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How rookie Juwan Morgan went from undrafted free agent to playoff contributor for the Utah Jazz

Morgan has gone from signing a summer contract with the Utah Jazz last year to starting two playoff games and staying in the rotation for Game 3.

Utah Jazz’s Juwan Morgan (16) dunks as Denver Nuggets’ Paul Millsap (4) looks on during the second half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Ashley Landis, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Juwan Morgan still remembers the tweet he posted on the morning of June 21, 2019.

The night before, Morgan had not been among the 60 players selected in the annual NBA draft, although immediately after, The Athletic’s Michael Scotto reported that the former Indiana Hoosier would be signing a free-agent deal with the Utah Jazz.

“It only takes one…see you soon,” Morgan tweeted.

The Jazz, then, became the “one” team that ultimately bet on Morgan, the team that would give him a chance to fulfill his NBA dreams, as they signed him to an Exhibit 10 (summer) contract. Fourteen months later, the 23-year-old from Waynesville, Missouri, is certainly proving the first four words of his tweet true, that all he needed to start making an impact in the NBA was a shot.

After beginning the 2019-2020 season with the NBA G League’s Salt Lake City Stars, Utah signed him to a standard contract, and although he was used very sparingly during the regular season (he spent a bunch of time with the Stars), Jazz head coach Quin Snyder called upon him to play some center against small frontcourts, especially the Houston Rockets.

Then this week, Snyder’s belief in the 6-foot-7, 232-pound Morgan went to a completely new level, as he put him in the starting lineup for the first two games of Utah’s playoff series against the Denver Nuggets in place of Mike Conley. Even as Conley returned to the starting lineup for Game 3 on Friday, Morgan stayed in the rotation, logging 22 minutes off the bench.

The son of military parents, Morgan knew that the route to his dreams through the Beehive State would have to be filled with a whole lot of hard work, given that he had to prove himself as an undrafted player. At the same time, he trusted that if he put that work in, “good things will come.”

“I feel once I am able to get the opportunity and able to put the work in, I feel like I give myself the best shot every single day I’m out there,” he told the Deseret News by phone this week from the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World.

Utah Jazz’s Juwan Morgan, center, competes for a loose ball against Denver Nuggets’ Paul Millsap, left, and Torrey Craig during the first half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Associated Press

No, it’s not unheard of for an undrafted player to make an early impact (this season alone, for instance, Miami Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn started 67 regular season games and averaged 15.3 points for the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference), and part of why Snyder started Morgan is because of his size and so Jordan Clarkson could stay in his sixth man role, but it’s still notable that Morgan got the nod over any of Utah’s three second-round draft picks from a year ago.

“When you’re with someone and you continue to see them perform in practice and work, you build trust and confidence,” Snyder said earlier this week. “He’s a player that you can trust because of the way that he plays. He’s poised and consistent, strong with the ball, rebounds. There’s a lot of little things that he does to impact the game, particularly in a situation like he’s in where he’s starting a game.”

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Stars head coach Nathan Peavy, who was promoted on Aug. 13 after being an assistant coach the past three seasons, also pointed to Morgan’s work ethic as the biggest driving force in the rookie’s development thus far.

“He was just always dedicated, always putting in a lot of work, very focused on his craft,” Peavy said. “He just showed a great maturity for learning the game, picking up things quickly, learning Jazz structure and also the Stars.

“You saw how he picked up things and then you started to see the progression, but the progression happened very quickly. I think that was the biggest thing for Juwan, is he just improved so quickly once he came to us, and that’s just a big testament to him.”

Juwan Morgan (16) of the Salt Lake City Stars puts the shot up over Donta Hall (5) of the Grand Rapids Drive at Lifetime Activities Center-Bruin Arena on Dec. 2, 2019, in Taylorsville.
NBAE via Getty Images

Primarily an interior player in college, Peavy said Morgan almost immediately showed there was more to his game that could be developed.

“He has very good basketball instincts and just an overall great feel for the game,” Peavy said. “When he started with us in the Stars, we knew we had a special player. He was a very good passer from his position and he rebounds on both ends.”

Asked to play center for the Stars, Peavy acknowledged that Morgan was a little undersized, but he made up for it with his toughness, physicality and athleticism. As it turned out, though, Morgan’s ability to play the position gave the Jazz an option to match up better against the Rockets.

Of Morgan’s 88 regular season minutes before the NBA was suspended in March, 20 came in two February contests against Houston.

“I think his development speaks for itself, to come in as an Exhibit 10 undrafted with our (G League) team and continue to improve where we sign him with the Jazz and then his opportunity to play situationally in games mainly as a (center) positionally,” Snyder said.

Morgan said when he arrived, he could immediately see how invested the Jazz and Stars jointly were in player development, backing up a reputation the organization has built over the past several years.

“They really take their G League development seriously, and they pay attention to everything you do,” Morgan said. “They were always telling you what they wanted to see you work on and then helping you apply it to games, so it was never just going out there and doing something just to say you put some work in.

“From top to bottom, from the Jazz all the way to the bottom of the Stars, everybody always had the same philosophy, just making sure everybody was on the same track. I really appreciated that because that meant that they were in constant communication.”

Juwan Morgan (16) of the Salt Lake City Stars drives against Davon Reed (32) of the Sioux Falls Skyforece at Lifetime Activities Center-Bruin Arena on Feb. 3, 2020 in Taylorsville.
NBAE via Getty Images

Moving forward in the series against the Nuggets at least, it appears that Morgan may have earned a spot in Utah’s rotation. Before Game 3, Snyder didn’t go so far as to say it would be permanent through the rest of the season, but he again expressed trust in the rookie.

“Juwan Morgan played really well at various times this year, and I think the primary thing is that we have confidence in Juwan in whatever capacity that we use him,” Snyder said. “I think the playoffs, more than anything, are situational, and (him starting) happened to be a situation for a lot of reasons that we felt like Juwan could really contribute. Those situations continue to present themselves. We won’t hesitate to use him.”

As Morgan works to make his mark in the league beyond just this series or this season, he recognizes he needs to continue to get better. Specifically, Morgan echoed Peavy’s sentiment that he needs to improve his perimeter game, calling that the “separating factor” between being able to stick in the league or not.

Just as he’s always been, Morgan is eager to continue to put in the work to do all he can to have a long NBA career.

“I can’t get complacent,” he said. “I’ll still be proving myself each and every day. I’ll never not go hard in practice or in a game. I think that’s a reason why people stay in the league so long is because they get better each and every day. They never get complacent.”