Juwan Morgan, in a surprise, gets first career NBA start in the playoffs

Utah Jazz's Juwan Morgan, left, scrambles for the ball with Denver Nuggets' Jerami Grant (9) and Jamal Murray during the second half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

Juwan Morgan wasn’t drafted last summer. The 23-year-old was signed, then waived by the Jazz in preseason. After finding his way back up after a terrific G-League start, the Jazz played him just 134 minutes in the regular season, mostly in garbage time. In other words, he was not exactly pegged to be a guy the Jazz could count on when the playoff crucible came around.

But, remarkably, Quin Snyder did one better. He made Morgan’s first NBA start an NBA playoff start on Monday in Game 1 of the Jazz’s series against the Denver Nuggets.

“It was crazy, just everything that led up to it. Coach telling everybody at practice and then the things leading up to it,” Morgan said, remembering his reaction when he learned of his new role. “I think everybody just reached out saying it’s just basketball, we do this every day, it’s nothing different. Just go out there, know the plays and give it your all, and that’s what I did.”

Morgan didn’t set the house on fire in his first start, but he was exactly what the Jazz needed: some low-usage reliability. Morgan finished with three points, seven rebounds, an an assist in 25 minutes on the floor.

On offense, he mostly stayed out of the way, letting the Jazz’s better players go to work. On defense, he matched up against Paul Millsap and attacked the glass, rebounding the basketball well.

“My main focus was the same thing anytime I step on the floor: hustle hard, play defense, get offensive boards, block out, all the little things, and then make life easier for all the guys they have here to score.”

That’s who Morgan is. In a 4-year career with Indiana University, Morgan was known for making the right play in nearly every situation — so frequently, in fact, that he sometimes played point guard despite spending the rest of his minutes on the floor as a 6-foot-8 big man.

When the Jazz worked him out over the summer, Morgan flashed a developing 3-point shot, something he struggled with at the college level. It was enough to intrigue them, inviting him to training camp and giving him a spot on the G-League Salt Lake City Stars.

And with the Stars, Morgan showed off versatility on both ends to such an extent that the Jazz were concerned about another team snatching him up. On Nov. 21, they waived 15th man Stanton Kidd to make room for Morgan — a decision that has certainly paid off now.

On Monday, it was no accident that Morgan finished with a game-high +17 plus-minus: the Jazz were great with him out on the floor. He didn’t look nervous, either, though nerves would have been understandable.

“Especially Mike (Conley) and Royce (O’Neale), they were the main ones that talked to me including with the other rookies there, just telling me, again, it’s just basketball,” Morgan said. “We do this every day. Don’t be nervous, because when you go out there nervous, sometimes you make mistakes. If you just go out there and just give it (your) all, you’ll be in the right places at the right time.”

Morgan was, and his performance earned rave reviews from his coach.

“Denver’s a big team, Juwan’s played for us this year at various times,” Snyder said as he explained his decision. “We’re trying to have Juwan fill in and give us some good minutes early in the first and third quarters and then frankly, he did an excellent job. I want him to take his three from the corner, he made one of them. I thought he was very active and aggressive, committed to the defensive glass, so a lot of good things from Juwan tonight. Look for more of that.”

So sure, Morgan’s name looked out of place as an unknown on an NBA playoff starting lineup sheet. But on the court, he fit in — just as he’s been doing for his whole basketball life.