By Patrick Hayes
As a freshman at Flint Beecher, Monte Morris could think his way through a basketball game better than most seniors could.
My last season covering basketball for the Flint Journal happened to coincide with Morris’ freshman season. The first time I watched him, he played so under control and intelligently that if not for his wiry frame and boyish face, I would’ve never suspected he was an underclassman. Morris had 14 points for Beecher in an early-season game against Southfield Lathrup that year, keeping the Bucs close most of the way against a team that featured current Iowa Hawkeye Roy Devyn Marble and current Wayne State player Bryan Coleman. Marble and Coleman, both wing players, were 6-foot-6. Beecher’s starting center in that game, D’Marius Houston, was generously listed at 6-foot-1.
On top of the size disadvantage, Beecher also was really inexperienced. That season, they started the freshman Morris and sophomores Antuan Burks and Cortez Robinson. They only had three seniors who played significant minutes and their best player from the previous season, Javontae Hawkins (at the time considered the top basketball prospect in the Flint area in years) had transferred to Powers.
All of that is a long-winded way of saying that the game really shouldn’t have been very competitive. Yet somehow, it was for most of the way, and that would become a theme of Beecher’s season. The Bucs started 0-5 that year, with close losses against experienced teams that appeared more talented. But by the time Beecher picked up its first win, beating Flint Southwestern, it was becoming more and more obvious that people should stop questioning the talent of the team. The Bucs were young, yes, but Morris very quickly established himself as one of the best players in the Flint area and one of the top prospects in the state regardless of class year.
A few really unique things stood out about Morris from the beginning. First, his efficiency was off the charts, not just for a freshman, but for a high school guard in general. There are plenty of big-time scorers in high school, but there’s also a reason most people don’t mention the field goal percentage of high school guards: even the good ones usually have ugly percentages. Morris, though, was different. After a close loss to Saginaw Buena Vista that season when Morris scored 29 points on (by my count) 18 shots, here is what Beecher coach Mike Williams said to me when I asked him about those 29 points after the game:
“He had 29? Jesus. And we got on him for passing up shots. He’s the most unselfish kid that I’ve ever coached. He likes to share the ball. He’s capable of scoring 30, 40 points any night, when he’s shooting the ball, but he’s gotta put the shots up.”
That was the beauty of watching Morris. From a young age, he instinctively knew the difference between a bad shot and a good shot. He knew how to finish in traffic. He knew how to draw contact and get to the free throw line. I don’t think I have to tell any coach or person who has worked with or watched extensive amounts of high school basketball how rare it is to find those traits in a freshman guard.
Morris also has a firm understanding of the work necessary to get better. In the summer before his sophomore season, coming off of Beecher getting blown out in the state Class C semifinals against Melvindale ABT, here is what Morris said about that experience:
The work ethic and drive was apparent in Morris during the offseason. In the state semifinals last season, Beecher was soundly defeated by Melvindale ABT, featuring a huge game from Melvindale guard and Mr. Basketball candidate Michael Talley III, who scored 34 points and single-handedly broke Beecher’s vaunted press.
“I take like two days a week to re-watch that game just to take stuff out of his (Talley’s) game,” Morris said. “Just how he reads the court, scores and how aggressive he is. That’s really what I’m trying to add into my game.”
Most impressive about Morris, however, is that he has been committed to not only his teammates and school, but helping restore the ‘District of Champions’ tradition that Beecher was at one time known for. This is an era of high school basketball where top prospects transfer (sometimes multiple times), where people with bad intentions give kids bad advice and, without getting into specific names or circumstances that are irrelevant now, Beecher has been vultured and lost good players to those kinds of situations over the years. There is a flawed line of thinking that in order to get the exposure necessary to be a highly sought-after prospect in high school sports, athletes have to be at huge schools that churn out those types of prospects every year.
The great thing about Morris is he represents just how flawed that thinking is. He’s become an elite player at Beecher for two very simple reasons, aside from his own individual talents: He is playing for a great coach in Mike Williams (maybe the best high school coach in the state, in my opinion) who pushes him to get better; and, to put it as simple as possible, Morris wins. He wins every year.
What better time is there to show off things like your basketball IQ, toughness and competitiveness than the high school basketball playoffs? What better stage is there than the Breslin Center during the state semis and finals to get the chance to perform in front of college scouts and coaches? What better exposure is there for an individual player or team than perennially getting the opportunity to play for a state title?
Morris, now a junior, just won his second consecutive Associated Press Class C Player of the Year Award. Tomorrow, he leads his undefeated team to the state semifinals at the Breslin Center for the third time in his three-year varsity career. Morris is a testament to the fact that overwhelming TEAM success is a great way to open doors for individual achievements as well. He’s exactly the type of player and prospect that high major college coaches interested in winning should be pursuing and he’s exactly the type of player, both for his talent and character, that the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan should be looking to recognize when they hand out next year’s Mr. Basketball award to the best senior in the state.