Over the offseason and especially this fall, Monte Morris has gotten a ton of hype. And for good reason. He has been an incredible player for the Cyclones the past three years, and with a solid senior year will go down as one of the best to ever do it for Iowa State. He has been named a preseason All-American and preseason Big 12 Player of the Year. These accomplishments are very well deserved and nothing to sneeze at.
There have been an infinite amount of musings from analysts and fans alike about how Morris needs to play this season for the Cyclones to be successful or what his role needs to be for Steve Prohm’s squad to make another NCAA Tournament run.
A large plethora of these insights have been far from accurate. I will get to that in a minute. The purpose of this piece is to set expectations for Morris’s season and explain how he operates as a basketball player.
This is what we know about Monte. Possession by possession, he is the best player in the country at making decisions to get his team the best shot available. Every single time down the floor. That might not sound like a worthy compliment, but that is about the highest praise I can give. The same sentence would apply to either Steph Curry, LeBron James, or Chris Paul in the NBA.
There is a reason Iowa State fielded one of the best offenses in Big 12 history last year. Yes, obviously Georges Niang had a huge part in that, but the Cyclones wouldn’t have even been close to that level without Monte running the show. His elite decision making informs everything he does on the basketball court and defines his greatness.
Based on this knowledge, there are a few Monte Morris myths that require debunking.
Myth: Morris needs to score 20 points per game.
Many have based this on Steve Prohm’s previous guards Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne and state the Cyclones can’t reach their potential if Morris doesn’t approach this number. The Prohm prodigies both averaged around 20 points per game during their last seasons in college before heading to the NBA.
The first issue with this is that Monte is much more of a pass-first point guard than either of those two. Both Murray State guards had usage rates around 30% to finish their career, while Morris’s usage peaked at 18% last year and he still averaged more assists than Canaan or Payne ever did. Monte’s game is not predicated on creating his own shot. His style revolves around creating the best available shot for the offense.
Much has been made about replacing Niang, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay’s point production from last year, but I’ll repeat what I said this summer. The production from those three doesn’t simply disappear and Iowa State has to scramble replace it. Iowa State will still get those same possessions this year, but in order to improve on offense from last year, the Cyclones need to be as efficient or more efficient with those possessions that Niang, Nader and McKay used.
This absolutely does not mean Monte should try to use those trips down the floor to bump his scoring average from 13.8 to 20. That is not and never will be his game. Monte will use a large number of these possessions to make the most effective decisions for Iowa State’s offense. That may mean a slight uptick in his scoring, but he won’t be close to reaching 20 per night.
The Cyclones have plenty of talent that can provide similar offensive numbers to last season. Deonte Burton’s scoring average is bound to jump the highest out of the players in the rotation last year. He only averaged around 19 minutes per game and almost averaged 10 points last season. With a starting spot and more shots to go around, he will be a force. Naz Mitrou-Long is rejoining the squad and will get his 10-15 points every night. Whoever receives the majority of McKay’s old minutes (most likely Merrill Holden) will score around 10 points a game just on dump downs, lobs and putbacks. There will be production off of the bench (finally) from at least three Cyclones, including Donovan Jackson, Nick Weiler-Babb and Darrell Bowie. Matt Thomas’s scoring will take a bump up as well.
Monte Morris may score a tad more than he did a season ago, but the talent coming back and arriving will pick up that slack. Hopefully Prohm and Morris can mold their production into possessions as efficient as last year.
Myth: Morris will need to take over games this season.
This claim is the most baffling. What does the phrase “take over the game” even mean? Analysts and fans all over the country are constantly describing great players as “knowing when they have to take over a game.” This is vague and completely outdated basketball rhetoric. I’m assuming that means these players, and presumably Monte, start using all or almost all offensive possessions towards the end of a game to make a play. This would mean either a shot or a pass leading directly to a shot.
Unless a player is of a transcendent caliber where any offensive play they make, from anywhere on the court, with any time on the shot clock is the best offense the team can get, they should NEVER try to “take over” a game. Players that have this ability are as rare as unicorns. Think Stephen Curry at Davidson, Kevin Durant at Texas or J.J. Redick’s senior year at Duke. ANY play they made was better than anything their teammates could have created within the normal flow of the offense. If a player reaches that level, by all means, “take over.” Monte Morris is definitely NOT at that level.
If that is what “taking over” means, then this would be about the worst thing Morris or 99.9% of players could do at the end of games. Morris’s basketball genius comes from creating plays for himself or for others, but a huge part of his value also comes from putting people in positions to make plays.
This means penetrating and kicking out to a shooter who can easily attack the ensuing close out. This means hitting Naz or Matt coming off of a down screen at the arc so they can make a play. This means coming off of a ball screen, making a pass to an open man that starts a defensive rotation scramble.
All of those options, as well as any of Iowa State’s other capable players creating offense, would be eliminated if Monte “takes over” and tries to make every play himself. If he does that, the offensive efficiency will plummet and it will kill Iowa State’s offense.
Some would argue that “taking over” means making yourself more assertive, not necessarily making every offensive play. Monte Morris is the freaking point guard! He doesn’t need to be more assertive when he handles the ball and will come off some sort of screen on almost every single play.
There is no point to try to skew his decision making. That trait is what makes him the best point guard in the country.
Myth: Morris should play off the ball at times this year.
This claim will do nothing to help the Cyclones. Iowa State boasts two of the best shooters in the Big 12 in Thomas and Mitrou-Long. Add in Burton and Jackson and there are four other legitimate off-ball perimeter players. Thomas and Long are adept and frankly better than Morris at coming off of screens to the 3-point line as a threat to shoot or drive. Putting Morris at the two would be a downgrade from our regulars at that spot.
I could see Prohm designing plays for Monte to come off of down screens to gain an advantage, receive a pass and then run into a ball screen, but running Iowa State’s regular offense with Morris off the ball is a waste of time. Why would you want to take the ball out of the hands of your best player and the best decision maker in the country anyway? It is especially ludicrous to have Jackson or Naz, neither of whom are proven point guards, run the show while Monte is on the floor. If Morris is on the floor, he needs to be the point guard 100% of the time.
The above conveys in a nutshell how Monte Morris plays the game of basketball. Now that these myths have been busted, hopefully it will shape the dialogue about how Cyclone fans view, talk about and judge Monte’s play for the cardinal and gold this year.