Dec 3, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Denver Nuggets guard Monte Morris (11) shoots against the Toronto Raptors in the second quarter at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Monte Morris seemed happy. Supremely content. A bona fide NBA player who, in his eyes, stood on the cusp of stardom.
Yes, when the former Iowa State point guard attended the Steve Prohm-led team reunion in August, “Big Game” was about to hit the big time — but few besides him really knew that.
“It feels good, man,” Morris said in the Pete Taylor Media room at the time. “I used to love seeing y’all when we win. When we lose, y’all were all in our face, but it’s cool, man, just getting this feeling again. I just want to say I appreciate the time and y’all put some good stories on us. I appreciate all of it.”
Few Cyclones were valued more than Morris, who is the NCAA’s all-time leader in assist-to-turnover ratio, at 4.65-to-1.
He played on two ISU Sweet 16 teams and elevated his offensive game enough as a senior to be drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the second round.
He only appeared in three NBA games as a rookie, though, spending most of his time starring for the G League’s Rio Grande Vipers, where he averaged 17.5 points and 6.3 assists.
But instead of viewing the minor league hoops journey as a demotion, Morris used it to hone his game — and after a strong summer league performance, snagged the Nuggets’ final roster spot while signing a three-year contract.
“Me going down to the G-League helped me so much,” Morris said. “Because when I came up, I knew if my opportunity ever (emerged) I’d be ready to step in and fill a role. So, it wasn’t frustrating. The frustrating part for me was, at times you would watch the Nuggets and you were like, ‘Man, I know they could use me,’ so that was the frustrating part. But going down there and playing basketball, the game I love? Never frustrating for me, no matter where I’m at. If I’ve got basketball, that’s my savior. That’s what got me out of Flint, Michigan. I’m just fortunate to still be healthy and things like that, because you can’t take none of that for granted.”
When Morris was signed, it was considered a depth-building deal.
Now he’s the starter — and current “Nugget of the Month,” while, ahem, leading the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio at 6.15-to-1.
The 6-3, 175-pounder is averaging 10.1 points and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 45.3 percent from long range.
He’s widely viewed as a “diamond in the rough” now, according to an in-depth article in the Nuggets’ blog site, NuggLove.com.
Morris has become a fan favorite as well, and owes his quick rise from afterthought July signing to strong contributor to the humility with which he approached his craft in the G-League.
“It’s a big outlet,” Morris said. “(Rio Grande Valley) and the Houston Rockets opened up a door for me that they didn’t have to. They could have (solely) developed their guys and been selfish — like an organization’s supposed to. I’m coming all the way from the Nuggets, like, they could have been like, ‘Denver, get your own team,’ but they welcomed me with open arms and I gained so many relationships with all the coaches there. I was just at Chris Paul’s, and three of my coaches from RGV (Rio Grande Valley) were there, so it’s just love. That’s how you network and gain trust over the league, just in case it’s time to move on to another team. You’ve got feedback and somewhere to go, so it was big for me.”
Big for Denver, too.
Morris’s love for the game is coming full circle now — so much so that a CBS Sports article on current injured players and projected returns notes that Isaiah Thomas, who could be healthy in the coming days, may find it difficult to wrest away minutes from the man who was slated to be his sparingly-used understudy.
Just like he did at ISU. Just like the Cyclones (11-2) are doing this season, even as their best player, Lindell Wigginton, missed 11 games because of a foot injury.
But Morris knew his former team was ready to jump back into “Big Game” territory this season.
He’d even hinted at the program’s robust strength during his senior speech a couple years ago, when the NBA was still a dream — and starring in it seemed to be an even loftier aspiration.
“This train isn’t going to stop rolling,” Morris said of Prohm’s program.
Nor will Morris, who’s exceeding every expectation he encounters, step-by-step, at every level, appreciating all of it.
“(Injured Denver shooting guard) Will Barton was telling me about what he had to go through (in the G League, and I’m like, ‘Man, it’s nothing like that now,’” Morris said. “But those guys paved the way for us in the G League — like, we’re paving the way, we’re paving the way for the guys now, so you really don’t know how much you have, and how much you have to appreciate until you’ve actually seen it and gone through with it.”