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Johnathan Motley has become the unlikely face of Baylor basketball

In his first year as a full-time starter, Motley has turned into a player-of-the-year candidate for one of the best teams in the country.

Iowa State v Baylor Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Every college coach in the country had to see the Houston Defenders on the summer grassroots circuit in 2013. The Defenders were led by Andrew and Aaron Harrison, the five-star twins rated as the top guards in the country. They had a two-sport star in Derrick Griffin and another high-major talent in current Kansas State wing Wesley Iwundu. The twins’ dad, Aaron Harrison Sr., coached the team.

If you paid close enough attention, maybe you noticed Johnathan Motley, too. Motley was a 190-pound string bean in those days who was deemed only a three-star recruit by ESPN. Baylor took him as a local kid who could add front court depth, and the team quickly hit him with a redshirt.

Motley spent that first year going up against one of the best front lines in the country every day in practice. He had to fight Cory Jefferson on the block, battle Rico Gathers on the glass, stay with Taurean Prince on the perimeter, and do anything he could to contest an Isaiah Austin shot.

Motley knew his recruiting profile promised him nothing. He was entering a program that was used to getting five-stars, with players like Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, and Austin changing the perception of Baylor and powering a pair of runs to the Elite Eight.

Now a redshirt junior, Motley has emerged as one of the best players in college basketball. In his first year as a full-time starter, Motley sits at No. 4 in KenPom’s national player-of-the-year rankings. He’s led Baylor to its first-ever No. 1 ranking and has the Bears in line for a top seed in the NCAA tournament, too.

Motley was never supposed to be the face of Baylor basketball, but that’s exactly what he’s become.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Christian at Baylor Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t take Baylor long to learn what it had in Motley. He came off his redshirt season by scoring 17 points against South Carolina in his second career game and then dropped 22 points and 11 rebounds against Texas A&M less than a month later.

Motley had carved out a niche, but he was far from the star of the show. Prince became the breakout player for a team that climbed as high as No. 14 in the polls and grabbed a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. You might remember what happened next: R.J. Hunter hit a deep game-winner that caused his father to fall out of his chair, making the Bears an upset victim to a No. 14 seed from the Sun Belt.

Motley seemed primed to make a jump as a sophomore, but there was only one problem: With Prince and Gathers still around, Baylor had a logjam in the front court. Motley actually played less minutes per game as a sophomore than he did as a freshman, but he made the most of his time. His field goal percentage jumped from 41.7 to 61.4 percent, and the strength he worked so hard to build during the offseason helped him make a huge improvement as a rebounder.

Still, Motley came off the bench for most of the season and Baylor was again the victim of a first round upset. This time it was Yale who shocked the Bears, and they did it in the most unlikely way possible: by outrebounding Baylor’s huge and talented front line. Some people are still confused about how that happened.

After three years of college and two years of solid production, Motley had still never been a full-time starter. He had never been even a top-three scorer on his own team. Of course, he hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game either.

Motley is more than just a primary scoring option in Waco this year: He’s a legitimate All-American doing things the Big 12 hasn’t seen since Blake Griffin was at Oklahoma. There are no five-stars ahead of him or behind him. Instead, Baylor goes as Motley goes, and so far he’s leading it to the best season in program history.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to notice Motley’s ability as a scorer and rebounder this season. He’s gone from averaging 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds as a sophomore to 16.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game as a junior. He’s already put up 10 double-doubles and might have even more if he wasn’t starting to see hard double teams almost every night.

That’s where Motley’s less obvious improvement has shined through: his passing. Motley isn't just a hustle player anymore. He's reading defenses and kicking out to Baylor's shooters at the right times. His assist rate has jumped from 8.7 percent to 15.1 percent this season.

Along the way, the NBA has started to take notice. Motley is projected as the No. 28 pick in June’s draft by DraftExpress, a testament to the work he’s put in to reach this point.

Motley didn’t enter Baylor with the same hype as some of its former stars, but he’s become more productive than any of them. He’s a crafty finisher in the paint, a relentless rebounder, a smart passer, and an active body who can challenge shots in the paint.

Motley took the long road to college basketball stardom, but the payoff has been huge for both he and Baylor. As the Bears enter the tournament this year, Motley is playing the leading man instead of a supporting role. That might be all they need to avoid the March heartbreak of the last two years.