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Finding the next Ja Morant

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It’s not that easy, but let’s try nonetheless.

NCAA Basketball: Norfolk State at Siena David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday, Murray State sophomore guard Ja Morant announced he was foregoing his final two years of eligibility and entering the NBA draft.

This, of course, was some of the least surprising news of the 2019 draft declaration cycle. Fresh off becoming a consensus All-American selection, the Racers star made official what had been steadily building throughout the season. A solid freshman campaign landed Morant on the draftnik’s collective radar, and a phenomenal sophomore season (24.5 PPG, 10.0 APG) crammed full of hyper-athletic highlights has him ticketed for the lottery. He’s come so far that he may well be the second player taken after his AAU-teammate-for-a-minute Zion Williamson.

With Morant set to very justifiably and lucratively leave the mid-major ranks, it begs the question, who is the next Ja?

To start, that’s a terrible question. Morant is a unicorn. It’s astounding he flew under-the-radar as long as he did, but when buzz did finally start to build — from South Carolina, for example — Morant had already forged a strong connection with a Murray State staff that could uniquely tout development of NBA guards. That lottery-level blend of athleticism and playmaking (NCAA-best 51.9% assist rate) just doesn’t come around that often, if ever.

But that won’t stop us from considering the question. There may not be any player primed to hop from relative national obscurity into the lottery picture, but when using Morant’s freshman production as a baseline, perhaps we can pinpoint players ready to break out on a smaller scale.

Here’s what Morant did as a freshman in 2017-18, when he played 34.0 minutes per game.

Ja Morant, 2017-18

Player Team ARate FTRate ORtg Stl% TS%
Player Team ARate FTRate ORtg Stl% TS%
Ja Morant Murray State 33.00% 48.20% 118.3 1.70% 56.30%

A few things stand out. For one, Morant was able to produce a healthy amount of playmaking while playing primarily off the ball, as point guard duties fell to another NBA-level talent in Jonathan Stark. That playmaking, combined with his elite athleticism — expressed for these purposes through free throw and steal rate — make him a unique prospect.

Here are the freshmen guards that were in the ballpark of that production last season:

Freshmen guards, 2018-19

Player Team ARate FTRate ORtg Stl% TS%
Player Team ARate FTRate ORtg Stl% TS%
Jalen Pickett Siena 42.60% 28.00% 113.5 3.50% 54.50%
Sincere Carry Duquesne 34.20% 38.60% 105 4.10% 53.80%
Cameron Parker Sacred Heart 37.80% 76.20% 92.1 1.60% 55.10%
Kai Toews UNCW 45.20% 27.60% 97.6 1.00% 48.20%
Trey Wertz Santa Clara 31.70% 30.90% 95 1.70% 54.90%
Jr Clay Tennessee Tech 31.00% 44.80% 91.2 3.10% 50.80%

First and foremost, this is not comparing apples to apples. Each of these players, unlike Morant in 2017-18, played almost exclusively on the ball, giving them a natural advantage in playmaking opportunities. And again, it must be reiterated that production aside, Morant’s athleticism and length isn’t something that can necessarily be duplicated.

But, if you’re looking for a freshman guard that set up his teammates at a high rate, and was able to break down defenses well enough to chip in himself from the free throw line, these are some players to watch in 2019-2020 and beyond.

Pickett had an incredible debut season (15.8 PPG, 6.7 APG), and had a 46-point, 13-assist outing in a triple overtime loss to Quinnipiac in February. The MAAC Rookie of the Year has already generated some draft buzz, and the Saints dodged a bullet by keeping him despite a coaching change. Carry (12.1 PPG, 5.8 APG) had a breakout season running the Dukes’ offense, while the 6’5’’ Wertz (12.2 PPG, 4.7 APG) brings intriguing size to the point guard position. For Toews part, the Tokyo native is one of just a handful of Japanese players at the Division I level, and finished second in the country — behind Morant — in assist rate.

These players may not be the next Ja, but whether an atmospheric jump happens or not, they’re worth watching next season.