The meteoric rise of Murray State’s Ja Morant

By Chris Dortch (Reprinted from NBA.com)

Where would Ja Morant be right now if former Murray State assistant James Kane hadn’t gotten hungry one day in July of 2016 while scouting a one-day combine for high school players in Spartanburg, S.C.?

Surely someone would have eventually noticed the considerable skills of Morant, a 6-3 sophomore guard who’s now playing for Murray—aka Point Guard U—and leading the nation in assists by a huge margin (10.7 apg), averaging 24.1 points and almost six rebounds, blowing up YouTube with an eye-popping array of acrobatic dunks and being seriously considered as a national player of the year candidate and NBA lottery pick.

But at the time, Morant was just another overlooked prospect who lived in the country (Dalzell, S.C.), didn’t play for an AAU team backed by a major shoe company and didn’t even use social media. He was a textbook example of a sleeper—until Kane asked someone at that combine where the concession stand was. On his way there, he heard a basketball bouncing in a side gym, far from the main action. Curious, he looked inside.

There Kane first laid eyes on Morant, who was playing in a game of three on three. After watching for five minutes, during which Morant’s 44-inch vertical leap, quickness and uncanny passing eye were on full display, Kane forgot about his hunger pangs and dashed off to call Murray State coach Matt McMahon.

“He said, ‘this kid’s gonna be a pro,’ ” McMahon says. “So I jumped in the car and got up there the next day. We tracked him all through July.”

The Murray coaches quickly built a relationship with Morant’s close-knit family and then sat back and hoped no other recruiters would notice what Kane saw. By the end of July, Morant committed to Murray, intrigued by the possibility of following former Racer point guards Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne—both of whom made it to the NBA—and playing alongside senior Jonathan Stark, who had averaged 22 points and six assists as a junior. Only after announcing his decision did Morant start getting flooded with offers, but by then it was too late.

“I decided to set official visits to Murray State and South Carolina,” Morant says. “But once I went to Murray, I knew that’s where I needed to be. The point guard tradition played a part, but not as much as the community—I felt like everybody, from the players to the coaches to the fans, were like a family. I’m a big family guy. Everybody in the community loves the team.”

Another lure was Murray State’s up-tempo offense, which gives breathing room to point guards with the talent to make plays. Morant fits in perfectly, and though his turnover rate is high, McMahon isn’t about to shackle him.

“I want him to play with all the creativity and freedom and confidence he can,” McMahon says. “[In games last week] he made 11 turnovers, but he had 32 assists. That’s a 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. I’ll take that any day of the week.”

Morant’s assists are of the spectacular variety, like the half-court, one-handed lob for a dunk he threw to Brion Sanchious for a dunk in a recent game against Belmont. Thirty-three NBA scouts were there, and though Morant turned an ankle early in the game, in his diminished state he still delivered 20 points and nine assists.

Those scouts already know what Morant can do when he’s healthy. He’s racked up a collection of impressive performances this season, leaving opposing coaches search for the right comparison.

After Morant torched Alabama for 38 points, nine rebounds and five assists, Crimson Tide coach Avery Johnson, the former NBA point guard, reached back into his past.

“I saw flashbacks of a lot of guys I played against,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s the old Isaiah Thomas—the Detroit Pistons’ Isaiah Thomas—that craftiness and cleverness. John Stockton passing ability. Russell Westbrook athletic ability. My God. When I saw him on film … to watch him play in person … it was better than on film. We gave him about five or six different looks. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”

Missouri State coach Dana Ford saw plenty of Murray State when he was head coach at Tennessee State. That didn’t stop him from scheduling the Racers in his first season in Springfield. Morant delivered a 29-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist triple double.

“I coached against all three [Canaan, Payne, Morant],” Ford says. “He is by far the best NBA prospect of the three. He is so fast and athletic … a blur. He is a Kansas type of guard … long [limbed] and competitive. He sees the play before it develops. He’s turnover prone, but that’s correctable. He’s a little bit of John Wall mixed with Chris Paul. He’s special.”

Middle Tennessee coach Nick McDevitt sees traits of Russell Westbrook in Morant, fitting because the Thunder’s triple-double machine is Morant’s hero. Morant didn’t produce great numbers (nine points, seven assists, three rebounds) in a 64-42 win over Middle—he didn’t need to—but McDevitt saw plenty, on the court and in film scouting before the game.

“He has speed, and you can’t teach that,” McDevitt says. “Certain guys are a one-man fast break that can turn negative numbers into positive numbers for your team in a hurry. That always puts pressure on the defense. At this level anyway, it keeps you from being very aggressive on the offensive glass, because once they get it, and once he gets it, he will run by everybody you have.

“That’s what Westbrook figured out a long time ago. Just go get the ball. Get a defensive rebound and outrun everybody. Some guys, like Ty Lawson, he had that speed, but he couldn’t go get the ball. Somebody else had to get it for him. Guys like Westbrook, and Morant—which he’s shown he can do at this level—Morant can go get it himself and then he’s gone. If you don’t have guys back, he’s gonna go shoot layups.”

Or more often dunks that have to be watched over and over again to be believed, like the one Morant pulled off against UT Martin earlier this month. Morant, in the left corner, snuck back door on his defender and received a perfect bounce pass from Tevin Brown as the Racers’ 6-8 Quinton Dove moved in front to take the charge. Morant took one step, then another and launched himself over Dove for atwo-handed slam.

Stunning doesn’t begin to describe it. Scary … that’s the word.

“You think you’ve seen it all, and then he does something like that,” McMahon said. “I turned and looked into the stands and people were running up and down the aisles. The noise after the dunk was deafening. I saw a lot of shocked looks. Fortunately, there were some great camera people there in the right place at the right time.”

Morant laughs at the recollection. To the man who spent hours training with his father—often jumping on top of old tires from an 18-wheeler, over and over again—that dunk was just what he does.

“I saw the defender move over to try and take the charge,” Morant says. “My mindset was just go finish the play.”

Morant gets a charge out of moments like that, but his favorite play in basketball is the assist. “I love making my teammates’ jobs easier,” Morant says, “putting them in spots where they can score. Just to see them with smiles on their faces, giving them confidence—that makes me feel much better than scoring the ball.”

McMahon has coached Morant for two seasons and never ceases to be amazed. But not necessarily by Morant’s physical gifts.

“Everyone talks about his freakish athleticism, his explosiveness, his change of speed,”—McMahon says. “That’s all very accurate. He’s elite in those categories. But now you combine that with a guy who has an unbelievable IQ, feel for the game and vision. To me, he’s a basketball genius. Now you combine that with high character and work ethic. He’s all about the team and making everyone around him better.

“Those are the ingredients of a once-in-a-lifetime player. And that’s what Ja is.”