Markieff Morris has been ‘unsung hero’ as Lakers battle without injured stars
No less a basketball pundit than ESPN’s Zach Lowe offered a mea culpa on Friday in his weekly column of ten NBA observations. The sentiment could not have been more direct.
For those paying attention during the Lakers’ 7-8 stretch with neither LeBron James or Anthony Davis, it’s been clear that Morris has been one of the most consistent, most steadying presences on the team on both ends. In the last 15 games, he’s been the team’s fifth-leading scorer (11.8 ppg), the third-best rebounder (6.5 rpg) and a steady spacing big (37.7 % from 3-point range). Coach Frank Vogel recently said Morris is not being talked about enough: “He’s been like the unsung hero of this stretch.”
To which Morris himself says: Well, of course. What did you expect?
“I mean, (expletive), look at my production throughout my career,” he said in an interview with Southern California News Group this week. “I would think they would know I could be this consistent. Everybody’s trying to judge you off of how the season starts, but the tide always turns.”
The gruff-voiced Philadelphia native is characteristically self-confident, which is a necessary trait to survive a decade in the NBA. But even though he was a key role player in the 2020 title run, knocking down 3-pointers as a pick-and-pop big especially in series against Houston and Miami, Morris’ return to the Lakers was one of the least heralded moves of a busy offseason. He signed a minimum deal for one season, and quickly was squeezed in the rotation.
In one early season stretch, Morris racked up six DNPs in 11 games. At the time, Morris said his conversations with coach Frank Vogel were “tough,” and that he and Wesley Matthews (who was also missing games) were good enough to play for almost any other NBA team. That seems all the more true now, as both he and Matthews have been key components of gritty, defense-focused wins.
While Morris didn’t expect the Lakers would be as racked with injuries as they are, he anticipated that the deeper he got into the season, the better he would play when the games matter more.
“I know how this works, and for me personally it was definitely a blessing that helped me get into shape and helped me get my legs under me,” Morris said. “Without having an offseason like I’m normally used to having, I thought I would start slow. … I’m not panicking over the preseason or first quarter of the season. I done got to the top of the mountain; none of this counts.”
Given minutes, Morris has been consistent: He’s scored in double figures and notched at least four field goals in 10 of his last 13 games. He’s good for about two 3-pointers per game on a team that often is hunting for a consistent outside attack, including timely shots like the one that broke a fourth-quarter cold streak against the Jazz on Saturday. While he’s often played more of a spot-up role alongside James and Davis, coaches trust Morris to shoot when he sees an opening: “The coaches have never told me not to shoot this shot; my role offensively is to just do whatever I want to do basically based on the match-up but look for good shots.”
When his shot isn’t falling, he can rack up rebounds, like he did with a season-best 12 against the Jazz. And he rarely makes defensive mistakes in Vogel’s scheme.
“He gotta get paid,” said Dennis Schröder said. “He’s tough.”
It’s an interesting comment, especially since Morris was under the impression this offseason that he would get a bigger offer than a veteran’s minimum from the Lakers. He called it “unfortunate” that the Lakers, who are just barely under the hard cap this season, could not offer more and acknowledged that other teams were. But when he weighed the pros and cons, he couldn’t justify going anywhere else.
“I would rather come back home (to L.A.) where they know me,” he said. “We talked about getting more money, and it was supposed to be that way, but even so, the Lakers just fit me best. It’s just a perfect fit for me.”
What drew Morris back might be best described as championship fever: that sense of intoxication that comes from winning a title, then finding it difficult to be motivated by anything else. Other Lakers, including Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma, have described how sometimes the regular season pales in comparison to the intensity of playoff basketball; Morris seems wired the same way.
But the Lakers have needed him to win now, too, and he’s obliged. And for those who haven’t been to the top of the mountain, he’s in their ears, reminding them why tough games or the occasional night on the bench will be worth it in the end. One of the players he’s talked to the most is Matthews, who has become a bench player for the first time in his career.
Our time will come, Morris told him. He’ll see.
“It’s my competitive nature to play, and same with guys like Wes — when he wasn’t playing; emotional, just like me,” Morris said. “At those times, you just have to work on your mind and remember there’s a bigger picture at the end of the tunnel, just like it was last year. It might not make sense now. But when we’re holding up the trophy at the end, it will all make sense.”