Morris gets respect with Pistons, rises up as leader

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — What a difference a year makes.

Last season, Marcus Morris was one of the newest Pistons, arriving along with Reggie Bullock after a trade with the Phoenix Suns for a second-round pick. He was mostly quiet and reserved, seemingly with a wall up, part of the rugged and tough-as-nails personality the Philadelphia native so readily claims.

Marcus Morris

Early in the season, he warned beat writers that he wouldn’t be talking after every game and his interviews would be limited.

A year can change things.

“It’s great for me; I’m excited to get started and for the team we have,” Morris said at media day. “It’s a lot different. I know you guys now and you know me.”

It hasn’t come overnight.

Morris went through last season trying to find his way with the Pistons, both on and off the court. Being separated from his twin brother Markieff in Phoenix is one of the rare times they haven’t been on the same team, going back to college days at Kansas and in high school, playing football and basketball.

Last season was Morris chrysalis period, when he helped lead the Pistons to the surprising playoff spot in his first stint. He not only came out of his shell, but became a leader on a team where he, at 27, is one of the elder statesmen and respected voices in the locker room.

“After a year, he’s more comfortable and knows people, so he can develop a little bit of trust. Hopefully, he realizes how respected he is here — and I don’t think he has felt that level of respect everywhere he’s been. That allows him to rise up today,” coach Stan Van Gundy said.

“It’s certainly noticeable that he’s talking more. We were just getting to know him last year, so we weren’t prodding him toward leadership and now he’s one of, if not the most respected guys in that locker room.

“Now he knows we want that from him.”

Throughout last season and the summer, Morris became more comfortable with everyone around him. Although it took some time for him to speak up, once he started, it was hard to contain it.

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What teammates and coaches admired was his ability to speak from the heart, but also to back up his words. He wouldn’t call out another player if he was making the same mistake. At times, he just kept his mouth shut and continued to work on his own game in the practice gym.

“It’s natural. By no means did I try to be a leader when I came here. I’m a stand-up guy and I’m all about getting the job done,” Morris said. “Mostly, it’s about the team’s success and I want to see guys do well. It’s not about me.”

That struck a chord with Van Gundy, who’s known for his candor and honesty with players and the media — giving players the same message and not ambushing them through third parties. With most of the veterans gone and no player older than 30 on the roster, the unadulterated truth seems to be the straightforward message that the team is looking to use to catapult to the next level — getting a playoff series win and looking to contend for a title.

“I’m straight up and down and that’s what (Van Gundy) likes about me — he’s the same way. He talks to us and he’s straight up and down,” Morris said. “Everything he’s said since I’ve been here has been 100 percent.

“I’m from North Philadelphia, so (speaking up) is easy for me. We have a great group of guys. It’s a natural thing. If I see somebody struggling or down, I’m going to talk to them. I don’t know another way to be.”

Larger role

As Van Gundy was assembling the roster, the trade offer came from the Suns, much to his surprise. With aging small forwards, the Pistons were looking for a good player to fill the void, but got even more than they bargained for.

The Suns making a run at then-free agent LaMarcus Aldridge and their need to dump salary became the Pistons’ opportunity to improve quickly. Morris, who hadn’t started even half the games in any of his first four seasons, started all 80 games he played last season, posting career highs in points (14.1), rebounds (5.1) and minutes (35.7).

“We thought he was good but he was a lot better than what we thought. We thought he was good enough to start; if you told me he was going to be in the top five in minutes and would become one of our most respected guys and a leader in the locker room, we didn’t have that part in our reports — we just didn’t,” Van Gundy said.

“I can’t tell you that we knew going into the trade this guy is a leader and we didn’t know that he was as good a competitor and winner as he has been. We knew he was good, so it’s not like we were shocked, but he’s been above what we expected in the trade.”

Morris showed up in Orlando in July to help with the younger players in the Summer League and has been one of the driving voices in trying to speak out about recent social injustices with the police around the country.

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Before Thursday’s exhibition opener, the player-led demonstration was to lock arms during the national anthem, as a sign of solidarity. Morris, along with Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson and others, decided that was the best course, rather than taking a knee, as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others had done in recent weeks.

Van Gundy didn’t want to intrude on the players’ demonstration and asked if he could take part, along with the other coaches. Morris and the players obliged, which made for a stronger message, with Van Gundy in the middle of the line, locking arms.

“I thought it was a unity thing with the team and coach wanting to be involved,” Morris said. “Stan has been supportive with us throughout this process. It’s important that we do it as a team, including coach.”

For Morris, it was more than just making a symbolic stance because it’s trendy to do something during the national anthem. It was an opportunity to speak out for those who don’t always have a chance to have their voices heard — like those he grew up around in Philadelphia.

“The platform we’re on, being where I’m from, it’s major for me. I’ve being seeing these things for a lot longer than I’ve been in the NBA,” Morris said. “Now I actually have a platform to sit and talk about it and stand up for what’s right — and that’s what I’m going to do.

“Everybody who has eyes know what’s going on and can see what’s happening. I’m here to use my platform for what’s good.”

Magnetic personality

With his work ethic and level of success, Morris has inspired his teammates and given them a good example to follow. There isn’t just one undisputed leader, but several voices that come together in a united front.

“We’re all doing it collectively. Adversity brings leadership — and we’re going to hit some adversity throughout the year, with 82 games, training camp and all that,” said guard Ish Smith, who joined the Pistons in free agency this summer. “(Andre Drummond’s) been a vocal leader, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a vocal leader.

“Marcus is the leader we all listen to. That whole starting five has been great leaders since I’ve been here. There are going to be some nights when guys aren’t feeling it and somebody’s going to have to step up.”

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard