From mid-major to top-two NBA draft pick: Ja Morant's historic rise

When Ja Morant strides across the stage toward NBA commissioner Adam Silver Thursday night, he likely will stand alone as an unprecedented draft pick in the 21st century.

If the Murray State point guard goes No. 2, as is widely expected, it will be the highest selection for a player from the mid-major college ranks in more than 20 years. Not since Pacific center Michael Olowokandi went No. 1 in 1998 has a player from this far outside the college game’s power structure gone in the top two. Prior to that, you have to dial back to Marist product Rik Smits, the second selection in 1988.

It must be noted that Olowokandi and Smits both were 7-footers, and the NBA’s lust for big men traditionally trumped college pedigree. The last guard to be drafted in the top two from an off-radar school is Illinois State’s Doug Collins, the No. 1 pick in 1973 — when Collins was coming off a prominent role on the U.S. Olympic team the previous summer. Prior to Collins, the most comparable top-two guard pick would be Earl “The Pearl” Monroe of Winston-Salem State, in 1967.

So, really, you could argue that Temetrius “Ja” Morant is more than just a once-a-generation phenomenon. It’s more like once-a-half-century. Draft stories like this simply don’t happen.

Yet it’s happening. Morant and his family will be in the green room alongside the blue-blood guys from Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana; alongside the Final Four guys from Virginia and Texas Tech; alongside the five-star guys who have been on everyone’s radar since they were high school sophomores.

Murray State has arrived, where it has never been before.

“I’ll cross one off the bucket list Thursday night,” said Racers coach Matt McMahon, who is flying his entire staff and their wives to New York for the draft.

Murray State’s fortuitous, eureka moment discovering Morant has been covered thoroughly. But the freakish athletic talent that mesmerized former Racers assistant James Kane in an auxiliary gym in South Carolina is only the beginning of what makes the 19-year-old special. It’s the rest of him that completes the every-50-years package.

Murray State Racers guard Ja Morant (12) talks to a teammate during the second half of game against the Florida State Seminoles in the second round of the 2019 NCAA tournament. (Credit: USAT)
Murray State Racers guard Ja Morant (12) talks to a teammate during the second half of game against the Florida State Seminoles in the second round of the 2019 NCAA tournament. (Credit: USAT)

He’s by no means a finished product — 19 years old, in need of more muscle and about to have his indifferent defense tested in full. But there is so much to like, and it starts with a pure love of the game and hunger to both prove and improve.

Some young stars, commoditized at an early age, think they’re entitled to the adulation. Morant has had to earn it every step of the way — and he’s fine with that.

“You just can’t keep him out of the gym,” McMahon said, relating a couple of anecdotes.

When the Racers were eliminated by West Virginia in the 2018 NCAA tournament, ending Morant’s freshman season, the team had to fly from San Diego to Paducah, Kentucky, then bus back to campus. The next day, Morant drove from Murray to Nashville, flew to Charlotte, drove home to Dalzell, South Carolina, and was playing in a pickup game that night.

This past season, McMahon gave his players 48 hours to go home for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the coach saw video on Twitter of Morant playing another pickup game back home.

On campus, Morant spent long hours working on individual skills with assistant coach Shane Nichols. When they weren’t in the gym, they were watching film together.

The result has been an overall game development that matches his ridiculous athleticism. You may come to the Ja Show for the dunks, but you’ll stay for the skill.

At a time when more college players than ever seem overly reliant on their dominant hand, Morant is virtually ambidextrous as a dribbler, passer and finisher at the rim. In fact, his one-hand passing helped boost his nation-leading assist total, thanks to the quickness with which he can deliver the ball in any direction.

“He had multiple games where he had more assists passing with his left hand than his right,” McMahon said.

The relentless work to improve extended to his perimeter shooting as well. At times dared to shoot the 3-pointer early last season, Morant made 45 percent of his shots outside the arc in February and March. In the NCAA tournament, against Marquette and Florida State, he was 7-of-8 shooting from 3-point range.

The March averages were gaudy: 27.4 points per game, 5.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists (and, yes, 5.2 turnovers). He played 197 out of 200 postseason minutes. When Belmont shut down Morant’s passing lanes in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament final and dared him to finish, he scored 36. When Marquette swarmed him in the NCAA tourney first round and made him a passer, Morant took just nine shots and racked up a triple-double: 17 points, 11 rebounds, 16 assists.

“First guy I’ve ever seen completely dominate a game while taking single-digit shot attempts,” McMahon said.

By then, of course, Morant had long surpassed mid-major curiosity and bloomed into a full-blown phenomenon. Sleepy OVC gyms were buzzing when Murray State came to town. And perhaps for the first time since Steph Curry was at Davidson, the mid-major star was the high-major curiosity at an NCAA tournament venue.

Before the Marquette game in Hartford, Connecticut, the Racers practiced at a local high school. They didn’t time their exit well, wrapping practice and heading to the bus just as school let out.

“Kids were chasing him by the hundreds to the bus, trying to get autographs and pictures,” McMahon said.

From discovery in an obscure auxiliary gym as an unwanted recruit to that star turn in Hartford, Ja Morant traveled an astounding distance in a short period of time. Now it’s time for the next step, the biggest step, one not seen this century and rarely seen in the last 50 years.

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