By Jamie Shaw & Jeff Bendel
This week ESPN NBA Draft Analyst Mike Schmitz called Ja Morant his top standout of the camp labeling him, “The Intriguing Long-Term Prospect.” A play of Morant’s went viral this week from a video of an alley-oop where his head was clearly over the rim. It was impressive as the video itself got close to 100,000 views and was picked up by media, Bleacher Report among others. All that being said, Morant is younger than many of the current incoming freshmen and still does not turn 19 years old until August.
In this article, we wanted to illustrate that Morant did not virtually come out of nowhere, seeing as how he’s been doing this for years. At Crestwood High School in Sumter, South Carolina, Morant was a 3-time 3A All-State performer. He graduated as Crestwood’s all-time leading scorer with 1,679 career points. Over his junior and senior years combined, Morant averaged 27 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists per game.
The genesis of this article was at the CP3 Elite Guard Camp, realizing just how under the radar Morant was. He put forth a typical Morant-like performance but it seemed as if many weren’t aware. After the event, we wrote, “In this gym of future draft picks, Ja Morant’s athleticism was noticeably on another level from everyone else. It is easy to see why he is being talked about as a first round pick next year, as we feel he should be spoken of as a possible lottery guy. His frame is incredibly projectable, standing at a very lengthy 6’3”. However, he had a couple of plays that just left you in awe yesterday. In the scrimmages he had one blocked shot at the top of the square and then went down on the other end and finished a tip dunk in traffic. When the ball was in his hands, he was able to get anywhere he wanted off the bounce. In the drills and small sided games he shot the ball from 3 at a high rate…There is a very real scenario where Ja Morant enters the 2019 draft as the top ranked point guard on the board.”
Ja’s father, Tee, is a noted hooper in his own right. Tee played with Ray Allen back in high school and went on to play at Claflin University, a D2 program in Orangeburg, South Carolina. From there Tee participated in a few NBA free agency camps and then played overseas. So his son comes by the talent honestly.
Our first time really watching Morant as a standout was at our Spring NC Phenom 150 Exposure Camp. This was after his freshman year at Crestwood where a 5’11” Morant walked through our doors. After his performance at our camp, we wrote, “Temetrius has “it” with his consistent play and development as a player. His basketball maturity can take him as far as he’d like it to. Explosive first step, can take the body contact, and is also crafty around the rim. Can’t wait to see what the future holds for this young kid. The best part of his game was certainly his ability to make the first step and get to the rim. His penetration ability into the lane was some of the best we saw on the courts that weekend, while also showing that can finish with contact. That is something you can’t find in a lot of 5’11 guards. But overall, the coaches thought Morant was a solid player in all areas and likes where his game is going for the future.” We went a bit further in his assessment stating his Areas of Excellence: “Penetration Ability, Ability to finish, Attitude, Team Play, Effort, Quickness, First step”
His performance at this camp was so good that it earned him a mix tape (CLICK HERE TO WATCH) from Ball is Life and it got him an invite to the prestigious South Carolina Top 80 later that year. Even against the very best players in his state, Morant shined. At this point, in September of 2015, Morant grew to 6’1” and we wrote, “Morant has all the tools one likes in a guard. He handles the ball well, can get downhill in the half court, and he made shots off the catch and pull up.”
Clearly, Morant had all the tools. Even coming up at a young age, he sparked with his talent and ability. He had a certain flair about him and effortlessly touched the paint, at will. Incredibly enough, there was more to come… Just in case you skimmed over it previously, yes, Morant grew up in the same town where Ray Allen graduated high school, a small town in Sumter County of less than 2,300 people.
Back to Morant’s development after his first South Carolina Top 80 appearance, prior to the July before his senior season. This was when Morant worked to take his game from good to an elite level. In this time frame, Morant picked up his first offer, in January of 2016, by South Carolina State, which was shortly followed by Maryland Eastern Shore in February.
Morant originally played with the SC Hornets in AAU. Let’s talk about his SC Hornets team for a second, which also had Devonte Shuler and Zion Williamson on that same team (not just in the same program, but on the same team). After Zion left for Game Elite and Shuler for CP3, the SC Hornets merged with the SC Raptors to become Team SC. This merger teamed Morant with Claxton, and the team joined the Adidas Gauntlet Silver Division. Talk about talent laden, but Morant continued to do his thing, consistently touching the paint and making plays.
