Jesse Morgan has always felt like he’s had something to prove.
Ever since he was cut from his eighth grade AAU basketball team, the Huntington Park Warriors in Philadelphia, Morgan hasn’t stoped working to try to prove himself, even now with the Massachusetts men’s basketball team.
It didn’t take long for Morgan, a shooting guard for the Minutemen, to work his way back onto the Warriors and, just a game later, become a starter.
“I always had a chip on my shoulder,” Morgan said. “I always had to work hard to get where I had to get to, so it was really just in me to work hard.”
Morgan brings that same mentality into every game. Whether he’s responsible for guarding the opposition’s best scoring threat, trying to crack into the starting lineup, spotting up from the 3-point-line or coming off offseason wrist surgery on his shooting hand, the junior is always out to prove himself and showcase his abilities.
“I’ve always been that type of guy to be under the radar,” Morgan said.
“He didn’t get all the accolades coming out of high school and maybe on the rankings,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said of Morgan, “so I think guys that have to fight their way through a little bit in college and persevere to a certain extent, they usually play with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder.”
Morgan’s main role for the Minutemen is to bring toughness to the defensive end. He’s often charged with the objective of neutralizing the opposition’s most explosive scoring option on the wing. Morgan takes that responsibility with a sense of pride and aims to cause havoc on the defensive end.
“I wanna let people know that it don’t matter the rankings and where you’re projected or your name,” he said. “I’m going to come at you for 40 minutes and my teammates are gonna back me and I’m gonna back them and we’re gonna be up in your chest and we’re gonna bring it every day so you gonna have a long 40 minutes.”
Morgan applied that mindset last season on Feb. 21 when he went up against 2010-11 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and former Xavier guard Tu Holloway. Morgan disrupted the star all game long, keeping Holloway out of his comfort zone with relentless ball pressure. At the end, Morgan held Holloway to an abysmal 2-for-11 shooting performance and just 10 points.
Morgan considers those matchups as just another chance to prove himself.
“I wanna prove to everybody (that) I can defend at the highest level and I can defend pretty much anybody,” he said. “When it comes to the big-time games, I wanna make a statement. I take it on as a challenge.”
Morgan works his way into “tip-top shape” so he doesn’t have to take his foot off the gas pedal and let up on his man. But according to him, playing tough defense isn’t the hardest thing in the world.
“Playing defense is not rocket science,” Morgan said, “it’s nothing that you got to look into, it’s just about buying in and playing defense and really getting in the best shape so you can defend all game and defend different positions.”
Morgan’s defensive intensity fits perfectly into UMass’ full-court pressure tempo, which thrives on easy baskets in transition.
Minutemen point guard Chaz Williams, who often leads UMass on the fast break, says he always has to pay attention when Morgan is guarding the ball so he doesn’t miss an opportunity to grab an easy bucket in transition.
“Jesse always has a way of getting sneaky steals,” Williams said.
But at the beginning of the season, Morgan’s influence was limited, as he came off the bench in the back-up point guard role for the first seven games.
Morgan struggled mightily running the offense, as he appeared to start doubting himself and wasn’t able to showcase his true ability. In the first three games, he averaged just three points, 1.7 assists and 2.7 turnovers per game in just 16 minutes of playing time per game. During that stretch, he shot 2-for-14 from the field.
Morgan admitted that his more natural spot is shooting guard and that he wasn’t comfortable while playing point guard.
“It was kind of hard to play,” Morgan said.
However, he said that he didn’t lack confidence during that stretch, but was simply getting used to the position.
“It was just new,” he said. “You’re still learning (how to play the position) at the college level, high level, so it was just something new.”
Williams remembers helping Morgan through that tough start. Even Willaims’ mother called Morgan to offer some encouragement, as he tried to get his teammate to play with confidence.
“I was just telling him, ‘Stay calm and just stay focused and confident,’ ” Williams said. “He’s a great player. He can play at any position so for him, I just wanted him to stay focused and stay confident.”
Morgan continued to play point guard until the team returned from a 1-2 trip in the Battle 4 Atlantis in Paradise Island, Bahamas. Freddie Riley was struggling to find his shot and UMass allowed just shy of 78 points per game in the tournament.
Kellogg decided to insert Morgan into the lineup in place of Riley in hopes of improving the Minutemen defense.
Morgan made an immediate impact, as UMass held Towson to 56 points in its next contest and reeled off nine wins over an 11 game stretch to catapult the team’s record to 14-4.
“He brought a little bit of a toughness that I thought we needed,” Kellogg said.
But while Morgan’s influence was evident on the defensive end, his offensive game remained inconsistent, especially in Atlantic 10 play. During a six-game stretch from Jan. 21 to Feb. 18, Morgan scoring numbers stretched from 24 to four points.
The amount of emphasis Morgan places on defense might have something to do with his erratic performances on the other end of the floor, but he says it depends on the game and tries to not let that affect his offensive play.
“You gotta be a defender, you gotta rebound, you gotta do all types of things that makes you a complete player,” Morgan said. “And the players that do that are the best players, so I try to do everything I can do to be the best player I can be.”
Morgan showed team officials he has the potential to be a lethal shooter, especially from beyond the arc. He shot a perfect 6-for-6 from downtown in the Minutemen’s regular season finale on March 3 against Rhode Island, as part of a 9-for-9 shooting day and a career-high, 25-point effort.
Morgan’s ability to make shots from long range is critical to UMass’ half-court offense. When defenders have to respect his shot, it opens up more driving lanes for Williams, a member of the A-10 Preseason First Team.
“His guy can’t help as much and that makes a lot more space for me to penetrate the gaps and attack,” Williams said.
One thing that might hinder Morgan’s shot is the condition of his right wrist, which he broke in July and had to undergo offseason surgery. He has a 4-inch scar under his arm to remind him of the injury, but he says he won’t wear any brace or tape once the season starts.
Morgan says his wrist is getting better every day and that he’ll take it one day at a time.
“I’m trying to get it out of my head as much as possible,” he said. “I don’t really think about it.”
After all, Morgan has plenty of other things to think about with his defensive responsibilities and shot-making on the offensive end.
Morgan’s role isn’t simply defined; it contains a number of different components.
“I would say (my role is) being an all-around player and just bringing everything to the table.”
Judging by his play last year, Morgan appears well suited for that job.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.