LOS ANGELES — For three seasons, Iowa State point guard Monte’ Morris has developed a reputation for being arguably the best pure point guard in college basketball.
For three seasons, Morris has been a model of efficiency, the epitome of what every coach in the country looks for in a floor general. He’s never finished outside the top eight in assist-to-turnover ratio, and UCSB’s Zalmico Harmon is the only player other than Morris to finish in the top 100 nationally in assists-per-game while sporting an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 4-to-1.
Morris has done it twice — each of the last two seasons — while playing in the Big 12 at an all-league level. He’s never averaged less than 28 minutes per game in a season, playing 39.9 minutes a night in the Big 12 as a junior, yet he’s totaled just 123 turnovers since arriving in Ames. For comparison’s sake, Providence point guard Kris Dunn averaged 127 turnovers a year his last two seasons in college.
“There’s a time and place where you have to make other people better, hit the right guy, make the right decision,” said ISU’s second-year head coach Steve Prohm, “and he’s really, really good in his decision making.”
Put another way, Morris has been the nation’s best facilitator for the last three years, turning himself from a three-star recruit into a potential NBA Draft pick because of his ability to protect the ball and how well he puts his talented teammates in positions where they can be most effective.
Morris is also terrific at picking his spots, at knowing when he needs to take over a game. Cyclone fans will remember how good he was down the stretch in the comeback against Iowa, or the win over Oklahoma at home, or the game-winner against Texas during the 2015 Big 12 tournament, or that entire Big 12 tournament title run.
But that was not the norm. Morris averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 assists as a junior despite posting a career-high usage rate — a stat used to determine how often a possession ends with that player, either via a shot or a turnover — of 19.8, which is more typical of a role player, someone like a spot-up shooter. Georges Niang, Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine all had usage rate above 28.
That’s who Morris has been throughout his successful college career.
That’s the identity that he’s crafted for himself.
So what will happen when, as a senior, he’s asked to play an entirely different role?
Steve Prohm walked into a dream scenario at Iowa State last season.
Coaching at the high major level for the first time, the former Murray State head man walked into a locker room of a preseason top ten team that was loaded with veterans and led by a senior All-American in Georges Niang. It was a team that, to a point, could operate on auto-pilot.
The Cyclones didn’t have a banner season, as they struggled with front court depth and consistency en route to a fifth-place finish in the Big 12, but they did make it back to the Sweet 16 while beating Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas at home.
All in all, Prohm’s initial foray into the Big 12 went pretty well.
This year, however, he won’t be able to simply ride the coattails of what Fred Hoiberg had built in Ames. Gone is Niang. Gone is center Jameel McKay. Gone is Abdel Nader, a second round pick of the Boston Celtics. And gone are the reinforcements that Prohm had planned to bring in up front. Emmanuel Malou opted to turn professional while Cameron Lard has yet to arrive on campus. Those were ISU’s two best incoming front pieces.
What that means is that Prohm is left with a roster where his best player over 6-foot-6 is either a sophomore that only played in 13 games last season or a grad transfer that averaged 8.1 points and 5.0 boards in Conference USA.
So when Morris announced that he would be returning to Iowa State, a decision that was, according to Morris, influenced by a shoulder injury he suffered in March, Cyclones fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief.
They weren’t entering rebuilding mode quite yet.
“I know what I got myself into coming back,” Morris said.
He also knew that he would be returning to a team that was built in a similar manner to the teams that Prohm had the most success with in his previous coaching stop. Prior to getting the Iowa State job last May, Prohm had spent four years coaching Murray State. In two of those seasons, the Racers were arguably the best mid-major team in the country. Back in 2011-12, Murray State won their first 23 games of the season, earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament and reached the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament thanks to the play of All-American guard Isaiah Canaan.
But that Racer team was built around a stalwart defense. Iowa State finished 102nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric last season and lost their best defender in McKay.
The team that Prohm coached in his final year in Kentucky, however, is promising. With future lottery pick Cameron Payne surrounded by a roster full of scrappy over-achievers, the Racers won 25 straight games at one point and missed out on the NCAA tournament thanks to an ugly schedule and an OVC tournament-winning buzzer-beater from Belmont’s Taylor Barnette. Their statistical profile — play fast, score quickly, struggle defensively — is eerily similar to what should be expected of the Cyclones this season, but perhaps the better note to make here is that the Racers weren’t expected to be quite that good before the season.
Prohm found a way to play that suited the players on his roster, and it just so happens that style of play will be perfect for the group he currently employs.
At least on paper.
You see, Payne embraced ball-dominance. His usage rate as a sophomore, when he averaged 20.2 points and 6.0 assists, was 31.5. As a freshman, it was 29.9.
In other word, on the point guard spectrum, he’s the polar opposite of what Morris has been the last three years.
Prohm knows he needs to change Monte’s mindset. He already started in on it last year.
“I like my point guards to be able to score,” Prohm said. “I’ve had a lot of really good point guards and they’ve all scored at a really high clip. Last year, I’d even tell Monte’, ‘Go go go, push push push, shoot a transition three.’ I want him in attack mode. I don’t want him thinking [set the offense].”
Morris knows that, and he says he’s ready for it.
“I’m definitely going to have to sometimes just put my head down and make a play. That’s just what it’s going to be,” he said. “This group we have, they look at me when things aren’t going right, so I know it’s going to be a lot of pressure on me. I just have to be ready to fill that role.”
Part of the reason that Prohm is confident he’ll be able to change the way Morris plays is that he’s already seen him do it. It was on a smaller scale, sure, but anyone that has watched the Cyclones over the years knows that Morris is capable of taking a game over. He was Iowa State’s go-to guy in crunch-time.
“There’s times where, last year, offensively, late [in games], he made really big offensive plays for us,” Prohm said. “He’s just going to have to do that a little more often this year.”
The most important part, Prohm says, was for Morris to add some strength and muscle to his frame, something that Morris did over the summer. He already plays a ridiculous amount — he averaged 39.9 minutes in Big 12 play last season — but his minutes will be “tougher” this season. He’ll be the focal point of every opponent’s scouting report. He’ll be face-guarded. He’ll be bumped. He’ll be grabbed. He’ll get beat up the way Golden State opponents figured out they needed to beat up Steph Curry. And he’ll have to do all that while dealing with the wear and tear that comes with trying to score 20-25 points every night.
That was a problem that Payne dealt with as well, which is why Prohm built sets into Murray State’s offense that pushed him off the ball. According to Synergy, nearly 10 percent of Payne’s offense as a sophomore came in off-ball screening actions. Morris ran off a screen three times as a junior.
Becoming a more consistent three-point shooter is critical as well. Morris has been a good shooter throughout his college career, but he’s always struggled with his shot in non-conference play — his splits as a junior were 28.3% in non-conference and 43.4% in league play — and his perimeter shot has been more of a way to keep defenses honest than it has been one of the better weapons in his arsenal; at heart, he’s a penetrator that does his best work when he can get into the paint, and he’s one of the best in the country when it comes to finishing floaters and runners.
All of that, however, is secondary.
The key for Morris is going to be how well he transitions from being a facilitator to being the centerpiece of team’s offense, which is not an easy. The best true point guards, the guys like Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas, are wired one way. They try to get others involved. They try to lead, to set up, to get everyone else involved. They take over only when needed, and their teams are usually better for it.
Morris, who is more Chris Paul than Kyrie Irving, needs to be rewired.
“We just going to play this one out,” Morris said with a smile. “I did it for three years, but assist-to-turnover, we’ll just throw that one out the window. I’ll just try to be aggressive and do what I do.”