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Film Study: Markieff Morris is the X-Factor for the Phoenix Suns Next Season

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The reality of the Phoenix Suns offseason is that a lot of things are going to have to go right for them to make the playoffs. Putting some of the early projections aside, it's a pretty simple fact that the Suns are currently on the outside looking in. As our own Jacob Padilla said on twitter the other day, they are in a "tier" with the Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans. I am adamantly against the idea of those two teams finishing ahead of the Suns, but the reality of this is that the Suns have to first beat out those two teams before they can even start to look at the likes of the teams projected to finish in the lower seeds of the West like the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Houston Rockets. It's an extremely precarious position for a team looking to continuously be on the rise as just about every team in that West top 8 made a significant addition to their roster.

If you're clueless as to why I bring this all up on a film study regarding Markieff Morris it's because he's the x-factor for the Suns this season. Sure, Isaiah Thomas is quite good at basketball, the Suns will (hopefully) have their two headed monster slashing backcourt, and have both improved and healthy additions on the bench, but the hole left by Channing Frye calls for the sixth man contender to make an even larger contribution to the team next season. There's a lot of things that need to go right for the Suns to truly succeed next season and it's all going to start with how Markieff responds to the starting lineup.

Prepare yourselves for the depth here because a jump like this in a player's role calls for a look at both sides of the ball. There is always a great mystery as to how a terrific bench weapon responds to the starting lineup and that will remain the case for Markieff next season.

Offense

Jumpers

Markieff's offensive game starts and usually ends with a jumper in the post either right off of the catch or fading away. He has an uncanny ability as a scorer to hit this jumper from just about any spot or angle within the deep mid-range, even with a good to great contest on the shot. Markieff likes to size up his opposing defender early in the triple threat position, seeing how much space he can get right off the bat, and taking that jumper right away if the space is there. Once the defenders perk up on this, he goes elsewhere, but more on that later. For now, here are some examples of his makes.

The most encouraging thing about all of these jumpers is that they come from a variety of situations. The face-up jumper is there, but the step-back and fadeaways are also in his arsenal. The level of ballhandling Markieff has mixed with a little bit of agility has him able to create these jumpers quite easily against most opposing power forwards. While this is the most reliable and consistent facet of his offensive game, Markieff can score in plenty of other ways and that's what makes him such an offensive threat next season.

Creativity

The part of Markieff's offensive game that doesn't make him a one-dimensional (you could possibly put Gerald here) player is that he has that "scorer's touch." It's an advanced example, but guys like Jamal Crawford can score just about whenever they want from wherever they want. They have a couple of go to moves, but are creative and savvy when it comes to creating space for other opportunities from all over the floor, including at the rim. Now Markieff is still a little behind because of his inconstancies from the three-point line (35%, 34%, 32% his first three years), but he can still get it done around other spots.

Markieff is not necessarily agile, but he's quick enough to take power forwards off the dribble and 95% of the time he's going to be flat out faster than his opposing power forward. I'm just making sure you don't take this as him having a "quick first step", which he has, he's just one of the faster power forwards in the league. This has its perks and his ballhandling takes full advantage of that. He has elements of his brother's game in regards to isolation situations. Once again, they aren't particularly glamorous, but he has some crossovers and steps he uses to create space for the jumper or get to the lane. They wouldn't work on a small forward, aka someone who could move well laterally, but they get the job done against most power forwards. The most promising part of these moves is that he uses them for both his jumpers and in getting to the basket and is a solid finisher at the rim. Here's an example against Z-Bo.

Example 1

It's slightly behind this first screenshot, but Goran loves to run action towards Markieff's man and give him enough space to receive the pass and create from there. Markieff doesn't even pump fake here. He takes one dribble to establish his threat to either pull up or move towards the basket.

These sorts of moves don't really translate all that well via screenshot, but Markieff took his second dribble between the legs to add a little more wobble to poor Z-Bo. One of the things that has really helped the art of the pull up jumper is the ability/rule breaking of slightly carrying the ball to add a stutter, head fake, whatever. Markieff does it here with his left hand and it either means he's going to head fake the jumper and drive in, cross over to his right, or pull up. This is sort of a current version of the triple threat when it comes to pull ups that you see all the time.

