The Raymar Morgan Story: An Act in Four Tumultuous-Yet-Accomplished Parts

For a college basketball player who has had the label "inconsistent" engraved on to his public image, Raymar Morgan has a remarkably uniform set of career statistical indicators:

G Min/G Pts/G OffRtg Poss% eFG% FT% FTR OReb% DReb% Ast% TO% Stl% PF/G
2006-07 28 27.5 11.7 96.4 25.2 49.5 69.0 46.5 8.6 14.9 7.1 23.0 1.6 2.8
2007-08 36 27.7 14.0 110.1 25.7 57.3 67.2 53.7 10.1 15.8 12.3 20.0 2.0 2.8
2008-09 35 22.5 10.2 103.2 23.4 53.5 65.9 53.7 9.3 17.9 11.1 20.1 1.7 2.6
2009-10 29 26.4 10.7 110.4 21.0 54.0 66.0 45.9 9.2 16.9 13.2 18.5 2.1 2.9

 

Buried in those numbers, though, are a nearly continuous stream of ups and downs over the course of Morgan's career.  Let's review, starting at the beginning.

Factoid I think I knew at one point but had forgotten: Only three players in the history of Michigan State basketball have averaged more points per game as freshmen than Raymar Morgan did: Earvin Johnson, Shawn Respert, and Scott Skiles.  You may recognize those three names, as they can all be found on banners hanging from the rafters of the Breslin Center.

Going into the 2006-07 season, MSU had lost its three top scorers--Maurice Ager, Paul Davis, and Shannon Brown, all of whom had averaged more than 17 points/game in their final season.  The top returning scorer was Drew Neitzel at 8.3 points/game.  The second leading returning scorer had averaged 3.0 points/game (a tie between Goran Suton and Marquise Gray).  (Matt Trannon was actually the fifth highest scorer during the 2005-06 season, at 4.6 points/game, but he opted not play basketball as a senior.)

Morgan became the #2 scoring option by default.  He wasn't terribly efficient in that role, making less than half of his shots from the field and turning the ball over at a fairly generous rate, but he and Neitzel bore enough of the offensive burden (25% usage rates for both) to allow players like Travis Walton, Maurice Joseph, Isaiah Dahlman (more on him later), and Drew Naymick to post adequately efficient offensive numbers.  That, coupled with the best defensive effort since the back-to-back-to-back Final Four appearances of 1999-2001, kept the Spartan NCAA Tournament appearance streak alive.

Going into his sophomore season, even bigger things were expected from Morgan (who had missed 7 games due to injury as a freshman).  He did indeed improve his scoring average and his shooting percentage, but there were concerns about the consistency (or lack thereof) in his offensive output:

Morgan scored in double digits in 27 of MSU’s 36 games. Of the 9 exceptions, 8 were road/neutral-site games. And all of them were against conference or NCAA tournament opponents (Ohio State, @Minnesota, @Indiana, @Wisconsin, @Illinois, Ohio State in BTT, Wisconsin in BTT, Pittsburgh, Memphis).

Against weaker opponents, Morgan could use his size and athleticism to create good shots around the basket. Against more athletic opponents, Morgan struggled. His outside shot disappeared in the second half of the season, allowing defenders to sag off him a bit and prevent good scoring chances. This seemed to effect his overall confidence, leading to less aggressive rebounding and undisciplined defense (his average personal fouls per game increased from 2.2 in nonconference play to 3.6 in postseason play).

Nevertheless, it was a solid sophomore season--and a healthy one: zero missed games.  The bar was set even higher for his junior year:

Going into next season, he has to be more consistent against teams where the size/athleticism advantage is smaller and/or the opponent players better help defense. To make that happen, he needs to hit the mid-range jumpshot consistently to force defenders to guard him closely, opening up the ability to drive to the basket. His offensive production needs to become a cause, rather than a symptom, of MSU’s success as a team.

And he needs to keep his head up when the shots aren’t dropping. Morgan has the ability to make major contributions on the boards and on defense. He can’t allow his entire game to be negatively impacted on nights when he’s struggling offensively.

Unfortunately, injury problems once again intervened.  After averaging 15.3 points/game on stupendous 69.3% two-point shooting during nonconference play, Morgan was hit with a bout of pneumonia that forced him to miss three Big Ten games and limited his minutes in five other games.  The result was a junior-year statistical line that was a step backwards in almost every respect (exception: defensive rebounding).

There were, however, two reasons for optimism to emerge from Morgan's disappointing junior campaign.  First:

Our chief scoring option, Raymar Morgan, struggled to score, as I had foreseen (chalk me up for one accurate prediction so far this season).  Damion James (15 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals) was too much for Morgan, holding him to just 8 points.  But I give Morgan tremendous credit.  He continued to play aggressively on offense and didn’t pout.  He stayed on the court for a team-high 33 minutes and used the fact that the Texas defense was keying on him to create scoring opportunities for his teammates.  He finished the game tied with Kalin Lucas with four assists, one of which came on the game-winning 3-pointer.

Morgan's performance in MSU's win over Texas at the end of December seemed to mark a turning point in his emotional attitude.  Since that game, he's continued to often look like he's pouting when things go badly (inability to score, picking up cheap fouls, etc.), but he's generally rebounded to play through the issues and contribute to the team's overall success.

The second reason for optimism were a couple signs he'd gotten over the hump against bigger and more athletic opponents:

Given the nature of this past season, we can't say definitively that Morgan has beaten this rap, but we do have two pretty encouraging data points:

  • 21 points and 6 rebounds in the first meeting with North Carolina (a bright spot among a sea of stink).
  • 18 points and 9 rebounds against UConn in the national semifinals (wearing that mask in the photo above, no less).

