateful Morris said. “I got a long ways to go, but for somebody to be coming into his sixth real NBA game with no experience, I can see why they say I’m looking pretty good out there. But the sky is the limit for me and I’mma just try to keep getting better every night.”

In a recent interview with Nuggets.com, Morris referred to 2018 as “definitely the best year of my life.”

Granted he continues on the path he’s been on, it will only be the first of many.

“Just how my life just did a complete 360,” Morris told Basketball Insiders describing the dream he’s living in. “On a two-way, then getting that contract after summer league and actually playing well out here in an NBA game. Having fun.

“My mom, we prayed on it all the time and now we’re just able to put it all in words.”

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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