When you've been covering Murray State basketball as long as I have, you have a tendency to think you've seen everything. That's why I was skeptical when people started telling me how great Ja Morant was going to be, before he even stepped on the floor at the CFSB Center, a little over a year ago.
After all, every new recruit is billed as the best thing since creamy peanut butter. And that never turns out to be true. But when I finally got to see him play, I knew immediately, that this time, it was true. That's why I nicknamed him “The Truth.”
He slices through defenses like a knife through water. His court vision is off the charts, and it's uncanny how he can always find an angle to get the ball to his teammates. Add to that a 44 inch vertical, 10th best in history, and you can see why he's attracting so much attention.
Morant grew up in Dalzell, South Carolina. His given name is Temetrius Jamel Morant. Ja is a nickname his parents gave him when he was a kid. But as jaw-dropping as some of his plays are, it seems appropriate.
“Dalzell is a small town but as soon as you drive out of town you run into Sumter. So, you may as well say that I grew up in Sumter. I started playing basketball when I was four. My dad made my time-outs basketball. So, if I did something bad he would put me in a corner with a little basketball goal. And, I would just shoot and shoot,” Morant said with a laugh.
Basketball runs in Morant's blood. His parents, Tee and Jamie Morant, both played at Claflin University. Tee played with NBA legend Ray Allen in high school. And after college he went to a couple of NBA tryout camps before choosing to play overseas.
Morant played for Coach Dwayne Edwards at Crestwood High School in Sumter. Before taking the head job at Crestwood, Edwards was an assistant at Hillcrest High School where he coached Ray Allen and Morant's father.
“He was a cool coach,” Morant said “He helped me a lot and prepared me for a lot of things. He wasn't really a yeller, or screamer. Although, he would get on you if he had to. He just did a good job of teaching us how to play the game.”
Morant finished his high school career with 1,679 points, making him Crestwood's all-time leading scorer. He was a three-time all-state selection and Regional MVP. And as a senior, he averaged 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
Oddly though, he wasn't a hot commodity on the recruiting trail. Rivals, Scout and ESPN didn't even bother to give him a star rating. And for the longest time, the only offers he had were from low-majors like South Carolina State and Maryland Eastern Shore.
Then James Kane, an assistant from Murray State, stumbled across him.
Kane was at a tournament in Spartanburg, South Carolina in the summer of 2016. He was walking around, looking for something to eat between games when he spotted Morant playing 3-on-3 in an auxiliary gym. Morant was a late addition to the event, and his name wasn't even listed in the program. But Kane, who had come to scout a different player, saw right away that Morant was something special.
And when Morant made his official visit to Murray State, he could see that it was a special too.
“The community here was so supportive of the basketball program and the coaches made me feel like I was right at home,” he said. “And I really liked the playing style. I thought the fast pace and wide open style suited me well.”
Racer fans fell in love with Morant at Racer Mania in 2017 when he wowed them in the dunk contest.
Then just six weeks into his college career he posted the Racers' first triple-double in eight years, as he scored 11 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and dished out 14 assists against Eastern Illinois. The 14 assists were a CFSB Center record.
Morant wound up averaging 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists as a freshman. He had 15 points and hit three 3-pointers in the Racers' victory over Belmont in the OVC title game, and 14 points in the NCAA first round loss to West Virginia.
“Playing with guys like Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller as a freshman helped me learn to be more of a facilitator,” Morant said. “I knew they could both score the basketball and I just tried to do whatever I could to get them going and get them shots that I knew they could knock down. But the highlights of the season for me were winning the regular season championship at Austin Peay, and then winning the OVC Tournament by beating Belmont.”
During the off-season Morant participated in Chris Paul's Elite Point Guard Camp. And he came out of the camp as the top rated performer by NBA scouts. Suddenly, the experts were saying that he could be a lottery pick in the NBA draft.
“It was a great experience. I love how hands-on Chris Paul is with the players. And, I learned some important things from some of the top point guards in the game,” Morant said. “As for all the hype, I'm not there yet so I feel like I shouldn't relax. I try not to focus on all that because it's all going to play out in the end.”
Whether he was at the Chris Paul camp, back home, or here in Murray his primary focus was on preparing for this season.
“I spent a lot of time working behind the arc, shooting game-shot 3s coming off of screens” he said. “Last year I focused on attacking because I had Terrell Miller and Jonathan Stark. I knew that this year I'd have to be able to knock down the outside shot myself.”
In the opener against Wright State, Morant scored 26 points and dished out 11 assists. He had a triple-double against Missouri State with 29 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.
And then he put up 38 points with nine rebounds, and 10 assists at Alabama. The Crimson Tide fans gave him a standing ovation. Then they lined up to get his autograph. And the buzz reached new heights. Suddenly he was seen as a top-5 pick in next summer's NBA draft.
“I saw flashbacks of a lot of guys I played against,” Alabama's head coach Avery Johnson said. “Whether it was the Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas, that craftiness and cleverness. John Stockton's passing ability. Russell Westbrook's athletic ability. My God. When I saw him on film I was impressed, and to watch him play in person, it was even better than what I saw on film.”
Southern Illinois' head coach Barry Hinson was too impressed for his own good.
Following Murray State's 64-31 victory in Carbondale he said, “I made a big mistake tonight. I put so much emphasis on Morant and how good we thought he was that I scared our players. Our guys played scared tonight. It was Military Appreciation Night, and it's a good quote from Patton: 'Fear paralyzes all of us.' We were paralyzed.'”
Morant finished with 23 points, 13 assists, and five rebounds.
Les Winkeler, longtime sportswriter at The Southern Illinoisan said, “If you have the opportunity to see Murray State’s Ja Morant play – do it. Best individual performance I’ve seen at the SIU Arena in decades.”
Through 12 games Morant is averaging 22.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 9.9 assists. He leads the nation in assists by more than one per game. No guard in more than 25 years has averaged at least 20 points, five rebounds and eight assists.
Head coach Matt McMahon said, “If he's not already, he's going to be one of the best basketball players in all the world. And we want to challenge him to keep getting better in all areas of his game.”
And now, NBA Draft Net says that he could be the top pick in the draft. So, what do Racer fans think?
When asked if the Racers have ever had anyone remotely like Morant, Jerry Mayes, a former professor at Murray State, and long-time fan said, “Maybe remotely, but not really. We've never had anyone that could break down a defense the way he does. And I don't think we've ever had anyone as good at getting everybody involved.”
Lindy Suiter, publisher of the Racer Insider, has been watching Murray State basketball for as long as he can remember. And he said, “We've never had anyone like Ja. He just does so many things well. He's got it all. Most talented player we've ever had.”
With the Racers sitting at 10-2, and winning seven of their last eight games, the excitement is continuing to build. It brings to mind the magical run in 2012 when every game was sold out and Dick Vitale came to town.
Longtime fan Howard Boone has even launched a Twitter campaign to bring Jay Bilas or Vitale to Murray for a game this season.
“When Dickie V. came in 2012 it was just so much fun,” Boone said. “It brought so much energy to our town. It brought the whole community together. And we need that again.
“It brought us so much recognition and I think it's there for us to have again. Jay Bilas is a big supporter of mid-majors. And, I think it would be great for him to come here and talk about how this small little school in Western Kentucky continues to produce the best point guards in the country, year after year.”
Fortunately, Morant's focus hasn't changed.
“I'm just focused on being the best player I can be, the kind of leader that can take this team to another championship,” he said. “I think we can be a great team. We have great players, a great coaching staff, and great fans. As long as we keep working there's no limit to what we can do. I want to make people remember Murray State.”