Pass Perfect: Monté Morris driving Iowa State's offense, Final Four hopes
AMES, Iowa -- The most reliable guard in America also has a most reliable memory. For example, Monté Morris does not worry about losing his phone, because he remembers all the important numbers in it. Should he need to call friends or family, Morris enters digits one by one instead of scrolling for names, an act on the level of hand-writing a letter or switching out rolls of camera film. Once, late in his prep career at Beecher High in Flint, Mich., a woman who worked in his elementary school library attended one of his games. After it, she lingered among parents and friends to say hello. Morris’ mother, Latonia, couldn’t place the woman’s name. Monté, however, emerged from the locker room and instantly recognized Ms. Vance, hugging her and reminiscing about how she had nicknamed him “M&M" a decade earlier.
Morris' excellent memory is one reason he can list nearly every turnover he has committed as Iowa State’s point guard. Another reason: He has hardly committed any. As a freshman last season, he set the NCAA record for assist-to-turnover ratio. He currently has 18 miscues, total, in 17 games as a sophomore for the ninth-ranked Cyclones. His single-game career-high in turnovers is three, in his college debut against UNC-Wilmington. Ask Morris about that outing, and he can still track his missteps: There was the travel call. On another, he jumped in the air and tried to make a pass in the lane, and someone stole it. One he dribbled off his foot, he thinks. It’s a little fuzzy, yes. It was 60 weeks ago. Some people can’t remember why they opened the fridge.
“It sticks with me,” Morris says, lacing up his shoes before a recent Iowa State practice. “If it’s a good turnover, I’m fine with it. I can live with them. But unforced turnovers, I can’t really live with.”
Good turnovers, he explains, are borne of aggression. A night earlier, in a loss at Baylor, a Morris jump pass bounced off teammate Dustin Hogue’s hands and out of bounds. That’s a good turnover. Nine times out of 10, they make that play. A couple nights later, with two minutes left in a rousing victory over Kansas, Morris will get whistled for a travel while double-teamed in the backcourt. That is a bad turnover.
Of course, following that miscue, Morris scored or assisted on the next six Iowa State points. His 14-3 team is a Big 12 title contender with Final Four aspirations thanks mostly to a balanced offense averaging more than 80 points a game. And that offense is balanced because its 6-foot-2, 170-pound facilitator hasn't forgotten the doctrine that always served him well against bigger, older competition: Protect the ball, provide for others and keep pushing on.
“I feel like the point guard position was built to have somebody run your team that way -- you cherish the ball and you know what you’re going to get night in and night out,” Morris says. “I just want to take pride in the position and run it the way the position is supposed to be run.”
After an 11-point performance against Kansas State on Tuesday, Morris is averaging 10.2 points, 5.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 47.8 percent from the floor. He is not exclusively a distributor, but his assist-to-turnover ratio stands at a preposterous 5.27-to-1. That would best Morris’ own record of 4.79-to-1 set as a freshman in 2013-14, when his precocious poise earned him starts in the last 17 games of the season. “It’s who he is,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg says. “It’s who he’s always been.”
Latonia Morris was a former high school point guard, and she brought three-year-old Monté to practices when she coached the Beecher High junior varsity girls team. There was no room for error even then. If Monté dribbled, his mother mandated he use one hand or the other, never both at the same time. “That was a no-no,” Latonia says. Little Monté couldn’t hoist the ball to the rim for a layup like the teenage girls on the floor, but she insisted Monté go through the correct footwork on the approach anyway.
It was an exacting approach that proved useful when Morris began playing beyond his age. Latonia is merely 5-2, and she feared her son would come up on the short end of the gene pool. So she decided Monté would play only against older competition. If he wasn’t tall, he’d be tough. As a first-grader, Monté joined a team composed of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. He played on the same team the next year and made the league’s All-Star game.
The pattern continued -- Morris was 14 when he played for a Team Detroit 17-U AAU squad, for instance. Against all this physically imposing competition, Morris learned to shoot gaps. He learned to get rid of the ball quickly. He thought about avoiding mistakes before he was pushed into a position to make them. “They’re faster, their bodies are more mature, they see things faster than I would,” Morris says of his competition in those years. “I’m probably about 130 pounds out there, playing against top-notch recruits, they could bully me and things like that. I just know what I had to do to protect the ball. I just had to make the simple play.”
He would become a top-100 recruit and Michigan’s Mr. Basketball as a senior, after leading Beecher in scoring, assists and steals in each of his four years. (Numerous colleges showed interest, but Arizona State was the only finalist Morris called to deliver the news of his Iowa State choice.) Long before, though, when Morris was a burgeoning freshman star, another luminous point guard from Flint discovered him. Mateen Cleaves, the former Flint Northern star and Michigan State All-America heard how he had to see Morris play, how this kid was the next star with a shot to make it out of the city. It was the same thing that people said about Cleaves and other Flint natives like Glen Rice and Jeff Grayer, who became All-Americas at Michigan and Iowa State, respectively, before enjoying extended NBA careers.
They also said Morris’ first impression wouldn’t “wow” Cleaves. They were right and wrong. “If you knew the game, you appreciated the way he played,” says Cleaves, who now works as a CBS Sports Network analyst. “He was never up or down. If he was having a bad game, you couldn’t tell, because his body language never changed or wavered. In good games, he always stayed steady. He never got too high. I thought that was unique, especially for a young guy.”
Soon, Morris was thrust into runs at local Flint gyms with Cleaves and other local legends. And once again, he was thrust into survival mode. No picks, they announced during these games. Translation: no fouls. “They don’t care who you are,” Morris says. “No foul. You’re going to play through it. That’s all it is out in Flint.” On the court, Cleaves grabbed Morris. He pushed him. He unleashed torrents of trash talk. Anything to unsettle his new protégé. Morris remained steady.
