The pass was so on point, it caught Malik Beasley off guard. The bloodbath was already on Tuesday when Monte Morris, Beasley’s back court running mate, delivered a dart while falling out of bounds that surprised the player who only half a second earlier was calling for the ball with both hands raised in the air. Beasley hesitated before stroking a corner 3 that pushed Denver’s lead to 24.
“I literally caught the ball and said, ‘Oh my God. This kid can pass the ball,” Beasley said. “He’s something special.”
During a timeout later that quarter, Morris asked Beasley why he took so long to get a shot off.
“I was like, ‘Damn, I didn’t even know I was getting the ball,'” Beasley said.
Morris has become a mainstay in the Nuggets’ rotation during this 14-7 start by being relentlessly steady. Denver’s bantamweight backup point guard has handed out 88 assists and committed 11 turnovers this season— an 8-to-1 assist-to-turnover that’s the best mark in the NBA. The 23-year-old is the glue that holds together one of the league’s best bench units, who’s so unflappable, even his stumbles don’t turn into mistakes.
Morris’ ability to turn adverse situations into advantageous ones is a skill he learned growing up. Morris is from Flint, Michigan, a city of 96,488 that’s been devastated by a loss of manufacturing jobs and a water crisis. More than 40 percent of Flint residents live in poverty, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
Morris was 4 years old when the Michigan State team starring Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell — all of whom were from Flint — won the NCAA national championship. Watching that “Flintstones” team knock off Florida contributed to the sense of pride in his hometown Morris still carries with him.
This season, Malone asked each of his players to present on any topic they’re passionate about to the rest of the team. Morris chose Flint.
“The water crisis. The crime,” Morris said. “All that I had to overcome growing up to stay on the right path to being successful.”
In 2014, Flint started using water from the Flint River in a cost-cutting measure. The swap caused pipes to corrode and lead to seep into the water supply. Brown and orange liquid began to flow out of pipes in some residents’ homes. Many complained about skin rashes and hair loss. After initial insistence from government officials that nothing was wrong, residents were eventually advised to boil their water or buy it bottled.
Morris was a junior at Iowa State when heard about the contaminated water. Dismayed by what was going on, he recorded a video asking for support. Hy-Vee, a Des Moines, Iowa, based grocery store chain, responded to Morris’ social media plea and offered to deliver 11 semi-trailers full of clean water in honor of the number Morris wore as a Cyclone.
“I had no idea,” Mason Plumlee said about Morris’ presentation. “I had heard a little bit about Flint, but after seeing some of the pictures and the statistics, you forgot how fortunate you are in cities like Denver. I was really impressed with what he did in college, taking a lot of fresh water to them. He’s obviously a pillar in his community, and it just speaks to who he is as a person.”
Morris has always had a knack for setting others up. He twice set the NCAA single-season record for assist-to-turnover ratio. Morris played four seasons in Ames, Iowa, before the Nuggets took him 51st overall in 2017. He spent his rookie season on a two-way deal and played well enough in the G League and at Summer League to earn a place on Denver’s 15-man roster this year.
This is Morris’ first extended stint in an NBA rotation, but already he operates like a 10-year veteran. He compensates for his slight frame (he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds) by relying on his floater and pull-up jumper instead of trying to finish among the redwoods. Morris is shooting 49 percent from midrange, according to Cleaning the Glass, which puts him in the 86th percentile compared to other guards.
As a playmaker, Morris balances finding Beasley in transition, Trey Lyles in the halfcourt and Plumlee on rim runs as artfully as Red Panda balances bowls. Morris makes difficult plays looks simple. He’s fifth on the team in total minutes, and the Nuggets are blasting opponents by nine points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
“Monte just has been so big for our team,” Plumlee said unsolicited following a win over the Magic on Friday.
Plumlee looks rejuvenated after offseason core surgery. Of course, having Morris around to throw him lobs helps, too. Morris-Plumlee alley-oops have become a staple of the second unit’s offense.
“We call it party time,” Morris said. “We get a lot of reps in practice. I try to throw it with both hands, so he knows when to be prepared for it.”
That’s part of Morris’ secret: He never looks flustered because he’s always prepared. Morris didn’t panic Tuesday when he went up for a layup in the fourth quarter and saw he didn’t have an angle to kiss it off the glass. He simply recalibrated by whizzing a pass along the baseline to the corner, where he knew a teammate would be waiting.
“We practice him being in the corner. If I get stuck in the air, that’s my outlet,” Morris said. “I thought I was going to get a layup. I had no angle. I had to kick it to Malik. It’s funny. He didn’t know it was coming. He dribbled it, fumbled it. I was like, ‘What you doing with the ball?’ But he made it, so it’s all good.”