Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 1/7/12
Based on its application, we might've presumed the word "safe" had been appropriated to define a position on a basketball court. It would go something like this: Markieff Morris, safe power forward. Well, that reference certainly seemed to mark a comfort zone for the unofficial seers of the 2011 NBA Draft, who were obliged to judge the Phoenix Suns' selection at No. 13. "If he's considered 'safe,' I'll take it every day of the week." Those words were used by Suns general manager Lance Blanks to define his position on the rookie from Kansas. It should be noted that safe often is lobbed into the adjective pool as a method to filter any allegedly misguided interpretation of a prospect's (more code here) "upside." After three years playing for the Jayhawks alongside twin brother Marcus (pick No. 14 of the Houston Rockets), the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Morris had inspired muted celebration of his potential. Unlike some of the young pups selected ahead of him, Markieff didn't have the wingspan of a pterodactyl or a vertical leap that suggested calamity during atmospheric re-entry. And he couldn't shake a doomed defender like some dribble-crazed refugee from the And1 Tour. But through a precious, seven-game sample, Suns coach Alvin Gentry has felt safe enough with Morris on the floor to give him 21 minutes per game. The numbers -- 9.1 points and 5.9 rebounds -- say he's one of the league's most productive rookies ... so far. And although the toughness upgrade and 3-point accuracy (52.9 percent) are obvious variables in his instant popularity with Suns fans, the manner in which Morris goes about his new business is even more impressive. "He's a real intelligent player," Gentry said of his rookie four man, "especially for a rookie ... almost too intelligent sometimes." That means Morris occasionally peaks around bend in his learning curve before the coaching staff has time to install the training wheels. "He's still a rookie," Gentry said, "and he's still going to make rookie mistakes. But he's a poised guy. I think he plays with confidence. He's a good player." OK, in a typical season, seven games would have cleared a path for cautious, preseason-fed optimism. In a typical season, however, that might be the scant time required before Suns fans become vigorously unimpressed with their team's latest first-round pick. Let's call the recent, first-round roll: Earl Clark ... Robin Lopez ... Alando Tucker ... right, no reason for cartwheels. There's another roll call that includes the names Rudy Fernandez, Rajon Rondo and Luol Deng, players whose ghostly attachment to Phoenix on draft-history lists simply stokes the fires of fan bitterness. So into a room full of old dudes and modest expectation strolled Markieff Morris, who didn't have the relative luxury of summer league, team-choreographed skill preparation or extended pick-up runs with his new, veteran teammates. To complicate his bid to make a mark in a near-nuclear NBA winter, Morris landed on a team with a couple of veterans working at his position. Sure, if the Suns were in love with what Channing Frye and Hakim Warrick do well, they wouldn't have drafted Morris as a means to receive productivity in the things they often fail to do. But this hasn't made securing minutes any easier. With the Suns shooting miserably, Gentry has been hoping a return to deep-threat normalcy from the chilly Frye would provide the historically-mandated offensive spacing. In the opening week, Warrick -- whose finishing act often is mitigated by rebounding-and-defense issues -- seemed to be the only Phoenix player capable of scoring. But favorable baseline match-ups, Warrick's test drive at small forward and frequent coach exasperation created a real need to allow Morris the opportunity to compete. Mixed in with frequent-fouling bench miles that often accompany NBA rookies, Markieff has provided double-digit scoring in three of the last four games. Overall, he's collected nine rebounds three times and converted three of four 3-point attempts in two games. "I'm learning," Morris said. "I'm just going out and playing as hard as possible." The learning has included reminders that he's not in Kansas anymore. "Basically, the main thing I've learned is that everybody's talented here (NBA)," he said. "You can't take plays off. So, I'm just here to play and play as hard as possible." We're kind of sensing a play-hard theme. In Friday's clobbering of the previously-sizzling Portland Trail Blazers, Morris spent considerable time wrestling on the block with rising star LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge, who had scored a combined 58 points (on 21-of-39 shooting) in recent victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers, managed 14 points in a rout-reduced three quarters against Phoenix. While Gentry included Frye in his praise of the Suns' work against the Portland power forward, Morris was impressive in how he refused to surrender position during Aldridge's back-down maneuvers. OK, so he can rebound, defend, make 3s and play offense with his back to the rim. How good can the supposedly safe pick become down the road? Let's go back to Blanks, who'd probably be selling Morris stock even if Markieff hadn't left the bench yet. Hey, it's only been seven games and Morris is the first draft pick we can assign to Blanks and basketball-ops boss Lon Babby. Of course he really likes the kid. That doesn't mean he's wrong. "Markieff has a shot at becoming a special player," Blanks said. "He's already a special person. He represents a lot of what we want to be about as an organization." That shouldn't be translated as safe or blessed with only limited potential. It also doesn't mean seven games have generated sufficient proof for the rookie to feel satisfied. "That motivates me," Morris said regarding the subject of being regarded as safe andor limited. "I don't worry about those things, but it does make me want to try to prove those people wrong." With that in mind, he and brother Marcus spent much of the lockout calendar at The Factory in Los Angeles, training with former NBA player (and Philly guy) Pooh Richardson. "I got a lot stronger," Morris said of his pre-rookie preparation. "And I worked a lot of everything about basketball ... inside, outside." Close to four years after entering KU with little more in his evaluation file than low-post toughness, Morris even added a trick or two off the bounce. One clearing move -- a behind-the-back dribble -- was unleashed as an escape maneuver against the Mavericks last week in Dallas. "I'm working on a little somethin'-somethin'," he said of the handle-in-progress. "But on that one, they were foulin' me and I was just trying to create space." Well, the early space-carving task has been going pretty well. Eventually, if he continues at this pace and maintains the demonstrated poise, Morris may not be officiated like a wide-eyed rookie much longer. For now, that seems like a safe bet.
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