DENVER – Monte Morris restored his long-range jumper to mint condition.
The Great Spearmint Gum Wrapper Experiment worked.
Last summer, the Denver Nuggets backup point guard went through shooting drills with a wrapper from a stick of gum – mostly spearmint, he said – wedged between his thumb and index finger on his guide hand. It was a way to find a more reliable release.
Now, there’s no bursting his bubble. Morris is shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range for a Nuggets team that’s challenging Golden State for the top spot in the Western Conference.
“I just wanted more consistency,” said Morris, whose team plays at Utah on Wednesday as they try to remain unbeaten in the Northwest Division. “It’s now second nature.”
A 2017 second-round pick by Denver, Morris was signed to a two-way contract last season. He spent most of his time with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA G League, where he averaged 17.8 points and shot 33 percent from long range. He did play in three games for the Nuggets, for a grand total of 25 minutes.
Heading into the summer, the team gave him a task: Work on his consistency from deep. He shot 38 percent from 3-point range during his Iowa State days.
He was gung-ho – or gum-ho, in this particular case.
So Morris retreated into the gym for two sessions a day, spending nearly three hours shooting in the morning and one more at night. He was assisted by director of player development John Beckett and another Nuggets staffer, former NBA player Stephen Graham.
The gum-wrapper drill was a way to get Morris’ hand more to the side of the basketball. He would grab a stick of gum and tuck the foil in place along his left hand. Then, he’d hoist shot after shot.
“Once I got here, everybody said, ‘Can you make shots? Can you make shots?’” said Morris, who broke school marks for steals and assists while playing for the Cyclones. “I knew I could. I needed to add more repetition and more confidence in my game with my shot. I did that.”
He’s averaging 9.9 points and 24 minutes a game for a deep Nuggets team. Not only that, he’s protecting the basketball. He has had six games where he’s had at least six assists and no turnovers.
“Monte Morris has to be up for most improved player in the NBA,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s been amazing this year. ... I don’t think anybody saw that happening this early in his NBA career.”
He’s not the only one who augmented his shot over the summer. Guard Malik Beasley altered the arc on his jumper along with improving his balance. He’s found his rhythm, too, shooting 42 percent from long range.
“Breaking somebody’s shot down is not easy because through repetition, repetition, repetition, they’ve developed those bad habits over many, many years,” Malone said. “Monte was committed to it this summer and did a great job and now he’s going out there every night showing hard work has paid off. He’s shooting the ball at a high level.”
With conviction, too.
“No matter if I miss three or four,” Morris said, “I’m still confident.”
His role, though, could soon be dwindling as Isaiah Thomas inches closer to a return from hip surgery. Morris insisted he doesn’t mind. There’s always someone stepping in to take some of the load off big man Nikola Jokic and point guard Jamal Murray.
“Nobody has egos on this team,” said Morris, who’s hit 51 of 119 3-pointers this season. “That shows you we are unselfish and I’m looking forward to I.T. coming back. He’s helped me big time.”
Although sidelined, Thomas has been a confidante for Morris. They hang out. They talk. They discuss hoops strategy.
“It’s more of a brotherhood, just pulling for one another,” Morris said. “He’s happy for me right now, how I’m playing. I look up to him a lot, not just because he’s at my position but what he’s been through. We’re looking forward to having him back. Everyone knows what he brings to the table.
“Add that to what we’re doing now and we should be really, really good.”