Markieff chooses the last option and he pulls up. He's deadly on these jumpers, but has the ability to take a much slower Z-Bo to the basket as well so it puts the man who can't jump over a phone book in a conundrum.

Example 2

Our next example here is 20% showing Markieff's ability at the top of the key and 80% to watch his brother Marcus completely obliterate a possession only to have his brother bail him out. There was clearly a mixed signal here or something as you will see in a minute. Marcus is getting some off the ball action here to get a post isolation.

Whoops. Goran was either supposed to stay in the corner or Marcus has completely screwed this up. In the order of spacing and the pass not being there, the two try to separate.

But they both run the same way! Oh no! Goran receives the ball here, but Marcus is literally blocking Goran's right foot from landing on the ground. So much is going on here. With six seconds left on the clock Goran has to try to get somewhere to create and stuck in the corner with his teammate right next to him is not a good look.

In an effort to increase spacing, Goran runs to the left only for Marcus to come along with him. This is amazing.

Also known as "screw this", Goran just takes the ball to the basket and hopes for the best. Mike Miller decided he was just going to follow Marcus I guess, but that part is over. Anyway, we have now arrived at the important part of this clip and that is Markieff. He has slowly drifted towards the weak side and knows once either of his slashing guards starts to penetrate that the entire defense focuses on them.

We now arrive at the Grizzlies closing out Goran with a bold five man closeout. Goran can go anywhere here, but because of Markieff's movement he is going to find a home. Similar to what I said I would like to see Green do next season, Goran uses his athleticism to jump and hang in the air here. It allows himself more time to make the decision and more time for his teammate to get open.

He dumps it off to Markieff who slams this one home easily. Markieff could have stayed at the top of the key, but the amount of time he's played with Goran combined with the rhythm of getting proper spacing got him a free bucket here. It's a nice basketball IQ moment for Markieff.

Example 3

This is a much more simple example that may not look like much, but it provides more evidence of Markieff scoring out of a lot of different situations. Eric Bledsoe strolled into the lane around the elbow, which caused Amir Johnson to come out of his position a little bit on Markieff. The pass comes and Markieff uses a pump fake here.

This is a really quick second or so that Markieff has the ball. Right after the pump fake he rises up with the ball and buries a sort of floater/hook shot. That touch around the hoop is very underrated and the unorthodox bucket goes down.

Example 4

Here is some more unorthodox scoring from Markieff. It's a combination of that solid work off of the dribble and finishing the bucket. Dragic cuts all the way to the basket and Serge Ibaka has to be near the rim as a shotblocker and Markieff also not being a threat from three-point range. Either Markieff or the Suns like to have him at the top of the key a lot because of the slashing guards and the space it gives him to operate. Markieff makes a slight pump fake here and then attacks the basket.

Being the ridiculously good defender that he is, Ibaka has done his job. He's cut off most of the lane access by now and Andre Roberson is also under the basket. Markieff's just simply not a playmaker and he can't hit Frye or Tucker here, so the defense can commit fully to the ball. This screenshot is a slight step ahead, but Markieff has started to create a drop-step here to change his angle on the attack.

Markieff's shot is so odd and fast that Ibaka can barely get up to contest. Markieff takes a sort of fallaway leaner that turns into a one handed finish and it still goes down for the and-1 because Ibaka's late contest fouls Markieff. Yet another example of the weird ways he can finish all over the floor.

Defense

Remember those Z-Bo clips? Markieff got just about whatever he wanted on him. Well, how did it go on the other side? It was the same, but worse. Z-Bo went 15-25 and finished with 32 points compared to Markieff going 11-16 with 24 points. Some might be blurred by the slight point difference and Markieff's efficiency, but Z-Bo is automatic when he gets his post mismatch and Markieff attributes to that. Let's take a look at how Z-Bo did while I try not to gauge my eyes out. By the way, before you derail me for pulling a lot of examples from just one game, the main point to take away here is how easy these buckets are for Z-Bo. I'll get to this later, but the level of competition at the position is going to be pretty similar to Z-Bo anyway. This is pretty consistent and I won't even be touching on the even worst team defense.

