NOTE: Juwan Morgan’s mother, Jacquelyn, is a master sergeant in the Army and his father, Darren, is a 10-year Army veteran. Darren currently educates Fort Leonard Wood soldiers about the wrongs of sexual harassment. On this Veteran’s Day, we pay tribute to the Morgan family. This is Juwan's Story.
Ask most college basketball players, and they’ll tell you they’ve been playing the sport since they could walk. They always loved the game and they dreamed of one day playing in college and beyond.
Ask Juwan Morgan, and he’ll tell you a much different story. Sports never interested the Indiana commit at an early age. Morgan would much rather sit inside playing video games than go outside and shoot hoops.
In many ways, it makes sense. Both of Morgan’s parents were in the military, meaning his family moved from base to base and sometimes country to country throughout Juwan’s youth. It was hard for Juwan to form lasting friendships. He longed for something he could control. He found it in NBA Jam and Street Fighter on the Nintendo 64.
That was until he reached the third grade.
Juwan’s older brother, De’Ante, had always been a two-sport athlete, playing both basketball and football. And he was good. De’Ante started taking Juwan with him to the playgrounds and basketball gyms at Fort Hood and other military bases in Germany and Korea. Before long, Juwan shared the same love of sports as De’Ante, and he too began playing both football and basketball.
Despite their seven-year age difference, Juwan and De’Ante regularly competed against each other, especially on the basketball court. It gave them a chance to bond, and after years of moving around the world, it finally gave Juwan a friendship that would last forever.
“My brother was all about basketball,” Juwan says. “We went at each other with it all the time. He was the one who toughened me up on the basketball court. He was the one who would tell me I couldn't throw fits and throw things if things didn't go my way.”
For awhile, though, Morgan thought his future was in football. He was a talented young wide receiver and his basketball skills took a little longer to develop.
But everything changed one day five years ago, when Juwan was in the sixth grade.
De’Ante had just finished military basic training and was driving home to see his family. Traveling at 70 mph, De’Ante’s vehicle hit something in the road. De'Ante swerved off the road, and the car flipped six or seven times.
"The doctors said he might not be able to walk or play basketball again,” Juwan says. “I remember three or four days later, he came home and was bandaged from head to thigh. They said he’d never be able to walk again. I’ll never forget it.”
It was in that moment that Juwan knew his future was in basketball. It had to be.
"That was our bonding thing, that was our thing we did together,” Juwan says.
Against all odds, De’Ante eventually recovered and is doing well now. Juwan says he and his brother still play 1-on-1 on a regular basis. But it had been decided. Even though he didn’t give up football right away, Juwan vowed to do everything in his power to excel in basketball. De’Ante’s career was cut short. Juwan was playing for both of them now.
Point guard to big man
Morgan began his basketball career as a point guard in the third grade. He recalls playing travel ball with his best friend, Joe Johnson [No, not that Joe Johnson], and going undefeated for four straight years. As fifth and sixth graders, Morgan’s team played up a grade and still dominated.
Morgan remained a point guard until the eighth grade when he hit a sudden growth spurt. Juwan grew seven inches between eighth and ninth grade, sprouting up from a 5-foot-10 guard to a 6-foot-5 forward.
“It’s helped so much especially with the position I was put in AAU being the tallest on the team, having to guard 7-footers,” Morgan says.
All the while, Morgan continued to play football. He was moved up to the varsity roster halfway through his freshman season at Waynesville (Missouri) and saw some time at wide receiver. But given his sudden growth, Morgan decided it was in his best interest to spend all of his time on basketball going forward. He quit football after his freshman season.
Morgan’s decision paid off, and quickly.
During his freshman basketball season, Waynesville’s starting forward went down in the District championship game. Trailing 25-11, Morgan entered and scored 11 straight points. Waynesville lost the game by a point, but it was clear: Morgan had made the most of his opportunity.
”From then on, coach was always telling me I had a chance to get to the next level as long as I put in the work,” Morgan says. “That game really sticks out. It opened my eyes and it motivated me even more.”
Morgan eventually added three more inches and grew to 6-foot-8, but the growth didn’t come nearly as fast on the court. It took time for Morgan to learn how to use his height to his advantage and adjust to playing in the post after spending his whole life on the perimeter.
