UNLV’s courtship of 2016 point guard Zion Morgan may have set a new land speed record. At the beginning of May, the high school senior was reportedly set to postpone college and go to prep school for a year if he didn’t receive an offer from a high-major Division I program. Then UNLV came calling with an empty roster and an open path to early playing time, and Morgan was signed, sealed and delivered to the Rebels without so much as visiting the campus.
So yes, in some ways it was a marriage of convenience. But shotgun nuptials sometimes have a surprising knack for working out, and after going back and watching some game footage from Morgan’s high school season, I think there’s a good chance this turns out to be a mutually beneficial long-term relationship. Morgan may have flown under the radar on the recruiting trail, but it wasn’t because he lacks talent. The 6-foot-3 guard is an intriguing prospect with a very interesting skill set, especially for someone available so late in the process.
After digging into Morgan’s film, the first aspect of his game that jumped out at me was his ability to drive and finish at the rim. Morgan is a good athlete, and he possesses an explosive first step off the dribble. In the games I watched—including some against the best high school teams in Chicago—Morgan gave defenders fits with his initial quickness. And once he got by the primary defender, he was able to elevate, hang in the air and contort his body as much as necessary to finish off the play:
Some of the finishes in that video are amazing for a high school guard. He can double-clutch and evade shot-blockers, and he’s strong enough to absorb contact and complete and-1 layups. And though he doesn’t really soar above the rim, he still converted at a high rate in the games I watched. His physical tools are evident—given time in a college strength and conditioning program, Morgan could eventually become a top-tier athlete in a league like the Mountain West.
Morgan’s explosive athleticism is also evident on the defensive end of the court. He’s not a terribly engaged defender—he has a bad habit of standing flat-footed and getting caught off guard by cutters and offensive rebounders—but he makes a ton of highlight plays just by being more talented than most of his counterparts.
Even when he’s out of position, he is athletic enough to explode into passing lanes and come away with steals, which he did a handful of times in each game I watched:
As nice as the steals are, however, Morgan’s best highlights come when he skies to block shots. He may be bored and inattentive at times on the defensive end, but he springs to life when he senses the opportunity to swat someone. He’ll fly in from the weakside to reject bigger players at the rim, and any time the other team gets out on a fast break, Morgan will chase it down from behind and go for the block.
The amount of rejections was eye-opening for a guard:
Obviously, that skill may not translate to the college level, as 6-foot-3 guards aren’t really counted on for rim protection. But it does demonstrate the type of athleticism that Morgan possesses. If Marvin Menzies can get his motor revved on every defensive possession like it is for chasedown attempts, Morgan could turn into a good defender for the Rebels.
While most of Morgan’s plus skills are related to athleticism, he also showed a nice passing touch in the games I watched. Though his primary role was as a scorer, he averaged five assists per game for his high school team, and most were of the drive-and-kick variety:
Even in those passing clips, you can see how much space Morgan is able to create with his quickness. That ability to attack downhill makes him dangerous with the ball in his hands, but in order to become a well-rounded offensive threat, he’ll have to work on his outside shot. I couldn’t find 3-point percentages for his high school season, but in the games I watched, his shot was inconsistent. There were times when he rushed his release, and his follow-through looked different from one shot to the next:
Morgan can also stand to tighten his handle. Like most high school players, he can over-dribble at times, and there are times when he loses his feel for the ball. Morgan is at his best when he beats defenders with his quick first step; when he tries to beat them with change-of-direction dribbles, he can fumble the ball away:
And as I mentioned earlier, Morgan tends to lose focus on defense. He stands flat-footed when he’s defending away from the ball, and the action tends to fly past him because of that. Instead of using his athleticism to impact every defensive possession, he’s content to settle for highlight plays (steals and blocks):
One of Menzies’ first tasks once Morgan arrives on campus will be to coach that passive defensive mindset out of him. If he can get Morgan to engage his motor on every defensive possession, there is plenty of playing time to be earned in the UNLV backcourt.
Offensively, Morgan won’t be able to rely on sheer quickness to beat defenders as often as he did at the high school level, but his first step will still be an effective weapon. The Rebels are going to need scoring, and judging from his high school tape, Morgan may be able to chip in with his finishing ability and his drive-and-dish skills. He’s not as polished as grad transfer Uche Ofoegbu, the likely starter at shooting guard, but Morgan’s combination of length and athleticism could allow him to back up both guard spots and play 20 minutes per game.
And that’s just a projection for his freshman year. Morgan has all the physical tools to develop into a solid four-year program player (with a few highlight blocks thrown in for good measure), and it’s possible to envision him teaming with Jalen Poyser to give UNLV a pair of attacking combo guards in the backcourt in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Given the circumstances surrounding his recruitment, if Morgan turns into a starter at some point in his college career it will have to be considered a big win for the Rebels.