Two years ago, there were few basketball fans who knew anything about Temetrius Morant. Perhaps if you were a crazy Murray State fan, or lucky enough catch a game at Crestwood High School in Sumter, S.C., you knew about the kid we’d come to call Ja.
In just two short seasons playing for the Racers, Ja Morant went from being a relatively unknown recruit to an All-American, and a guy who might’ve gone No. 1 in this year’s NBA Draft if not for another kid from South Carolina, Zion Williamson. When Morant was coming out of high school, he only held offers from Murray State, Wofford, Duquesne, South Carolina State, and Maryland Eastern Shore. He was a zero-star recruit, going totally unranked by ESPN, Rivals, and 247sports.
Morant took the Ohio Valley Conference by storm as a freshman, claiming a spot on the league’s first team and guiding the Racers to an NCAA Tournament appearance. Mid-major college basketball fans were aware of Morant going into his sophomore season, but his place on the national radar still wasn’t quite cemented. He fixed that by showing out at the Chris Paul camp, then starting the season with a 38-point outing against Alabama. He averaged 24.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and an NCAA-leading 10 assists per game en route to another appearance in the Big Dance for the Racers.
In the NCAA Tournament, Morant locked in his status as a legit NBA prospect by pouring in 17 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists in a 12-over-5 upset of Marquette. Morant ended his sophomore season with the Lute Olson, Bob Cousy and OVC Player of the Year awards in hand, and as a near-lock to be a top-three NBA Draft pick.
|Dennis Smith Jr.||6’2||195||6’5”|
Passing is an obvious one. Morant led the NCAA in assists this past season on a team that likely doesn’t include any future NBA players. This is worth mentioning because Morant’s passes were so good and came so quick that sometimes his teammates couldn’t react to them.
Morant was one of the most creative players in college basketball, using a lightning quick first step, a crafty handle, elusive crossovers, spins and pure speed to make space between himself and defenders. He was often difficult to stay in front of – just ask Marquette’s defenders. Double teams never seemed to shake him either.
But – as illustrated by his points per game average – not only was Morant the best passer in college basketball this past season, but he was also an electric scorer. He had the hops, strength and confidence to finish inside, either with a nifty lay-up or a thunderous dunk. And he also got better at shooting from outside as a sophomore, increasing his three-point connection rate from 30.7 to 36.3 percent.
Morant wasn’t a ball hog or a one-man show at Murray State though. Yes, he was the team’s star, but he was always willing to play off-ball, cut, defend and rebound. For his size, he’s a fantastic board man. As shown in his stats, he was always looking for the best shot his team could get, which many times required him to create space, and then create a shot for a teammate.
With Morant’s speed, vision, passing ability, slickness on the ball and fearlessness, he should be able to contribute on offense right away at the NBA level.
There’s not a ton to complain about with Morant. Yes, he could be a more consistent shooter, especially from three-point range. He started hitting from that distance better as the season wore on, going 5-for-6 in the Racers’ NCAA tournament loss to Florida State, but he had nights in the regular season where he wasn’t so good: 0-for-4 against Alabama, 1-for-6 against Auburn and 1-for-7 against Jacksonville State.
Some have harped on Morant’s shooting mechanics, but his motion and release have been successful for him so far. Perhaps an NBA coaching staff could refine some things.
The big area where Morant needs to improve is limiting his turnovers — a stat that he led the nation in. Yes, Morant wowed everyone when his passes or handles turned into buckets, but too often he tried to squeeze passes through tight windows and sometimes attempted to get a bit too cute with some of his dribble moves.
Morant is also, for lack of a better word, a twig. He might be slick like Stringer Bell, but he’s built like Bubbles. To absorb contact and prevent injuries in the NBA, he’ll need to add some weight. But a pro team’s strength and conditioning staff should be able to fix that.
Morant is a super-athletic guard, like a lot of the other guys listed in the table above. He’s ultra quick, has a solid bounce and has the potential to not only one day lead the NBA in assists, but to also win a dunk contest. He can attack the rim in the open court like Russell Westbrook and can deliver a dime at top speed like John Wall.
As was the same with De’Aaron Fox two years ago, there’s questions about Morant’s size, strength and jumper, but Fox has excelled with the Kings and has become one of the league’s top young floor generals. Whether or not Morant can do the same remains to be seen.
Assuming the Pelicans take Williamson No. 1 overall, the Memphis Grizzlies seem like a great fit for Morant at No. 2. He could play alongside and learn from incumbent veteran Mike Conley, either playing off-ball with him, or starring as his back-up. And if the Grizzlies decide to go into full rebuilding mode and trade Conley this summer, they could hand Morant the keys to the offense and build around him as the franchise’s new face.
If Memphis decides to pass on Morant or trade out of the pick, the Knicks could also be a good landing spot for him, depending on what direction the franchise decides to go this summer, as there are whispers about them signing either Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker.
At Nos. 4 and 5, the Lakers and Cavaliers already have young ball-dominant guards in Lonzo Ball and Collin Sexton, but they could take Morant anyway and figure out the depth chart later. Passing up on a talent like Morant could be an awful look for both of these teams.
It seems highly unlikely that Morant would fall past the Phoenix Suns at pick No. 6 as point guard is a real need for them. 39-year-old Jamal Crawford ranked second on the team in assists this year, and the team mostly relied on a pair of second-round picks — Elie Okobo and De’Anthony Melton — to play point guard.
Morant probably goes to the Grizzlies. He could fall a bit further, but it’d be a shocker if he slipped past the Suns.