“It was crazy. I felt like it wasn’t even me,” Morgan says. “I had to get used to it, and it took me awhile to do that. I was a lot longer and a lot skinnier because I got stretched out. I got through it, and now I’m a lot more comfortable.”
From a team perspective, the climb was just as difficult. Waynesville had losing seasons during both of Morgan’s first two years at the school.
Despite the team’s struggles, Morgan played well enough to earn a tryout with the well-known MoKan Elite AAU program in Kansas, which has developed players like the Utah Jazz’s Alec Burks. Morgan made the team, giving him an opportunity to develop as a big man twice as fast as playing only the school season.
“The first time i met him I was staying with coach [Rodney] Perry, and he was already there,” Morgan says. “We went to practice that night just to get to know each other and scrimmage. Shake and I got put on the same team, and from the start, we just clicked and had a chemistry, knew where the other person was gonna be.
”We’re as close as people could ever be.”
Morgan made good use of his AAU summers, and he returned to Waynesville a much-improved player as a junior. Morgan led his team to a 24-3 record while averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds per game. He was named the player of the year in the Ozark conference.
Morgan and Waynesville fell by a point in the first round of the state tournament to the eventual state runner-up. He still has plenty to accomplish as a senior.
Morgan continued to play well with MOKAN Elite last summer. He was named as the EYBL’s most-improved player after averaging 10.9 points and 6.8 rebounds in league play. He averaged 12.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 2.2 steals per game during the Peach Jam finals in July.
“He’s only scratching the surface of his ability,” says Waynesville coach Chris Pilz.
”There's no single defining aspect of his game, other than perhaps his consistent yeoman's effort,” says Scout.com analyst Rob Harrington. “Morgan is a scrapper who seems to relish opportunities to clean up his teammates' mistakes or blend into the background when others have asserted themselves as alpha scorers. He projects as a tough, hard working and coachable four-year player who has the athleticism to give the Hoosiers a boost inside in the Big Ten."
Not just an athlete
Often lost amidst his basketball abilities and accolades is Morgan’s academic prowess. He currently has a 4.0 GPA at Waynesville and is in the top 20 of his class. He also scored a 29 on the ACT last year.
Morgan’s parents have always held him to a high standard, and he and his high school teammates push each other in school as much as they do in basketball.
Morgan plans to major in sport communication at Indiana so he can stay in the sports field as long as he can.
“They don’t accept anything less than the best, no matter what it is,” Morgan says of his parents. “They’ve humbled all of us, not to let anything get to your head.
”I’m a competitive person, and most of my team is at the top of their class, maybe the top 30. Me and two other players are in the top 20. I just like being better than them, and we always have that competition.”
Initially, it seemed somewhat unusual when Indiana started recruiting Morgan early last summer. The Hoosiers don’t often go to states like Missouri and Kansas for basketball recruiting.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the connection makes sense on several levels. For one, Indiana assistant Steve McClain had success recruiting the MoKan Elite program — including Alec Burks — when he was at Colorado. Plus, Morgan had grown up hearing about the Hoosiers. His father is originally from Indiana, as is his friend Joe Johnson’s family. [Johnson was there when Morgan committed to Indiana in September.]
”We’d always hear about Bloomington and the candy stripes and the Hoosiers growing up,” Morgan says. “When they reached out, I had a good idea what they were about.”
Morgan’s familiarity with the program got Indiana in the door. His relationship with Tom Crean closed the deal.
“He asked me if I knew about Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh,” Morgan says of Crean. “He said they were basically bigs that could put the ball on the floor and do everything a guard could do. He said he saw the same potential in me. Not quite the same because I’m obviously not that tall, but he said he could bring that out in me.”
”Scrimmaging with [Johnson and Blackmon] in the pick and roll was another one of those things I had with Shake,” Morgan says. “I felt like the ball was already there waiting on me. They knew where was gonna be before I was.”
It’s that kind of natural chemistry that led Morgan to basketball in the first place, the same chemistry he developed with his older brother in the park as a third grader. It’s that kind of chemistry that Morgan hopes can help lead Indiana back to the Final Four.JAMES' STORY: The Complete Feature
Indiana beats UIndy 76-63 in final exhibition game
Albers: Takeaways from win over UIndy