- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2017

Markieff Morris’ offseason was a study in contrasts, with the 28-year-old Washington Wizards forward putting offcourt troubles in the past while embracing a new future as a first-time father.

The former came with the conclusion of an aggravated assault trial that ended, after dragging on for two years, with a not-guilty verdict.

The latter arrived with daughter Jyzelle, born in early September. Despite her modest age, she is already performing one significant task for her dad, who has “FOE” — Family Over Everything — signage above his locker, on his clothes and tattooed on his body. She allows him to reset if he has a bad day on the court, even if the paranoia of being a new father has him checking on things in the night.

“Every little moan and groan, I’m up,” Morris said.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, stability off the court for Morris hasn’t translated to necessary production on the court.

Washington is a force in the Eastern Conference when Morris is humming the way he was for three months last season. When he’s stagnant and subsequently unimposing, much changes for the Wizards despite the remaining talent of the starting five.

This season, Morris is off to a slow start defined by low activity and trepidation. He was taking a third of his shots from behind the 3-point line before Friday’s win against the Detroit Pistons. Morris was also rarely going to the rim or free throw line. He dunked on a breakaway Friday — his first this season according to league statistics, which Morris said were incorrect — with modest force. Morris verbally waved off questions about his elevation on the dunk, contending two points are two points. However, he did make one concession.

“I’m just a little tentative,” Morris said. “Sometimes, I feel like I can explode. Then other times, just take your time, ease into it. Rim ain’t going nowhere.”

Morris twice used the word “tentative” when talking after the game Friday.

With his severe ankle sprain from last season’s playoffs lingering into the summer and truncating his workout time, his explosiveness is still lacking. He did not work out and build his body because of the ongoing ankle ache. When that began to subside, he needed hernia surgery. He is still not right 15 games into his return. Morris was emphatic when asked if he is 100 percent healthy yet.

“Hell, no,” Morris said. “Eighty-five, 90. It takes some time, man. I came back three weeks before I was supposed to. Just got to keep pushing my limits.”

The eye test and Morris’ shot chart confirm what he is feeling, though it is also crucial to remember he has been cleared by doctors and deemed ready by coaches to return to the floor. Through 15 games, 32.1 percent of his shots have been 3-pointers. That’s up 10 percent from last season. Intertwined with that are a trio of dips: Morris’ free throw attempts are down almost 66 percent, his overall field goal percentage has receded and his offensive rating has declined 7.5 points.

Morris saw clips of his inactivity in a one-on-one film session with coach Scott Brooks on Dec. 1. They sat together in the morning to take a look at what Morris did during his surge last season and what he has done during his slog this one. Something both can take solace in is that Morris’ numbers have not gone off a cliff. He is shooting 44.5 percent, which is in line with his career average, if slightly down from last season. From behind the 3-point line, he is shooting 36.4 percent, which is a sliver better than last season. But, something has been off. They searched for a solution.

“Just showing me not being really locked into the game or not being active at all. It’s good to hear that feedback from a head coach,” Morris said. “We both was on the same page.”

“Pointing out some things he can take advantage of with his skill set,” Brooks said. “He’s well aware he needs to play better for us to have success. One of our key performers of last season’s success was him. During that stretch of games — it seemed like every night it was 20 points and eight or nine rebound for two or three months. But, I think our starters are going to have to play better.”

Morris is the wild card, Brooks said. When he’s on, the Wizards are difficult to defeat.

There is a symbiosis between Morris’ outstanding play in the middle of last season and the Wizards‘ results. For almost three months, his first full one in Washington, Morris played as one of the better power forwards in the league. In January, he shot 48.8 percent from the field, averaged 17.3 points per game and added 8.6 rebounds. He delivered 17.6 points and 6.7 rebounds in February. As his play accelerated, the Wizards‘ second-longest home winning streak took off.

Morris thinks the path to improvement now is simple.

“Super easy,” Morris said. “Basically, I was just playing 3-point line to 3-point line. Like I said, I was a little tentative coming off the injury, trying to feel my way into the game instead of diving in head first like I usually do.”

An uptick would be timely. The Wizards, 12-10 and still without a distinct stride this season, start a five-game West Coast trip Monday in Utah. The Jazz has won five consecutive games and is 10-4 at home. Washington All-Star point guard John Wall is still out because of his injured left knee, though there is a chance he can return in the middle of the trip. In the interim, more from Morris would help, even if concern about Jyzelle won’t let him sleep.

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