Over time, Cleaves focused more on motivation than distraction. As Morris worked out in the months before he left for Iowa State, Cleaves prodded him, vocalizing the challenge the soon-to-be Big 12 newbie would face. Rock Chalk Jayhawk! Cleaves shouted. What you gonna do when you gotta go down there and play in front of all that blue? Likewise, as Morris worked out at home last summer, preparing for a season in which he would have the ball in his hands from the start, the soundtrack to some sessions was Cleaves standing nearby shouting out the names of other top college point guards.
“I’ve watched a lot of point guards, I played against a lot of great ones,” Cleaves says. “He has that feel you can’t teach.”
Kane had averaged 15.6 points per game in three seasons at Marshall before transferring to Iowa State. He was 6-4 and 200 pounds. He was also 24 years old. Kane picked up Morris full court every possession. He turned box-outs into wrestling matches. In the post, he punished Morris with arms and elbows while calling for the ball. He would occasionally enter the locker room before practices and announce, in a booming voice, It’s going to be a long day for a freshman!
“There were times where I’d just come to the crib after practice, and call my Mama like, ‘It’s rough,’” Morris says. “I thought I was good.” Other times, Morris collapsed in bed, sweaty and un-showered, and immediately fell asleep. Latonia Morris would FaceTime with her son and observe him laying in that bed, rubbing his head, all the lights out except for the television glowing in the background. “Just beat,” she says. When Latonia traveled to Iowa State games, she’d find Kane and joke with him: Quit picking on my baby! Kane just laughed.
The hardened veteran knew what Morris came to comprehend: Kane would leave campus after one stopover season, but he was helping Morris to graduate, too. “He showed me the way early on,” Morris says.
It steeled him for the rigors of the Big 12. And once Morris was numbed to physicality, he could fully engage mentally. When Morris was a child attending high school games with his mother, he sat next to her and talked through the game. He took the same analytic tack with the Cyclones roster. "I really need 48 hours to feel out somebody,” Morris says. “Probably not even that.” Intimate knowledge of his teammates’ preferences minimizes the risk involved in making plays for them. Morris knows junior forward Georges Niang likes quick passes into the pocket off ball screens, so he keeps his feeds sharp and avoids dragging out the action. Morris knows sharpshooter Naz Long likes the ball to hit him at his chest, and that he can run by Long when he penetrates and kicks, because the shot is going up. And Morris knows that newcomer Bryce Dejean-Jones, a transfer from UNLV, likes to work off the dribble. So after Morris drives and flings a pass to Dejean-Jones, he stops, making sure to give his teammate space to work with.
No surprise, then, that Morris averages 1.566 points per possessions plus assists, which puts him in the 99th percentile of players in the country, according to Synergy Sports data. His mother analogizes her son's approach to playing chess: "He's trying to pick your move before you do," Latonia says. Monté's self-assessment is simpler. "I know where people are supposed to be,” he says.
There indeed may be no way to fluster him, though many have tried. On Jan. 10, Morris played 32 minutes against West Virginia’s unremitting full-court pressure. He committed just one turnover against six assists in a 74-72 road win for the Cyclones. “Things don’t go through his mind too quickly,” says Niang, the team’s leading scorer. “He sees a spot on the floor and knows that’s where he wants to get, and then he gets to the next part after that. I’ve never seen a point guard play with his type of pace.”
“It’s hard to crack him,” says Iowa State freshman point guard Clayton Custer, who at least attempts to do so in practices. “You just have to get into him and have active hands. If he can pick his pass, he can just see the floor and throw it wherever he wants. You just have to have high hands and hope you get a deflection here and there. But, I mean, the dude doesn’t make mistakes.”
If there is an asterisk to all this, it’s that Iowa State's system offers Morris a ton of help. Among the eight core players in the rotation, Morris is last in usage rate, at 15.6 percent. The offense, as it did last year, runs mostly through Niang (26.4 percent usage). But there was Morris in that 86-81 win against Kansas last Saturday, creating offense for himself and others in the tense final minutes, and finishing with 11 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. His season-long Win Shares total of 2.6 leads the Cyclones, underscoring his value to a team that will challenge for only its second Final Four berth ever, and first in more than 70 years.
Over winter break, Morris and his mother talked about next steps away from the gym, again trying to foresee impending decisions. He is ranked No. 38 among sophomores on DraftExpress.com’s player rankings. But even with the auspicious start to his sophomore season, and even allowing for the possibility of a breakthrough Big 12 season or NCAA tournament run, Monté seemed set on spending a third season in Ames. “He adamantly told me he was doing another year, regardless,” Latonia says. “I said, OK. Great. I don’t think he’s even looking that way.”
He was in the moment, as usual, considering the future but content. And his comfort isn't waning. When Morris moved into his apartment last June, he found a white rocking chair with green cushions in the living room, left behind by the previous occupants. His mother asked if he wanted to throw it out. It was in good condition, so Morris decided to keep it. Like many of his decisions, it made the most sense.
As Morris sits courtside before practice and tries to describe how he plays, how he maintains his tempo even under duress, he keeps coming back to the words bounce and rhythm, moving his shoulders back and forth and up and down, as if a physical manifestation of this sensation describes it better than any language could.
So when Monté Morris studies film or watches games now on his television, he sits in that white rocking chair. He is calm. "That's me being at my pace," Morris says, like any night when he's on the floor. Back and forth he goes, steadily dissecting all the tendencies and patterns few others see, remembering every last one.