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Ja Morant Would Like Your Attention

With fewer than 15 seconds to go in a November game, Ja Morant received an inbounds pass, dribbled the length of the court with his left hand, slipped past a would-be double team, skied over two defenders, pulled the ball back as far as his right shoulder would allow and threw down a ferocious tomahawk dunk. Moments later, the Murray State guard corralled an errant 3-pointer by a teammate in midair and jammed in his 37th and 38th points of the night.

The Racers ultimately lost on the road to Alabama, but Morant earned a standing ovation at Coleman Coliseum.

Afterward, Alabama coach Avery Johnson compared the skill set of the 6-foot-3 sophomore, who scored more points against Alabama than all but two players had since 2010, to that of Isaiah Thomas, John Stockton and Russell Westbrook.

“I saw flashbacks of a lot of guys I played against,” Johnson said.

Morant is months away from possibly making mid-major history in the NBA draft. While plenty of players have been drafted out of mid-major programs, few have been lottery picks — and fewer still came from conferences that have made fewer than 100 tournament appearances.1 Morant will likely become the first player this century from such a school to be selected in the top 5 of the NBA draft. Some mocks have him going as high as second. As the chart below demonstrates, there haven’t been many NBA lottery picks from mid-major conferences lately. But some of these picks have gone on to dominate: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Paul George.

Players who got their start at small schools

Expected career win shares based on draft position and actual win shares to date for NBA draft lottery picks from mid-major and low-major schools, 2000-2018

Total Win Shares
Year Pick Player School Conf. Exp Actual Diff
2015 14 C. Payne Murray St. OVC 27.3 2.3 -25.0
2014 10 E. Payton La. Lafayette Sun Belt 33.6 12.2 -21.4
2013 10 C.J. McCollum Lehigh Patriot 33.6 26.3 -7.3
2012 6 D. Lillard Weber St. Big Sky 43.2 66.3 +23.1
2010 10 P. George Fresno St. WAC 33.6 63.1 +29.5
2009 7 S. Curry Davidson Southern 40.3 100.5 +60.2
2008 12 J. Thompson Rider MAAC 30.2 23.8 -6.4
2006 9 P. O’Bryant Bradley MVC 35.6 0.5 -35.1
2003 6 C. Kaman C. Michigan MAC 43.2 24.6 -18.6
2002 12 M. Ely Fresno St. WAC 30.2 4.0 -26.2
2000 13 C. Alexander Fresno St. WAC 28.7 4.1 -24.6
Total 379.5 327.7 -51.8

Includes only schools from conferences with fewer than 100 NCAA men’s tournament appearances; based on conference alignment at the time.

Win shares through Feb. 13, 2019.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

When he’s inevitably drafted, Morant will be the third Murray State guard taken since 2013. Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne have struggled to secure a foothold in the league. But Neal Bradley, a Hall of Fame broadcaster who has spent nearly three decades covering the Racers, told me that he doesn’t think the upgraded competition will flatline Morant, pointing to his strong outings against Auburn and Alabama, two teams projected to appear in the NCAA Tournament. Morant earned a co-sign from Kevin Durant on The Bill Simmons Podcast. Missouri State coach Dana Ford, who coached against Morant and his Racer predecessors, didn’t mince words: “He is by far the best prospect of the three. … He’s a little bit of John Wall mixed with Chris Paul. He’s special.”

Morant’s ascension is the stuff screenwriters dream up. He was a mostly overlooked kid from rural South Carolina who landed at an out-of-state university after a coach almost literally stumbled upon him. A year ago, he wasn’t even named the top freshman in the Ohio Valley Conference. Now, he’s a bona fide star and budding internet sensation.

But those YouTube clips are the extent of Morant’s exposure. While Zion Williamson, who almost certainly will be the first name called by Adam Silver, effectively plays only on major networks, the Racers have yet to appear on ESPN, ESPN2, Fox, FS1 or CBS. Murray State’s tilt Thursday against Austin Peay is slated to be televised on ESPN2, but that’s the only remaining game scheduled for the aforementioned networks.2 During an interview on the ESPN show “Get Up!,” one of Morant’s questions was even about Williamson.

Morant’s second triple-double in less than a year — and the school’s third ever — came in front of a crowd of 2,701. When he became the first Division 1 player in 20 years to put up 40 points, 11 assists and five steals in a game,3 fewer than 2,200 people were there. A viral leapfrog dunk over 6-foot-8 Quintin Dove was seen in person by 3,114.

