While playing in relative obscurity in southwest Kentucky, Ja Morant blossomed into a mid-major superstar. Now, he’s the second overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the heir apparent to the recently-traded Mike Conley’s throne with the Memphis Grizzlies.
With electrifying style and eye-popping numbers, Morant was born for the spotlight. He averaged 24.5 points, 10 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game in leading Murray State to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. Despite playing to small crowds and little exposure in the Ohio Valley Conference, Morant’s incredible dunking ability and equally impressive court vision has made him a viral star.
Now, he’s the second pick in the NBA Draft, behind only Zion Williamson and ahead of other highly touted recruits like R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, and more.
So, who is Morant, and why should Grizzlies fans be excited to have him? This is everything you need to know about the Murray State sensation.
[Read more: The 3 moments that made Ja Morant a CBB rock star]
What’s Morant’s backstory?
Morant was born as Temetrius Jamel Morant on Aug. 10, 1999 in Dalzell, South Carolina (population 2,260). His father Tee won a high school state championship playing with Ray Allen in the early ‘90s. Tee’s college career stopped at the Division II level, but he’s played an instrumental role in developing his son.
The Morants had a small cement court in their backyard where Ja would develop his skills and train by doing tire jumps. Ja Morant would attend Crestwood High School where he would grow from a 5’9 freshman to a 6’ junior before eventually reaching 6’3.
How did Morant end up at Murray State?
Morant briefly played AAU ball as of teammate of Williamson’s on the SC Hornets before either player was a known commodity. Morant was considered a two-star prospect when he finished his high school career and did not receive a national ranking from major scouting services like Rivals, 247 Sports, or ESPN.
Murray State assistant coach James Kane (now with Iowa State) discovered Morant at a camp put on by Chandler Parsons’ AAU program. As legend has it, Morant was so far off the radar as a late addition to the camp that his name wasn’t even in the event’s program.
Morant would eventually score his only power conference scholarship offer from South Carolina, but he still chose the Racers.
How was Morant as a freshman?
Morant started every game for the Racers as a freshman, averaging 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. Murray State finished 26-6 overall and won the OVC tournament, making the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed before falling to West Virginia.
Morant vowed to be back and would make good on his word.
Where did Morant really break out?
Morant’s well-rounded numbers and immediately evident athleticism earned him a small amount of attention as a freshman, but it wasn’t until he was invited to Chris Paul’s Elite Guard Camp in August of 2018 that he really broke out. Playing against the top college point guards in the country in front of NBA scouts, Morant started to generate buzz that he could be a first round pick.
Little did everyone at the time know how the hype would grow from there.
OK, can we see some Morant’s dunks already?
Gladly. Here’s one against Belmont in the OVC title game.
Here’s one against UT Martin:
And one against Eastern Illinois:
And one against Alabama:
Ja Morant in a 78-72 loss vs. Alabama : Career-high 38 points (16-29 shooting, 0-4 from 3 & 6-8 from the FT line), 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 10 turnovers & played all 40 minutes pic.twitter.com/mPZ4yDQK1Y— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life25) November 27, 2018
And here’s his famous two-handed stuff against Marquette in the Round of the 64 in the NCAA Tournament.
Morant is a brilliant passer, too
Morant’s best skill is his passing ability. He enters the NBA leading the country in assists per game at an even 10 per contest, with a big lead over UNC Wilmington guard Kai Toews, who is second in America at 7.8 assists per game.
Morant also led the nation in assist rate at 51.8 percent.
He showed Marquette just how great a passer he is in Murray State’s tournament victory.
What is Ja Morant’s NBA comparison?
Morant has often been compared to a college basketball version of Russell Westbrook because he operates at a sky-high usage rate (36.6 percent, No. 3 in America) while packing box scores every night with points, rebounds, assists, and turnovers. The amazing dunking ability might play into that, too.
Of course, Westbrook has a muscular frame and is listed at 200 pounds. Morant is impossibly skinny and is listed at 175 pounds.
A better comparison might be Kings guard De’Aaron Fox, who was the No. 5 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Like Fox, Morant is known for his blazing speed and skinny frame while not entering the NBA as a refined outside shooter. Fox was considered a superior defensive prospect. Like most players, no pure comparison exists for Morant, but it’s fun to try.
Has Murray State produced other NBA players?
Yep. Cameron Payne was a lottery pick out of Murray State in 2015. Isaiah Canaan is another Murray State point guard who had a long NBA career as a second round pick in 2013.
Does Morant have a signature celebration?
Oh, yes. He’s known for co-opting Lance Stephenson’s air guitar and Westbrook’s “rock the baby” motion.
What are Morant’s NBA shortcomings?
Despite incredible production and elite athleticism, Morant still has some questions to answer for NBA scouts.
- Outside shooting. Morant hit 36 percent of his threes this season on 4.8 attempts per game, thanks in part to two good shooting performances in the NCAA Tournament. He hit 30.7 percent of his threes as a freshman. It’s worth noting Morant shot better than 80 percent from the free throw line in both his college seasons, which suggests he could have some untapped potential as a shooter.
- Defense. Morant put up an impressive 2.7 steal rate, but his man-to-man defense has often left a lot to be desired. Carrying such a big offensive burden for the Racers may have played a part in his spotty defense at times.
- Strength. Morant will badly need to add muscle in the NBA. He will be one of the lightest players in the league from the moment he’s drafted.
- Turnovers. Morant averaged 5.2 turnovers per game. His aggressiveness is critical to Murray State’s style and his coaches have not tried to reign him in. It will be something to monitor in the NBA, though.
Kevin Durant called Morant his favorite college player
Can we see one more dunk?
I’m partial to this one.
We can’t wait to watch Morant in the NBA
Here are some more tasty Ja highlights from Murray State vs. Marquette!
Let the Ja Morant era begin!