Zion Morgan making bid for bigger role with UNLV basketball

Freshman could see more minutes against New Mexico on Tuesday


L.E. Baskow

UNLV guard Zion Morgan (10) dribbles up the court versus New Mexico Highlands on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

Zion Morgan stepped off the team bus at the Smith Spectrum in Logan, Utah, on Saturday sniffling and coughing, his strength partially sapped by a cold that had been making its way through the UNLV locker room. The snowy, minus-9 degree weather surely didn’t help matters. But the illness wasn’t going to stop him from seizing his moment.

Coach Marvin Menzies had decided before the game to extend Morgan’s playing time against Utah State due to the freshman guard’s performance in practice. And whether or not he was feeling 100 percent, Morgan was determined to make the most of the opportunity.

He figured game time would be the best cure for what ailed him.

“Once the adrenaline gets in you, you’re good,” Morgan said.

He was right. Morgan came into Saturday’s game averaging just 8.8 minutes per contest, but Menzies subbed him in less than six minutes into the action. Even under the weather, it didn’t take long for Morgan to spring to life.

On his second defensive possession, Morgan stripped Utah State guard Shane Rector in the backcourt, went the other way and got fouled on a layup attempt. He made both free throws, then came up with another steal less than a minute later. Two possessions later, he pushed the ball in transition and hit Jalen Poyser for a 3-pointer.

By the time Morgan checked out, he had played 4:17 minutes and his crackling energy had helped UNLV outscore Utah State 12-5 during that span.

Though the Rebels would go on to lose, 79-63, Morgan finished with four points, two assists and two steals in a season-high 19 minutes. And he registered a plus/minus rating of -3, a relatively good number in a game lost by 16 points.

That should be enough to earn Morgan another crack at rotation minutes when the Rebels travel to face New Mexico on Tuesday.

Morgan’s emergence hasn’t happened overnight. Listed at a spindly 6-foot-5, 180 pounds, it’s taken some time for the Chicago native to get used to the speed of the college game. But after appearing in only four of the Rebels’ first nine games, Morgan believes he’s ready to start making an impact on a regular basis.

“I think I’ve made a big jump from when I first got here to now,” Morgan said. “[I’m] just getting as confident as I was in high school, getting adjusted to the speed. Everybody’s bigger now. I can’t just use my quickness to score, now I’ve got to learn, get different counter moves and stuff. We’re going to work on it, because coach Menzies and all the assistant coaches, they do a good job of progressing players, so we’ll be good.”

For now, Morgan’s strength appears to be his nose for the ball. On a team starving for perimeter defense, Morgan offers a glimmer of hope that he can stay in front of ball handlers, as he did on the play where he picked Rector’s pocket.

Morgan’s steal rate of 3.1 percent is tops on the Rebels, albeit in limited minutes.

“I’m up to speed [on defense],” Morgan said. “I think I’m an excellent defender…We’re aggressive on ‘D.’ I’m aggressive, period. When I’m on defense, I’m always trying to cause a turnover.”

For the rebuilding Rebels, player development under Menzies will be crucial in the coming years. If Morgan can continue to play his way into the rotation and establish himself as a long-term option at point guard, that would have to be considered a good sign, even if his progress comes in 16-point losses.

Morgan may be under the weather, but he's no longer under the radar.

Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeGrimala

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