Example 1

The key here is where Z-Bo receives the ball. He's on the elbow, and although he's a threat to hit a jumper, you've got to deny him space as much as possible.

Alright. So there's one power dribble down and Markieff has somewhat impeded his path. The dominant left hand allows Markieff to take this sort of position. Not a bad start.

Here's where the problem begins. Instead of taking the bumps and trying to deny something, Markieff just starts backpedaling and allowing Z-Bo to get the space. I'm not saying that Markieff stepping up and sticking his chest out is going to do much against a tank like Randolph, it just makes his job slightly harder and all it takes is the effort. Z-Bo took two baby dribbles here and barely tried to bump into Markieff. It sort of looks like Randolph gets off balance because of how much space he was allowed. Anyway, he picks up his dribble.

I think Markieff realized what was happening and tried to establish some sort of position now. Too late. Z-Bo timed this well enough to take a hook shot here. By the way, here is your first of many bailout steal attempts you'll see.

This is not exactly a "quick release" from Randolph, so Markieff has enough time to get a really good contest off and even get off of his feet for the contest. Markieff stays flat-footed instead and gets off a lazy contest. You can't do this in the NBA. Remember, Z-Bo started this possession at the elbow and you allow him to get off a hook shot on his favorite hand with little to no contest.

Example 2

You're not going to believe this, but the next possession down the Grizzlies isolated Z Bo on Markieff. It looks like Markieff is trying to adjust from his prior mistake here by getting right up on Z Bo. As you can see though, he's doing it with his hands. Ugh.

Z-Bo establishes the position here and Markieff responds with a reach around his body. That's adorable Markieff. Do you really think you'll get a cheap steal on Z-Bo when he's been working kids on the right block since he was five years old? I guess he did. If you've watched basketball before you know what's going to happen next. Markieff buys a little too much into the left-handed business again and Z-Bo picked up on it last possession.

Goodbye! Z-Bo would get a wide-open layup here and that's that. As some would say, that is easy money.

Example 3

We've arrived at the right block again. Z-Bo swings around here to get squared up on Markieff.

During a bunch of neat jab steps, Markieff has decided to keep his distance on Z-Bo because of the PTSD of the prior spin move. The only reason to back off of Z-Bo in that position is when he has his back to the basket from that far out so there's no reason to give him space with what he's doing right now. Z-Bo is surprisingly quick, but so is Markieff. Get physical! I think Z-Bo has run this three move course like 400 times because he knows exactly what he's getting in 0.7 seconds.

Markieff has sagged off juuuuust enough with the jab step marathon and that extra separation allows for this jumpshot to get off. Seriously, look at where Markieff's hand is as the ball is already out of Z Bo's hand. His contests need some serious work and with the amount of guys I mentioned earlier that can hit these mid-range jumpers it will be a nightmare.

Example 4

We are back on the right block again. Here's Markieff using his chest to block Z-Bo's path. It's actually a good start. But then it gets bad. I'm not kidding when I say this; Markieff attempts to steal the ball three times from Z-Bo here in about 1.2 seconds. He's been getting worked like a 9th grader and he keeps trying to steal the ball. Whatever reason Markieff has of doing this allows Z-Bo the leverage of the other side. You can't do these other shenanigans when he's this close to the basket because any slight mistake or moronic decision and he makes you pay. Markieff makes three and then he starts to have flashbacks.

Insert whatever facepalm or hands in the air meme here. Good lord. The spin comes. What does Markieff do now that Z-Bo has a clear layup? Slaps one of his arms of course! A free and-1 is always better than a free layup I suppose. My favorite part is Z-Bo turning around to give Markieff the "I'm definitely putting up 30 on you" look after the foul. I left that out for the sake of Markieff.

Example 5

Look. I have the other half of this game to go but I stopped here. The right block. Markieff is reaching again.

Markieff barely establishes body position and tries to swipe at the ball twice. Z-Bo spins off again and scores. It's really hurting me inside to watch him do this over and over and over and over again. That's literally what is happening! It's false swipes at the ball, failing to establish solid body position, establishing body position and getting the spin move, allowing space for jumpers or hook shots, and failing to get a solid contest in. It's a clear list of syndromes and this is just a little over half of one game I pulled this one from. It spreads out over the season and it doesn't get much prettier. Markieff has had his share of good defensive games, but most of the time they go between below average and this. The Suns are really relying on him to improve.