However, within the OVC, the interest bump created by Morant’s presence is evident. Each of the six conference teams that have hosted Murray State drew their largest home crowds of the conference season when Morant came to town.

Morant is a hot ticket

Attendance this season in the Ohio Valley Conference for teams hosting Murray State vs. their other home conference games

Home Team Non-Murray State Avg. Vs. Murray % Change
Tennessee Tech 2,007 5,250 +161.6
UT Martin 1,253 3,114 +148.5
SE Missouri St. 1,391 3,143 +126.0
Eastern Illinois 1,211 2,410 +99.0
SIU Edwardsville 1,127 2,178 +93.3
Jacksonville State 2,232 3,718 +66.6

Sources: Sports-Reference.com, ESPN

Compared with its other conference home games, Eastern Illinois brought in nearly twice as many fans when it played Murray State. Jacksonville State sold out Pete Mathews Coliseum for the first time since the program turned Division 1. Bradley said he’s seen a noticeable attendance bump wherever Morant goes. About 50 Tennessee Tech fans lined up after their game in the hopes of taking a photo with the soon-to-be pro, according to Bradley. Morant obliged.


It seems that a stat line can only stay quiet for so long.

Morant is putting up unprecedented numbers: 23.9 points, 10.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game, with a true shooting percentage of 61.1. Nobody at the college level has come close to hitting those benchmarks,4 and only James Harden has done it in the pros. Morant is vying to become the first player since assist leaders were recognized to average 20 points and 10 assists over a season. Only 10 players in the past 25 years have even averaged 16 and 8.

Morant’s high-flying heroics give off the impression of a trapeze artist. But he’s more of a tactician, capable of diagnosing a defense in a split second and shredding it.

There has perhaps never been a better facilitating season than the one Morant is producing, which includes, but isn’t limited to, half-court lobs, off-handed flicks and peek-a-boo bullets to the baseline. “I’ve never seen anyone, ever, able to pass like him,” Bradley said. “He’s stunning and seems to be a couple steps ahead of everybody.”

Morant’s 53.3 percent assist rate is projected to be the top mark ever measured5 and is 6.1 percentage points higher than this year’s second-place mark.6 In total, Morant is projected to finish the regular season with 296 dimes, which would be the sixth most over the past 25 years in a single season.

As his talent suggests, Morant is heavily relied upon. Only five players have logged a higher percentage of minutes played than Morant’s 93.1, and coach Matt McMahon is using his star on 35.8 percent of possessions, the fifth-highest rate in the country. Turnovers have come easily for Morant, but it would tough to blame the kid for coughing it up when he’s tasked with operating the offense each time down the court.

Morant’s scoring acumen often manifests in transition, where he spends more time (6.8 possessions per game) and pours in more points (8.4) than any player in the country. With the dexterity to finish with either hand, around or over defenders, he doesn’t lack efficiency, scoring 1.24 points per possession on the break with an adjusted field-goal percentage of 74.7, according to data provided by Synergy Sports.

Morant lives at the rim, where he attempts more than half of his shots, according to Hoop-Math.com. Every player this season7 with a better field-goal percentage at the rim than Morant’s 61.6 percent is at least 4 inches taller than he is.

Defensively, Morant has work to do. But his long arms make him a nuisance for opposing ball handlers, and he’s tied for second in the OVC in steals per contest (2.0). Despite his thin frame, Morant has been particularly efficient in isolation and against screens, where he’s allowed a combined 19 points on 29 possessions, according to data provided by Synergy Sports.


It isn’t all that uncommon for NBA teams to take a flier on a mid-major player in the draft. But Morant hardly has the typical backstory of an under-the-radar prospect, nor the skill set. With abnormal athleticism and uncanny court vision, Morant will be playing on national television sooner rather than later.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Bradley said of Morant’s rise. “It’s the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen.”

Footnotes

  1. This excludes the Power Five conferences, the Big East, the American, the Atlantic 10, the Mountain West, the West Coast and Conference USA.

  2. Of course, this is because of conference broadcast agreements — or lack thereof — for the Ohio Valley Conference, which has a partnership with recently launched ESPN+.

  3. As well as the first player in two decades to sink all 21 free-throw attempts in a game.

  4. Since the 1992-93 season, the earliest for which Sports-Reference.com has data.

  5. Since 2009-10.

  6. From Sam Houston State’s Xavier Bryant.

  7. With at least 40 percent of a team’s minutes.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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