Before he led the country in assist-to-turnover ratio for two consecutive seasons, Iowa State point guard Monte Morris led the neighborhood in passes-to-fence ratio–for, well, the duration of his childhood.
Years ago, a determined 8-year-old Morris began perfecting the craft that has turned him into college basketball’s poster-child for ball security and efficiency. Acting alone, Morris would dart across his grandmother’s “bumpy” driveway–bounce-passing the ball over, around and through the holes as he learned the art of the assist.
“I had to learn how much I had to put on those passes,” laughed the 6’3,” 175-pound junior.
The clanging sound of the fence and the following return of the ball signified a job well done. Then it was onto the next round, which led to the next round–which, in turn, led to Morris being recognized as one of the top facilitators in college basketball.
Taking care of the ball–and making sure it got to the right person–has always been Morris’ goal. As a sophomore in 2014-15, he led the nation with a nearly 5-to-1 turnover-to-assist ratio. Due in part to his play, Iowa State won the Big 12 Tournament and entered March as a team to beat.
The year prior, then only a freshman, Morris floated around 4-to-1 before gaining more national attention; he was instrumental during the Cyclones’ conference tournament title-run and showed out during March Madness.
Looking back, Morris can remember exactly how, when and why security became a top priority.
“I think it was me taking a lot of chances when I was younger–learning what I could get away with and what I couldn’t get away with,” said Morris, who often played against far-more-advanced competition while climbing the ranks of the Flint city hoops scene.
“When I was 15, I played 17U (AAU)–and then you know, I always stayed at 17U. So once I actually got up to 17U, I was kind of ahead of the game just because I had seen (the speed of) it so much. I think that’s true for my career here at Iowa State. I kind of see the game a lot faster than other people.”
Morris’ ability to read opposing defenses and make appropriate moves catapulted him to a starting role at Flint Beecher, a Class-C powerhouse. Just a lanky, 5’10,” 120-some-pound freshman, Morris wowed crowds with seemingly effortless–and ambidextrous–assists, gutsy drives to the rim and momentum-shifting 3-pointers–just as he’s done for two years with the Cyclones.
But he had a lot of practice before hitting college.
Back in 2009, Morris’ Beecher Bucs hosted the Flint Northern Vikings. It was a big game, one dedicated to Beecher schools legend Moses Lacey, and it was the first varsity contest for Morris. Although Beecher lost, Morris responded like a true veteran after the Vikings threw down a nasty dunk.
“I told my guys, ‘When Northern dunks on you, I want you to take the ball up quick, get the ball to (Morris), and I want him to shoot a 3 and tell the crowd to be quiet,’” Beecher coach Mike Williams said in 2011. “He hit the 3 and quieted the crowd. From then on, it was a ball game.
“I knew he was that good. I wanted to show the guys I had confidence in him.”
To this day, Morris remains tight with Williams, who still has Beecher running strong on a yearly basis. That vote of confidence from years ago still fuels Morris’ desire to perform for his his old coach, former school and the Flint/Beecher community in which he was raised.
“It’s been a big ride, man, honestly,” Morris said. “I still remember that night when I played my first high school game. To be here now, is just like really hard to explain. I’m just honored. It’s a blessing to be able to set an example for the kids in Flint–so they can know that anything’s possible. That’s really why I do it–for family.
It’s been a long journey, man, and I hope it continues.”
Believe it or not, Morris wasn’t even fully aware of what he had been doing until 2013-14. That’s when teammates and coaches started bragging about how he helped on a lot of baskets while limiting the gifts to other teams.
But for Morris, that was just normal.
However, he was happy to hear that there were actual metrics assigned to his actions.
“I didn’t even know about the statistic until I actually played my freshman year here,” said Morris, who averaged 11.9 points, 5.2 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore. “They were like, ‘Hey, you’re leading in this and that.’ And I was like, ‘ahhh…’ (laughs) It really didn’t stand out too much to where I needed to talk about it.
“I think it’s good for me, because a lot of guys cherish it now. Even guys who play at the same level as me–they’re like ‘I’m trying to get like you with turnovers now,’ (laughs) things like that.”
Thus far, Morris has finished with 10 or more assists four times–twice as a freshman and twice as a sophomore. Precision passing has become his signature, his trademark–and Georges Niang, who returned for his senior year, has been on the receiving end more times than not.
Morris has just moments to execute. It’s a challenge, sure, but it’s become part of an effective routine. Works pretty well for Iowa State, too.
“I think I can do it real fast,” said Morris of finding a proper window of opportunity. “It’s a simple thing… if you watch any film on me. Me and Georges (Niang) will be on ball-screens–you know, I’ve just got to read. Highest man guarding me, and it’s man-over help. I know my point guard is coming back to get in front of me–and I just drop the pocket pass to Georges for a three.”
If that option isn’t there, Morris works to drive deeper to either score or set up another open teammate.
“I think it’s a two- or three-second thing, is how I’ve got to read it, so we can get a good shot,” he said.
There weren’t a lot of people talking about Morris in 2013-14–not nationally, anyway. But that all changed in March after a 5-and-10 showing during a 91-85 win over Kansas State and an 11-and-2 performance during a 94-83 win over No. 10-ranked Kansas.
After that, he averaged 14-and-3 through three games of the NCAA Tournament. Despite the 81-76 Sweet 16 loss to eventual champion UConn, Iowa State had something developing behind the scenes–and Morris proved to be a vital part of that puzzle.
As a sophomore, Morris began drawing more praise. All of the sudden, the former Beecher star freshman–“Man-Man,” as he’s come to be known–was being mentioned among the best players in the country.
All of that probably had to do with the fact that Morris had cruised through March with lines of 19-and-6 a couple of times, 24-and-3 and 11-and-6. And he did it all against ranked teams such as Kansas and Oklahoma.
Sure enough, Morris has logged a few miles on his odometer. But that experience is invaluable, he says. He’s probably more comfortable on the court than he’s ever been.
But part of him feels like it all just started.
“It’s been going pretty fast, man” Morris said. “I honestly… I honestly still feel like a freshman. I see these guys out here, and they’re ‘Are you a freshman?!’
Time is really flying. It’s just really flying, man.”
Once again labeled a heavy-hitter out of the Big 12, Iowa State appears to be on the brink of another great year. The past two have been some of the best in roughly 15 years, and Morris says the idea of “establishing” Iowa State as a national power drives every moment on the court.
“We have great expectations for ourselves, just like everyone has (for us),” Morris said. “We want to take the program to the next level.”
He’s already on the Bob Cousy Award watch list for the nation’s top point guard. And really, Morris is a possible Big 12 Player of the Year candidate; he’s certainly on pace for some sort of All-American recognition as well.
It all started with a fence and a bumpy driveway–a driveway that led to back-to-back Class-C titles–2012 and 2013–at Beecher and one incredible ride in Ames.
“I’m expecting a lot from myself, personally,” said Morris. “I have big goals for myself, individually, but we just want to win together as a team and get that championship, man. I want to average, probably like 14 to 15 points and eight assists.
It’s possible, it’s all possible for us and me… so… that’s how it’s going to be.”