Last season, Maryland men’s basketball guard Darryl Morsell was a turnover-prone ball handler, in danger of seeing his minutes drop.
It was around this same time last season that coach Mark Turgeon pulled him into a meeting to discuss the issue.
“Take care of the ball,” Morsell recalled of Turgeon’s blunt message. “He wasn’t going to play me if I wasn’t going to be able to take care of the ball.”
Over the past year, Morsell not only curtailed the problem— he’s emerged as a facilitator. In Tuesday’s 76-67 win over Northwestern, Morsell tallied 13 points, seven rebounds and a career-high with seven assists, adding another dimension to his all-around impact on the floor.
“He does everything for us — score, pass, rebound, defend,” guard Anthony Cowan said. “Proud of him, [he’s] just gotta keep it going.”
Tuesday’s seven-assist, two-turnover effort against Northwestern came three days after a six-assist, three-turnover showing on the road against Michigan State.
“It used to be three or four turnovers, and one assist. He’s just turned into this player, he’s just totally bought into what he has to do,” Turgeon said. “He’s a really confident kid right now.”
Turgeon also thought back to this time of the season last year, and the ninth-year coach said some doubt began to creep into his mind as to whether Morsell could mitigate the problem. Over a four-game stretch in the latter half of February 2019, Morsell had three outings with four turnovers and another with two.
“Dang, I don’t know if this is going to work,” Turgeon recalled thinking.
After that turnover-riddled stretch in February, though, there was a noticeable change. Morsell briefly hit a stride, dishing out 16 assists while committing just three turnovers over the last six games of last season.
That command and control within the offense carried over into this season. Still, there are moments when turnovers haunt him, such as the five miscues on the road against Illinois on Feb. 7, but he’s harbored more of a facilitating role this season.
In 26 games this campaign, Morsell is up to 59 assists, approaching his career-high of 65 for a season with five contests remaining before even more opportunities in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
He’s also shown that he can be trusted with the ball in clutch moments for the No. 7 Terps. In the 67-60 win over Michigan State, Morsell drove to the lane, drew a second defender and whipped a pass to Cowan for a corner 3-pointer that cut Maryland’s deficit to one with less than three minutes remaining.
“He’s become more efficient with his passes,” said forward Jalen Smith, Morsell’s high school teammate at Mount Saint Joseph in Baltimore. “He’s pretty much a better facilitator than what he used to be, finding other people and making good looks.”
Smith is used to being on the receiving end of Morsell’s passes after a high school career where the duo formed a “one-two punch,” as the forward described. He always saw Morsell as a capable passer, but Smith has watched as his fellow Baltimore native gradually eliminated bad habits that led to errors, such as jumping in the air to make passes.
He may not jump on passes anymore, but the recipients sometimes need to leave their feet to catch them — such as Smith at the end of the first half on Tuesday night.
With five seconds remaining before halftime, Cowan drew the attention of two Wildcats defenders, allowing Morsell to slip into the paint unnoticed. Cowan whipped a no-look pass into Morsell, and the junior guard served up a quick lob for Smith to throw down an emphatic alley-oop that punctuated the half.
Tuesday was Morsell’s 21st birthday. He said afterward the only gift he wanted was a victory, and to get there, he repeatedly gifted teammates with passes in good spots for open looks — whether it was an easy alley-oop dunk or a shot from beyond the three-point arc.
“I don’t know if it’s things slowing down for me,” Morsell said, “but I’m just trying not to turn the ball over because I know that we’re hard to beat if we get a shot up every possession.”