Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni has a history of using players out of position.
As he did when coaching the Phoenix Suns by playing Shawn Marion at power forward and either Amar’e Stoudemire or Boris Diaw at center, which was considered unorthodox. Now Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh often start at the five; LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at four.
Recently D’Antoni has moved Metta World Peace to reserve power forward and has experimented with second-year point guard Darius Morris as the Lakers’ starting shooting guard.
“He did well. He set the tone, especially with his defense,” said D’Antoni of Morris after the Lakers’ 104-87 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday. “He’s very athletic. We need athleticism, he’s probably the most athletic guy on the team (without going crazy, Dwight [Howard] is there) but he gets up and down and his energy just helps everybody and we have to have that.”
Morris was charged with guarding Damian Lillard, Portland’s high-scoring point guard and probable rookie of the year. Lillard scored only 11 points on four-of-17 shooting in 37-1/2 minutes, dishing four assists with three turnovers.
“Darius did a great job on Lillard tonight. He got into him,” said Howard. “He pressured him the whole game and that was a big reason why we were able to win tonight.”
The Lakers drafted Morris as the 41st pick in the 2011 NBA draft. The 6-4 point guard from Michigan by way of Windward High in L.A. didn’t play much as a rookie but circumstances brought him to the forefront in his second year. Injuries to both Steve Nash (leg) and Steve Blake (abdominal surgery) gave Morris major minutes, often starting at point guard. The results were mixed as Morris tried to learn on the fly.
“The biggest thing we’re trying to teach him is to slow down,” said D’Antoni after Morris hit four of six shots against the Blazers. “He contributed offensively which is found money. He can do that.”
What the Lakers and D’Antoni are looking for from Morris is energy. This older team needs his youthful legs, especially defensively.
“I think it’s great. He wants it,” said Howard of Morris’ defensive effort. “He wants to guard anybody on the team, the other team’s best player and that’s good.”
On Christmas Day, D’Antoni asked Morris to guard New York Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony.
“I’m sure there’s some guys scratching their heads, ‘Why would you put him on Melo?' Well, Melo did get about three-straight threes in New York and killed us in transition and that didn’t happen because of Darius,” said D’Antoni. “Now he did shoot over him and I had to take him off because it didn’t quite work. But Darius will play the hardest guy so I can save Kobe’s legs a little bit, Metta is comfortable where he is [coming off the bench] and especially if I can put [Morris] on the point guard instead of Steve. That we’ll continue to do.”
Morris is excited at the opportunity.
“I’m really blessed to have a coach that even would do that on a big stage like, to have confidence in me,” said Morris. “That just gives me the strength to thinking I can go out there and get it done, no matter how big the giant is you just need to go up and face the challenge. It’s all about your heart at that point. And as you saw, when [Anthony] started the second half [against World Peace], he still went off. He’s a great player but you’ve just got to try to step up to the challenge. You never know what can happen.”
Against the Blazers, Bryant tossed up a lob to Morris, who threw down the dunk. Bryant, with a huge grin, came over to give the young guard praise for his play.
“I’m very proud of him, the way he’s performing,” said Bryant. “He’s continuing to learn his new position and he played extremely well tonight.”
The Lakers All-Star has looked to mentor his younger teammate.
“I think it’s pretty cool, like Kobe telling me, ‘Just got to step up to the challenge,’ and look at it as an opportunity to expand my game,” said Morris. “He said I’m 6-5, so there’s a lot of room for me to expand my game and be more of a combo guard right now to help this team. ‘At the end of the day, you’ve been playing point guard all your life, that’s never going to go anywhere. You’re still going to have those skills, they’re not going to go anywhere but just work on others aspects of your game.’”
Against Lillard, Morris was able to hold his own but trying to guard Anthony lasted only seven minutes. Morris admitted it can be discouraging to get pulled from a game but he’s taking it in stride.
“As a young player, those kinds of things can happen. That’s why you just have to be on your ‘A’ game,"" said Morris. "[I] just try to show the coach that I deserve to be out here. If not, then get ready for next game.”
While D’Antoni has a quick hook, he also keeps putting Morris back in the starting lineup. Veteran forward Antawn Jamison has been left out of the rotation in favor of the more athletic, defensive-minded guard.
"[Coach] is really trying to find me minutes and try to use what I can bring to my team, even though sometimes I mess up. Being a young player, he’s willing grow with me,” said Morris. “It definitely gives me confidence whether I play five minutes, 10 minutes, just the fact that he’s putting me out there in that spot, in that role, it’s an honor.”
Bryant believes Morris can be a unique player for the Lakers.
“It’s a great opportunity to for him to really improve his worth,” said Bryant. “There’s not a lot of guards at his size that can be combo guards and be great defensive players as well. It’s a great opportunity for him to build that reputation.”
The most important thing the Lakers are focused on right now is getting wins. The Lakers have gotten six victories in their last seven games, which is what they need to overcome their injury-ridden start that had them as low as 12th place in the Western Conference.