All in all, I think there's quite a bit for Raymar Morgan to build on going into his senior season--more than initially meets the eye in perusing the stats from his illness-marred junior season.  If he can put the statistical efficiency from his sophomore season together with his improved attitude and aggressiveness from this past season, he could have a very special senior season.

Morgan's senior season has been a mixed bag: he's played as efficiently as he ever has (particularly in the ball-handing department), but he's taken on a less assertive role on offense--partly due to Draymond Green's emergence as an offensive playmaker.  Unfortunately, inconsistency has continued to be a problem.  Morgan has scored 16 or more points in 10 games this season, but he's also scored 6 or fewer points in 7 games.  (To be fair, two of those low-scoring games came early in the season when he was still dealing with an ankle issue.)

He's been an improved player on defensive this season, more regularly taking on top scorers from opposing teams on both the perimeter and inside.  His personal foul numbers haven't gone down, but that's partially a result of having to play at the 4 spot so much this year.

Gauging the net level of success Raymar Morgan has achieved in a Spartan uniform is not a simple task.  Relative to his potential as an incoming recruit, he's never hit his perceived ceiling.  Players who were ranked within 15 spots of Morgan's RSCI ranking of #34 in the 2006 high school class included Mike Conley, Earl Clark, Jon Scheyer, D.J. Augustin, DeShawn Sims, and Scottie Reynolds.  On the other hand, his numbers stack up pretty well against guys like DaJuan Summers, David Lighty, Ramar Smith, Willie Kemp, and Deon Thompson.  (Also in Morgan's vicinity on the 2006 list: Tom Herzog.) 

Judged from a broader team-level perspective, Morgan's career looks anything but disappointing.  He's basically been a one-man class in terms of major contributors for MSU.  His career began at a time when MSU was rebuilding from losing almost all the talent that got the team to the Final Four in 2005.  He stepped in immediately to help keep the team afloat in 2007, was part of the team that built off that foundation to get to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in 2008, and played a not-insignificant role in getting MSU all the way to the final game of the tournament in 2009.

Raymar Morgan's list of career achievements is not too shabby:

  • Over 1,500 career points--something only 14 other Spartans have done
  • Over 700 career rebounds--something only 10 other Spartans have done
  • 48 regular season Big Ten wins (one more to go, pretty, pretty please)
  • A Big Ten championship--with a second conference title within reach Sunday afternoon
  • 8 NCAA Tournament wins--with the possibility of a few more
  • A Final Four appearance

All that despite missing games due to injury in 3 of his 4 seasons and being asked to play multiple positions throughout his career.  Beyond those two obstacles, Morgan's reputation has probably suffered somewhat due to (1) starting his career with such a bang in terms of being a go-to scorer and (2) having his athletic ability perhaps somewhat overhyped.  (Morgan's a very quick player for his size, but he's not a tremendous leaper--which has been the problem against more talented opponents at times.)  Compare his career output to that of Alan Anderson--the other athletic forward asked to slide between the 3 and 4 spots during the Tom Izzo era, but who wasn't asked to regularly perform in the role of offensive star.

Zeroing back in on the current moment, it sure looks like Morgan is closing out his career in top form.  Over the last two games, with MSU's Big Ten title hopes on the line and most of his teammates not playing to their full ability, Morgan has scored 32 points and pulled down 19 rebounds.

For as much criticism as we Spartan faithful have lobbed at Morgan over his career, I think we can step back now and salute him for a Spartan career that, in its totality, is worthy to be remembered as being among the best ever.

Other Players Without Many Career Statistics to Analyze Who Are Nevertheless Salute-Worthy

  • Isaiah Dahlman is a rarity among college basketball players: a player who played over twice as many minutes as a freshman (403) than he has during the final three years of his career combined (157).  Dahlman came into the program as fairly high-profile recruit: the 67th-ranked prospect in the 2006 high school class and Minnesota high school basketball's all-time leading scorer.  His career shooting line as a Spartan is actually pretty good: .513/.342/.692.  The problem has always been that he couldn't get his shot off.  He averaged just 8.1 field goal attempts per 40 minutes played over four seasons.  The intangible contributions Dahlmans has made to the Michigan State basketball program are evident to outside observers by (1) the fact that he didn't transfer out of the program to get playing time elsewhere and (2) the highly enthusiastic role he plays in cheering his teammates on during games.  Joe Rexrode has the inside take on the intangibles theme.
  • Jon Crandell has played in 27 games and scored 4 points as a Spartan.  For whatever reason, he's never been as big a fan favorite as walk-on guards like Matt Ishbia and Mike Kebler.  But I'd think that having a walk-on (and not one of the preferred variety) who can play the post spots has been a rare and valuable commodity to Tom Izzo.
  • I haven't seen any word on whether Tom Herzog has made a decision about his future, but I won't be surprised if he decides to have his career honored after the Michigan game and moves on to post-college activities of the non-basketball variety.  Herzog obviously never panned out as a pretty-highly-sought 7-footer out of high school.  But there was never any sign that was the result of a lack of effort.  He struggled to put on weight and could never seem to bring the offensive skills he reported displayed in practice to a game setting.  Should he decide to depart after this season, there's every reason to think he'll find the success off the court that he couldn't quite grasp on the court.

Give that Block S a big smooch, gentlemen.  You are full-fledged Spartans, all.

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