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Can Phoenix Suns' Markieff Morris Emerge as Sleeper Sixth Man Candidate?

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Can Phoenix Suns' Markieff Morris Emerge as Sleeper Sixth Man Candidate?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of the biggest reasons for the Phoenix Suns' surprising success this season has been the play of third-year forward Markieff Morris

After a strong first month to his rookie year, Morris spent most of the last two seasons bouncing in and out of the rotation with his production on a long, slow slide towards stagnation. But like the rejuvenated Suns this season, he's turned things around with shockingly quick results. Morris is often the first Sun off the bench, and has posted per game averages of 12.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists in just 25.1 minutes per game. 

He's been the offensive heart of the Suns' second unit all year long and the buzz about him as a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate started building early.

To be eligible for The Sixth Man of the Year Award a player must start in less than half their games, and in the past the award has often just gone to the qualified player with the highest scoring average, provided that player's team has had some success.

If that scenario holds true this season Morris may still have some work to do making his case.

The table below shows how Morris' numbers this season compare to some other qualified candidates for the award this season.

Player PPG RPG APG FG% 3PT%
Jamal Crawford 18.1 2.3 3.2 41.7% 36.2%
Nick Young 17.0 2.7 1.4 42.0% 35.2%
Dion Waiters 14.2 2.8 2.6 41.6% 38.1%
Rodney Stuckey 14.0 2.3 2.0 45.1% 32.6%
Alec Burks 13.2 3.2 2.7 44.4% 34.6%
J.R. Smith 13.0 4.2 2.9 38.7% 37.9%
Markieff Morris 12.8 5.8 1.7 47.1% 33.9%

Morris' per game scoring average currently ranks seventh among qualified players. But while there are quite a few names that separate Morris from the top of the scoring heap, they all happen to play for teams that could be collectively labeled as disasters.

Separating out the players from teams with losing records leaves Morris and Crawford, a previous Sixth Man of the Year award winner.

If Morris was to snatch this award away from Crawford it will be because of not just numbers, but what his numbers mean to the Phoenix Suns. Jeff Hornacek talked about the importance of his bench to AZCentral.com's Paul Coro:

“Typically, with a bench, you just want those guys to get out there and give your starters a quality rest, kind of keep the score where it’s at for the starters coming back in the game,” coach Jeff Hornacek said. “But our bench wants to increase the lead. They want to get us back into games. They’ve given us a lot of life so far.”

Morris has become the offensive focus of the second unit, and has done so with great efficiency. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), he's scoring 0.95 points per possession on post-ups, the 29th-best mark in the league, and 1.34 points per possession as the screener in a pick-and-roll, the third-best mark in the league this season.

Morris is not the biggest or strongest player working in the post, so the Suns have developed some crafty ways to help him get low-post position.

Here Morris is being fronted in the post, making an entry pass impossible. Instead of trying to force the action, Miles Plumlee comes up to the free-throw line to receive the pass. Morris spins down to the low block and Plumlee has a much better passing angle.

The Suns also run a lot of cross-screen action for Morris. In these sets the other big man will come across the lane and set a screen, allowing Morris to pop free on the opposite block.

Once Morris does have the ball in position he's much more comfortable facing up. He's usually much quicker than the player guarding him and loves to work his way to the front of the rim with a quick first step or a counter spin move.

The threat of him attacking off the dribble also keeps his defender at bay and he's very comfortable using the padding they afford him to pull up for a soft jumper.

Some of the skills that make him a threat in the post also work well in the pick-and-roll. His strong mid-range jump shot makes him a dangerous weapon when popping out to the elbow and he's even begun stretching his range out past the three-point line.

When he rolls to the basket Morris is extremely difficult to stop because of his combination of size and agility. He's very adept at creating passing angles and space for himself at the rim. But he's also comfortable catching the ball on the move and working around a defender on his way to the rim.

His ability to work as an efficient offensive focal point has really buoyed the strength of the Suns' depth, pulling together the collection of role players and removing much of the weight from the shoulders of Goran Dragic.

Whether Morris is actually recognized for his efforts this season with The Sixth Man of the Year Award or not, he's demonstrated he's an invaluable part of the Suns' second unit and a hugely important piece for them moving forward.

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats.

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