Last year when Monte Morris walked onto the Iowa State campus, there wasn’t a lot of hype around his arrival. That’s not a knock on Monte, but he was only a freshman, no one knew much about him other than he was a 4 star recruit from Michigan that very well could’ve landed on Tom Izzo’s squad like every other star player that comes out of that state. Most of the buzz surrounding the team was in regards to our latest transfer, DeAndre Kane. How would he mesh with the other players, and how far could this team go in Hoiberg’s 4th season fresh off an impressive showing and disappointing loss in the NCAA tourney the year before. No one gave much thought to the incoming freshman who was expected to play some, but there were general questions around how much playing time he would get, what his role would be, and general lack of knowledge about what to expect from this newest arrival. So far, only 10 games into his sophomore year, he has not disappointed.
I remember watching Monte play in his first game last year against UNC Wilmington, and I recall watching him closer than any of the other new faces on the team, or really any other players for that matter. There was something about the way he moved on the court, his style of play that I was drawn to. I remember commenting to a friend that he just had the look of a basketball player, someone who knew the game and had a high basketball IQ, he just had that "it" factor. That game he had 3 turnovers and 4 assists in 24 minutes in a contest that was never really close. After watching the next couple of games, I remember telling the same friend, "If Monte can stop turning the ball over as much as he has been, he has a chance to be really good." I gave him the benefit of the doubt on the turnovers, chalked it up as a young kid playing his first college games and just getting his feet wet. After his first 4 games while playing limited minutes in a backup role, he had turned it over 6 times. Now I realize this is nitpicking, and most young point guards would be happy with that number after just beginning their college career. I just thought that for Fred Hoiberg’s style of play, he won’t tolerate turning it over that much, and if he wanted to continue to play, he needed to shore that up. Well apparently he wasn’t satisfied either, because in his next 10 games, he only turned it over 3 times. It seemed as though as the competition got better, and the season progressed, so did he.
Now we all know how the story goes, Monte went on to have an incredible freshman year, leading the nation in assist to turnover ratio, while also setting the NCAA record in the process. After having turned the ball over 6 times in his first 4 games, he went on to turn it over only 22 more times the ENTIRE season, 32 games to be exact. At one point, he had a stretch of 8 games with zero turnovers, and this included conference play. In fact, looking at his per game averages from last year, he was actually better in terms of taking care of the ball in conference play than he was in non-conference play. In 18 Big 12 games he averaged over 4 assists per contest, while averaging .6 turnovers per game. When you think about that number, combined with the level of competition he was playing against, AND the fact that he was doing this all as a true freshman, you start to scratch your head and think, "if he’s doing this as a freshman, how good CAN he be??"
After watching him play last year and watching him grow into the player he is this year, which at times has been dominant, I thought this is a great building block for Fred Hoiberg and this program. Every team relies on having a floor general like Monte. Someone with the vision to make a play that most people don’t see, the anticipation to make a pass that only he can make, and the ability to make your teammates better by giving them the ball in the perfect spot. This is the type of recruit and player you hang your hat on as a coach, a guy who can contribute right away, who is talented, and who will grow with the program and eventually be the leader once the older veteran guys leave. Getting a player like that, and getting 4 years out of him can mean the world to a program like Iowa State, one that relies on transfers to fill the voids and become stars, and one who isn't quite on the recruiting level as say a Duke or Kansas in that top line talent lines up outside the doors begging to get in. (Hoiberg is working to get us to that point, but the fact remains, Iowa State is not necessarily a basketball Mecca…yet. Sorry, I had to set my Iowa State flavored Kool-Aid down for just a minute) A four year player of that caliber can help a program rise to great heights, ensure top level recruits keep coming to Ames, and make sure your program has continued success during not only his time here, but for years after his departure. I was so excited at that prospect, I couldn't wait until this season started to see what the future holds for not only the team, but him personally.
I have to admit, while the excitement is still there, it has become a different level of excitement, almost a nervous excitement. While I’m still excited to see what he can do next, I’m more anxious that the next great things he does in his future will be in a different uniform. Not a different college uniform, but an NBA uniform. As if what he did as a freshman wasn't impressive enough, he has completely blown the doors off of what people thought he could do, and what he could be. At times this year, he has been dominant, and more often than not, one of the best players on the court, regardless of opponent. His numbers have improved across the board, and more importantly, so has his scoring. Every game I watch, I find myself still watching him more than any other player. But what I don’t see is a project, or "what ifs" about what he can do as a player. I see a guy who is mature beyond his years, who doesn't turn the ball over, who is dishing out more assists than he did last year (and making his NCAA record from last year look very breakable). I see someone who is making his teammates play at a high level, a player who has improved his mid-range game, who can stroke it from three at better than 40%, and who makes his free throws at an 80% or better clip. I see someone who is creative while attacking the basket, and has improved his ability to finish at the rim even with contact. I also see an above average defender, and a penchant for always getting his hands on the ball, and making other guards work way harder than they want to throughout the course of the game.
Look, I’m not an NBA scout, and regardless of whether or not I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night or not, I’m not a top level evaluator of talent, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this. I will however point out that over the last few weeks I've seen many different blogs, sports news shows, and other media outlets proclaiming their love for all things Monte Morris. Just last week alone, two different people at ESPN had him ranked as one of the top 5 point guards in the country, one of them had him as THE best, number one overall. I’m not saying they’re the end all be all, or the people who would be picking him to play at the next level. All I’m pointing out is that the rest of the country is starting to take notice on one of Iowa State’s best kept secrets, Monte Morris is a top flight point guard, and he’s only getting better, and oh by the way, he just happens to be 10 games into his sophomore season.
Do I think this automatically means that he bolts for the NBA after this season or next? No, absolutely not, but it wouldn't surprise me if that option presented itself, and if it presented itself sooner than later. The NBA has always valued point guards, but in the past they were never considered the most important asset on the court. That is until Steve Nash went and messed things up by winning back to back MVP trophies in 2005 and 2006, breaking the trend that point guards don’t win the award, or that they aren't capable of being the MVP. Since those MVP’s were won by Nash, NBA teams have started placing a higher emphasis on having a better than average point guard, see Derrick Rose of the Bulls as a prime example. In the last seven drafts (starting with 2008), teams have taken a point guard with one of their top 10 picks 17 times. Out of those 17 picks, 3 of them were with the number one overall pick in the draft. Now I’m not saying that means Monte will go #1 overall, or that he’s that high on GM’s radar, or that he’s a guaranteed first round pick. I’m just merely pointing out the fact that teams are willing to invest high draft picks on point guards, and the need for high caliber point guards is at an all time high. Everyone is looking for the next great floor general, and you need to look no further than the attention surrounding Rajon Rondo over the last few weeks.
I do believe Monte’s best days and games are still lie ahead, and that the sky is the limit for him. I just hope that there’s plenty more of those games in an ISU jersey over the next couple of years. Much of this is just general speculation on what I think the future could hold for him. So while watching the Cyclones this year, it might not hurt to pay a little extra attention to #11, because he could be gone sooner than any of us could have ever imagined. Enjoy it while it lasts Cyclone Nation, because judging by how quickly he has grown right in front of our eyes in such a short amount of time, it might not be long before he’s making a mockery of defenses of a different stature, and getting paid to do so in the process. Whatever he decides, or wherever his road takes him, I’ll be watching and rooting him on, that I know for sure.