Ja Morant: The Truth Behind his Mid-Major Mythology
By: Noah Magaro-George
Tune in to Sportscenter and you're guaranteed to hear the name Zion Williamson quicker than you can say one-and-done. The freshman highlight factory has taken over college hoops at Duke, but he isn't the only prospect out of South Carolina rising up draft boards.
Traverse 630 miles from the Blue Devils' practice facility down to Murray, Kentucky, and you'll find another highflying phenom dunking his way to victory. Ja Morant was a relative unknown a year ago and I wouldn't blame you if you're struggling to put a face to the name.
After all, when you play for a small school like Murray State University, the national spotlight doesn't exactly follow you to Calloway County. While the Racers’ college basketball success can't be discredited, they don't exactly have the kind of brand recognition programs like KU and Louisville possess.
Now you may be wondering how a university like Murray State happened upon a commitment from a guy in the same conversation as the consensus number one overall pick of the upcoming draft. And the answer is, well, a lot of luck.
A popular narrative spat on social media would have you think the Dalzell native was an unrecruited AAU teammate of the aforementioned Zion Williamson, discovered by chance at a local gym in a convenient encounter.
Although this narrative is somewhat based in fact, it's neither entirely truthful nor the whole story. So, let's clear the air.
While Williamson and Morant played AAU ball together on the South Carolina Hornets for a brief period of time, Ja was never truly second fiddle to Zion. In reality, Williamson wouldn't reach the peak of his high-school stardom until a few years following his departure from the Hornets.
Zion's exit was rather inconsequential for Morant in the grand scheme of things. Truth be told, it was the mass exodus of high-profile recruits Nick Claxton and Devontae Shuler that offered Ja the opportunity to shine.
Morant's former running mates moved on, and the soon-to-be junior spread his wings. He rose to the occasion of his newfound circumstances and so began his rollercoaster ride to find a Division I home.
Though Ja put up 27-8-8 as a junior at Crestwood High in Sumter, South Carolina, he remained nationally unranked. Unranked, though not entirely unnoticed.
Morant finally received his big break in the summer of 2016 while attending a basketball camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Former Murray State assistant coach James Kane was in town to monitor three-star recruit Tevin Brown but instead stumbled upon Ja dominating a 3-on-3 workout on a walk to the concession stand.
Kane immediately phoned second-year head coach Matt McMahon, and he flew out to watch Morant play the very next day. McMahon was so impressed with what he saw from Morant that he offered the lanky guard an athletic scholarship to Murray State right on the spot.
A few weeks later, Ja balled out at the prestigious Southern Jam Live Basketball Tournament to the tune of 40.7 points per game, and much to the dismay of the Racers, the buzz around him began to build.
Despite an opportunity to play SEC basketball for his home state South Carolina Gamecocks, Morant ultimately committed to Murray State and enrolled in classes at the mid-major powerhouse.
Morant put together a solid freshman campaign and the Racers would go on to qualify for the big dance. Still, it wasn't enough to convince scouts of his NBA potential.
Fast forward to the present, and Ja just might be the most intriguing prospect in the 2019 draft class. His speed is unmatched, his court vision unrivaled and Zion Williamson is his only competition to jump to the moon.
He isn’t just climbing up NBA big boards, he’s rewriting the history books. The explosive playmaker is set to become the first player in Division I NCAA history to put up 24-5-10 over the span of an entire season.
Impressive statistics aside, Morant just might be one of the biggest risers in recent memory. A year ago, many scouts pinned him as a fringe first-rounder, now there’s a legitimate chance he's taken within the top 3.
Even with his unprecedented accomplishments, some front offices remain skeptical of the 19-year-old point guard. His frame is thin, his competition is sub-par, and his jumper is a work in progress.
Not only that, but his penchant for risky one-handed passes could spell trouble against smarter, longer NBA defenders. With all that in mind, his high motor and raw talent are just too tantalizing to pass on.
Morant may not compete for a blue blood program in a prestigious conference, but he has all the potential to become the best player on a competitive NBA roster. Scouts have already made the mistake of overlooking Ja twice in his young career, I’d hate to be the fool who underestimates him a third time.