Karl-Anthony Towns. Myles Turner. Devin Booker. D’Angelo Russell. Dwayne Morgan.
These rising NBA stars were five-star recruits of the 2014 high school class. They committed to high-profile universities and arrived as scrawny players full of potential.
They’re all millionaires now. Russell inked a four-year, $117 million maximum contract with the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2019. Towns signed a five-year, $190 million extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves before he ever got to free agency. They’ve played four seasons in the NBA.
Well. All of them except for one.
Dwayne Morgan walks into an empty America First Events Center at a university with 10,000 students. He wears a dingy black practice jersey, the same one he wore when he first arrived on campus in 2017.
Morgan probably hadn’t even heard of Southern Utah University when he was tearing up Maryland high schoolers back in 2014. Now he’s a sixth year senior hoping to lead the T-Birds to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2001.
Only 27 high school players received five-star distinction in 2014. Now 16 of them play in the NBA, four play in Europe, three transferred from their original school and graduated college at the end of last season.
Only one is still in college.
It’s Dwayne Tequan Morgan, the 6-8 forward who drew comparisons to Kevin Durant coming out of high school.
Morgan and Durant are both from the greater-Maryland (Morgan from Baltimore, Durant from D.C.). They both headed west to play college ball to after decorated high school careers (Morgan to the University of Nevada Las Vegas and Durant to the University of Texas-Austin). KD’s middle name is even Wayne. It was an easy comparison.
But the comparisons stop there, as Morgan’s path did not follow Durant’s.
Morgan struggled to find his footing at UNLV. He committed alongside fellow five-stars Rashad Vaugh and Goodluck Okonoboh. They finished the 2014-15 season 19-15 and missed the NCAA tournament, which led to UNLV firing then-head coach Dave Rice.
Still, Morgan decided to stick it out in Vegas, but didn’t find the favor of Rice’s replacement, Marvin Menzies. In his sophomore season he averaged 5.5 PPG and 4.7 RPG, and his play time dwindled. A hip injury sidelined him for most of the 2016-17 season.
After the 16-17 season, Kevin Bolinger of Fox News 5 in Las Vegas reported that Morgan had been suspended from the team after an altercation with a taxi driver.
“A lot of people think I got cut from the team, but that’s not true,” Morgan recalls. “I could have [gone back to UNLV] if I wanted to, but I thought it was time for me to part ways with them.”
Todd Simon met Morgan when he was a sophomore in high school in Baltimore. Simon was an assistant coach at UNLV and played an important role in recruiting Morgan.
Following a brief stint as UNLV’s interim head coach, Simon took the head coach position at SUU. He kept an eye on Morgan and got in contact after Morgan decided to transfer.
“I wanted to build something of my own,” Morgan said. “When Simon came [to SUU] and I left UNLV I saw the potential [SUU] had. I thought it could be a small town, big university thing.”
It was a decision that changed the face of SUU basketball. Simon had his cornerstone and started acquiring complimentary talent to put around him.
SUU is a serious contender for the conference title for the first time since joining the Big Sky in 2012. The team’s success can be traced back to when Simon scouted Morgan eight years ago before the university had even joined the Big Sky conference.
It wasn’t the career path he imagined, but it’s exactly where he wants to be.
“As a highly ranked high school kid, you kind of think you know everything,” Morgan said. “I think my experience at UNLV was really humbling. I was able to sit back and look at my game from, not like a basketball level, but on a personal level. I was really able to hold myself accountable and see what I needed to work on.”
Morgan will turn 24-years-old in January 2020, right at the start of conference play. He’s the oldest player on the team and his maturity shows in practice.
Like many great athletes, Morgan lives by a mantra or a motto. Do the Most. It’s a play on his initials that he uses to motivate himself to do whatever it takes to be successful. He carries the mantra with him, even to a preseason practice where the team is just covering basic fundamentals.
At that practice, Simon is running a defensive drill where four players stand around the perimeter and move the ball. The defense practices closing out on shooters and rotating as a unit.
It’s Morgan’s turn to sit out and he watches Australian freshman Jarryd Hoppo defend in the corner. The ball is swung away from Hoppo’s side and he doesn’t move back to the middle of the court to play helpside defense.
The whistle blows and Simon talks to the offensive group. While he talks, Morgan slides up next to Hoppo and grabs him by the hips. He coaxes Hoppo into the right defensive position.
Again the whistle blows and the drill starts anew. Hoppo closes out, then returns to the spot Morgan indicated when the ball moves to the other side of the court.
“Great positioning, Hoppo,” associate head coach John Wardenburg hollers over the ruckus of communicating defenders.
Finally, the drill ends. Hoppo looks back at Morgan with a coy smile.
“Dwayne Morgan has seen the ups and downs of college basketball,” Simon said. “The real fun part about it has been watching him grow as a man and as a person.”
Coach Simon grins as he watches Morgan practice his footwork on long jump shots. Practice doesn’t start for another fifteen minutes, and he knows his star-player us doing the most with his last year in college.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos by Mitchell Quatrz and SUU Athletics.