The 2017-18 season was about taking steps forward for the members of IU’s junior class.
Forward Juwan Morgan evolved from a role player into a star, while versatile wing Zach McRoberts carved out a crucial niche as a defensive-minded role player that eventually turned into a starting spot for the walk-on.
One play could sum up the entire season for both Morgan and McRoberts, and it came near the end of the Hoosiers’ best win of the year. Playing against then-No. 18 Notre Dame on Dec. 16, 2017, in the Crossroads Classic, Morgan put the Hoosiers on his back down the stretch.
Morgan scored a career-high 34 points, including 16 in a row, to carry his team into overtime, but the Hoosiers still found themselves down by a point with 10 seconds left in the extra period. Morgan went to the line for a free throw that could have tied it, but his attempt missed.
McRoberts stretched his arms over those of Notre Dame’s preseason All-American Bonzie Colson and came down with the rebound. McRoberts found a cutting Morgan and passed it to him while falling down. Morgan dunked it, IU Coach Archie Miller picked up his first big win with the Hoosiers and one of the high points of the IU season was created.
It was the perfect encapsulation of what the two players meant to IU this year. Morgan scored in bunches and stepped up as a hero when the Hoosiers needed one the most. McRoberts, meanwhile, hovered in the background, setting up his teammates for success while finding some of his own.
By the end of the season, McRoberts was such a key contributor that it was difficult to remember the times when he was not a member of the starting lineup, much less the three November games where he was healthy but did not log any minutes.
The Notre Dame game marked the breakout for McRoberts, who played 31 minutes against the Fighting Irish after entering the contest averaging less than eight minutes per game in seven appearances. From that game on, he started 17 of 21 games while grabbing 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.
McRoberts’ scoring ability evolved throughout the season. He wound up shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range in a small sample size, but his coach was a key supporter in his increased confidence on the offensive end.
“He has to be aggressive within his role,” Miller said of McRoberts in early February. “I think, at times, teams choose to back off on him, not guard him, do certain things. He's got to step up and take the good shots. He's capable of making them.”
Morgan had no such need for encouragement with his aggressiveness, since he quickly established himself as a go-to option after dealing with a minor injury early on. The Notre Dame game was hardly Morgan’s first scoring outburst of the season; it was already his third 20-point game and would not be his last.
The All-Big Ten second team member had a serious case for first team recognition, especially after Morgan took his game to another level in conference play and scored nearly 18 points per game in 18 Big Ten match-ups. By the end of the season, Morgan had even improved his 3-point shot and went 14-36 from deep in his final 16 games.
Morgan’s 16.5 points per game over the course of the season were the most from an IU forward since Cody Zeller averaged the same amount in 2012-13. Zeller went on to be a top-five selection in the NBA draft after that season, and although Morgan is nowhere near that level, the NBA may come calling for him.
After his team’s loss to Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament, Morgan was quick to emphasize that he had not yet made a decision about declaring for the NBA draft or returning to school for his senior season.
Not many of the preliminary mock drafts have mentioned him as a likely selection in 2018, but players can declare and participate in workouts for NBA teams before making their final decision on whether or not to return. If Morgan is back with IU next season, he would be a top candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Regardless of what his decision is, Morgan can easily find ways to improve like at the free throw line where his percentage dipped to a career worst 63.1 percent this season. Morgan took such a huge leap from his sophomore to junior season that he knows there is more room to grow.
“It’s always going to be a constant improvement with me,” Morgan said. “I think that’s just the mindset I have. There’s never any time to regress. I just have to keep getting better.”
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