The still unresolved Eric Bledsoe situation has dominated most of the headlines surrounding the Phoenix Suns, but it isn’t the only contract extension question that the Suns are dealing with. Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris, the twin brothers taken at No. 13 and No. 14 overall in the 2011 draft, are up for extensions on their rookie deals. In their first full season together in Phoenix, the Morris Twins played a big role in the Suns unexpected success.
While they were drafted to be starters coming out of college, they seemed to find their niche last season, when they were the leaders of one of the bench best units in the NBA. They both had career highs in PER, with Markieff jumping from 14.2 to 18.4 and Marcus going from 11.3 to 14.8. Their size, athleticism and shooting ability allowed them to swing between all three frontcourt positions, recapturing some of the twin magic they shared at Kansas.
The Morrii, as they became known in college, are two of the most prominent graduates of Bill Self’s frontcourt academy at Kansas. Their roles gradually increased as they developed their games, from complimentary players as freshmen to featured players as juniors. Interestingly enough, while Markieff has had the better NBA career, Marcus was the unquestioned star in college, averaging more points and more minutes in all three seasons.
Few college coaches are better at developing big men than Self, who has stuck with a half-court two-post offense instead of going small and spreading the floor. As a rule, his frontcourt players know how to post up, play high-low and run offense through the high post. In their last season in college, the Morris twins were practically unstoppable, combining to average over 30 points and 15 rebounds a game and leading the Jayhawks to the Elite Eight.
At 6’10 240 and 6’9 230, Markieff and Marcus were mismatch nightmares at the college level. Markieff had the size of a center and the skill to play out on the perimeter while Marcus was a prototype combo forward who could out quick bigger defenders and bully smaller ones. They toyed with college frontlines - after a lifetime of playing together, they seemed to have a sixth sense for where the other was on the court and what they wanted to do.
That changed in the NBA, where they went from the biggest fish in a small pond to medium-size fish in an ocean. All of a sudden, Markieff was a slightly undersized PF with only average athleticism and Marcus became a guy who was too small to guard PF’s and too slow to guard SF’s. Markieff settled into a role as a complementary big men in Phoenix while Marcus struggled to find himself in Houston, shuffling between the bench and the D-League.
In one of their rare moments of lucidity, the Suns' previous management team reunited the twins two seasons ago, acquiring Marcus at the deadline for a future second-round pick. However, the move was lost amid all their other questionable acquisitions and Phoenix stumbled to a 25-57 record as one of the worst teams in the NBA. The disastrous season prompted a major housecleaning, with a new GM, front office and head coach coming in.
No two players benefited from the new direction more than the Morrii, who were reborn as a second-unit tag-team in Hornacek’s spread offense. With Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye starting upfront, Markieff was the perfect third big man, with the ability to stretch the floor next to either Plumlee or Frye. Marcus, meanwhile, could swing between the forward positions, spreading the floor and attacking slower forwards who come off the bench.
It was like they were back in school, as they once again had a physical edge on most of the guys they were going up against. Without great length or explosiveness, neither Morris twin will ever be able to match up against the NBA’s best players upfront, but they can more than hold their own against second unit players. When they came in the game, they kept the floor spread and they could create their own shot without taking the ball out of better players hands.
Their per-36 minute numbers spoke to their value in Phoenix - Markieff averaged 19 points, 8 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 48% shooting while Marcus averaged 16 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists on 44% shooting. Just as important, their versatility meant Hornacek could slide the two between in a number of different roles, as he could go big with both of them on the floor next to a center or go small with the twins sharing the frontcourt next to a wing player.
When they were healthy last season, the Suns were one of the best teams in the NBA, going 28-15 with Eric Bledsoe in the line-up. The Morris Twins played a big role in the career seasons for Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, as their ability to shoot the ball from the frontcourt meant that Phoenix was able to spread the floor for all 48 minutes, giving their star guards the driving lanes to attack the defense and get to the rim against lesser defenders.
This season, with Frye heading off to Orlando, Markieff will probably move into the starting line-up. He can provide a reason facsimile of Frye’s game, although he isn’t as good a shooter and isn’t as good on the defensive end of the floor. Marcus, meanwhile, will probably play as more of a pure PF, as the Suns have two lottery picks coming off the bench who will demand more playing time next season - TJ Warren at SF and Alex Len at C.
The twins' versatility means they can be plugged into a number of different roles in a rotation, but they are probably best suited for their roles last season, when they functioned as a second line that Hornacek could throw against weaker frontcourts. The Morrii are examples of guys who are better as great bench players than average starters, especially when they can play together and use their twin mind-meld as centerpieces of a second-unit offense.
The best analogy for what they can do might come from hockey, where teams field four lines that play in one or two minute stretches throughout the game. In that sense, the Morris twins are like lesser versions of Daniel and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks. After playing together all their lives, the Sedins function better as a unit and have taken less money to stay together, signing identical contracts to stay in Vancouver their entire NHL career.
Under Robert Sarver, Phoenix has been notorious for pinching pennies and they might be able to take advantage of Marcus and Markieff’s desire to play together as they negotiate extensions. Given their struggles apart and their success as a unit in the NBA, it’s hard to see the twins wanting to be split up. How much money would you give up to play with your twin brother your entire career? It’s a question the Suns are going to want to find out.