It's hard to wash away this sort of effort on defense with his offensive skills and that's where I think you should a) take whatever statistics that suggest he is a better basketball player than Taj Gibson and light them on fire while b) giving yourself a slight burn on the finger to remind yourself of your foolishness and c) hope Markieff really works to improve defensively. Yes, Channing Frye was getting scored on by Zach Randolph and everyone else as well, but he was giving the effort required while not making as many silly mistakes. These are flat out elementary moves and buckets that Z-Bo is getting on Markieff. Once again, the power forwards out West are going to absolutely feast on him if he doesn't make some improvements.

So where can these improvement come from? The strange part is that Markieff gives the effort he needs defensively in other areas of the game. A combination of that quickness and athletic ability makes him a threat on both the offensive and defensive glass. He averaged more rebounds a game than Frye and his numbers should go up even more with the increase of minutes. Here's an example of that effort and know how.

Rebounding

Jeff Hornacek would like to run Frye at the 5 and Markieff at the 4 sometimes. With this sort of lineup, the key is wide open for offensive rebounds when Frye is outside shooting. This posession was the result of some very fluid motion around the floor. Whether it's the coaches telling Markieff to crash the glass when Frye is the center and shooting or it's him seeing the space in the key, it's still some great work. Frye is about to release the ball as Markieff sits at the top of the key. This is a step ahead, but Markieff breaks for the basket as soon as Frye looks to release the ball.

It's in the air and Markieff is on the break for the ball. You could blame Amir Johnson here, but usually a body picks up Markieff when he crashes the glass here. It's just a slight miscue and once again the consistent motion probably did some of the job as well.

Credit to Amir for making it back in time (for the sake of crashing your computer I took out the third screenshot of Markieff making the break still along with Amir recovering), but the ball makes a perfect bounce to Markieff.

Markieff jumps at the perfect time and tips the ball in.

That's just one example, but this is my point once again. Markieff shows a lot of effort in other facets of his game so I'd like to see A LOT of that go to defense. There are different ways to approach grabbing clips of Markieff defensively. I could have shown you some of his slightly better efforts (harder to find as well), but the point I want to make here is that it's mostly all effort and knowing what to do in certain circumstances that quite frankly he should understand by now because of how often gets burned. He's still only 24, but he has to be better defensively, especially now that he's entering his fourth season with this much responsibility now.

Conclusion

The end debate here is how much do you trade off his offensive prowess for his lack of defense? There are certainly a lot of great scorers in the NBA that don't play that good of defense that still have high praise in this league. That's not going to be the case for Markieff though and that's because of the conference he's going to be playing in.

Serge Ibaka, Tim Duncan/Boris Diaw, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, Carlos Boozer/Julius Randle, Jason Thompson, Randolph, Kenneth Faried, Anthony Bennett, and Derrick Favors are going to be his matchups in the West. Putting a few names aside that's a hellacious lineup. Markieff can't afford to give anything less than maximum effort on defense or else the Suns are going to get destroyed this season. It's a humongous gamble to give him this much responsibility. Markieff is a very good offensive player, but he's not good enough to give some of those names consistently easy buckets on the other end and still end up having a positive impact on the game when it's all said and done. The good news here is that the flaws can be easily corrected and there just needs to be more of an emphasis on it. I'm sure if someone like me can see it then the Suns are already working on it and probably have been since he got drafted.

A 48 win team can't have that kind of defense in the starting lineup though so Markieff needs to make some serious strides next season to improve. Offensively however, his numbers will continue to rise and he will get more inventive with how he goes about scoring. I'm not sure he's going to put up monster numbers given the two big offensive additions in the offseason, but the numbers will go up and he will continue to score. If he could ever be a consistent three-point shooter he could be one of the best stretch 4's in the NBA. For someone like me the concern will always be his defense, but there's no doubt he's going to go out there and score while crashing the boards. He's a solid NBA player and there's a lot more room for his potential if he figures it out on the other end.

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