However, it was during that aforementioned July where Morant really took off. The month was headlined by offers from South Carolina and Murray State, however, nearly fifteen schools offered Morant during that month. It happened quickly, but it all made sense. At Summer Havoc, with Team South Carolina and current Georgia Bulldog, Nick Claxton, the guard’s performances were really beginning to resonate with college coaches. He was downright dominant, and our analyst Jeff Bendel echoed that sediment, stating: “Last but certainly not least, a Phenom favorite from Summer Havoc that has become a must-see talent, 6-foot-3 Temetrius “JA” Morant (2017). Every time I’ve seen him play, I find myself wishing the game would go into overtime just so I can watch him perform longer. He’s bloodthirsty and willing to annihilate anyone that stands between his team and victory. He and Elijah Joiner stood alone as the two hungriest guys showcased at this event. Offensively, there’s not a single hole in Morant’s game and he has the ability to pile up points in a hurry from all three levels. The opposition is forced to be on their toes whenever the ball is in his hands; he’s deadly off the dribble and able to create for himself or others in a pinch. Morant is a very quick, smart ball-handler and can play either guard spot quite well. His scoring cannot be overstated; he’s an absolutely lethal scorer that consistently gets it done game after game. Defensively, Morant displays great understanding of where the ball plans to travel and knows exactly when to pounce in order to pick up steals. His high IQ must be mentioned, as he never has a lapse in judgment on either end of the floor. Morant’s stock has seen tremendous rise this summer and it all began at Summer Havoc, I’m excited to see what program figures out just how incredibly good he is.”
The very week in July is when things went crazy for Morant, and that’s probably because he went crazy on the court. Nick Claxton missed the third live period to go down and play for the Virgin Islands National Team. So now standing at a lengthy 6-foot-3 Morant was, for the first time in his high school AAU career, standing as the man. Morant showed out at Phenom’s Southern Jam Live, during the third, and final week, of July’s Live Period. During the six days, Morant averaged 40.7 points per game. It was eye-opening, as we wrote, “Morant’s rise has been rapid, but it has been true. The lengthy point guard, is full of fire and athleticism. In the game against MATTS Mustangs, Morant scored 40 points and dished out 8 assists (this accounted for 60 of his team’s 80 points). Morant showed touch and range, he displayed elite defensive ability, and he showed he can get to the rim whenever he wants. Frank Martin was in to watch him and he earned 3 more offers today. Saturday and Sunday could double his offer total and take his recruitment to the next level.”
From this point, he had visits set up, but his heart was at Murray State. They got his first official visit, which also ended up being his last as he committed to the Racers on his visit. This choice appears to have been for the best, during his freshman season at Murray State Morant was voted First Team All-OVC and started all 32 games.
Throughout his freshman season, Morant recorded some pretty impressive feats. He was one of three freshmen nationally to record a triple-double and was Murray State’s second player ever to record a triple-double. He finished 14th in NCAA Division 1 averaging 6.2 assists per game and was one of only two players in NCAA Division 1 to finish the year with 400 points, 200 assists and 200 rebounds. His numbers have been eye popping and, as many are not putting him there yet, he is certainly looking like a lottery pick in this up coming draft, and in the top point guard taken off the board.
NBA Draft Analyst Jackson Hoy of The Stepian wrote, “Morant became just the seventh freshman in the last 25 years to record 150 assists, 150 rebounds, and 10 blocked shots while shooting at least 42% from the field. The other six were Ben Simmons, John Wall, Derrick Rose, Lonzo Ball, D’Angelo Russell, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: three #1 picks two #2 picks and another lottery pick…Morant managed these feats as one of the youngest players in college basketball; he doesn’t turn 19 until August”
Morant Moving Forward
In terms of his potential at the NBA level, Morant should be able to find a comfortable role in a variety of settings, given his thorough two-way skillset. Everything that we wrote about him remains true, especially in regards to talent, yet all the national media and scouts are just beginning to realize. He’s done an exceptional job of building his frame since advancing to the college level and still has the ability to keep growing physically. As stated above, his freshman season at Murray State was incredible, but we neglected to mention that his statistical totals were far better than a pair of other notable Racer guards in Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne, two guys who have seen success in the NBA. However, Morant is quite different than the duo before him and likely possesses the most long-term upside of this group. They were both shoot-first guards, each with terrific three-point ability, but that is probably Morant’s biggest weakness. He’s steadily improved from distance, but it’s no secret that the NBA is full of quality shooters and many scouts will be looking specifically at those necessary attributes. Morant might not be a knockdown shooter from distance, but he’s certainly capable and has shown various signs throughout his progression that provide optimism about his growth from beyond the arc.
In terms of advanced metrics, he was one of the highest-ranking freshmen throughout the country, across numerous categories. Here’s another stat from the metric umbrella: Morant joined Ben Simmons and Marcus Smart as the only three freshmen since 2009-10 (when PER and many advanced metrics were introduced) to finish the season with a Player Efficiency Rating above 20, assist percentage above 25%, total rebound percentage above 10%, and over 5 win shares. Morant certainly has the lowest usage of the group, but it’s amazing how groundbreaking his freshman season actually was. Chop it up however you like, but his advanced statistics back up the previous sediment. Both sides of statistical analysis, from metric to traditional, and the eye test have backed up his well-rounded game. It’s glaringly obvious that Morant will receive first-round consideration next year, but he honestly could’ve been drafted this year if he were more widely known.
There aren’t many accurate comparisons for Morant, given his relatively unique approach on the court, but that is part of what makes him so intriguing at the next level. Statistically, he’s most similar to Lonzo Ball at UCLA, but their on-court abilities don’t echo that notion. Ball and Morant are the only two freshmen from the last ten years to check the following boxes: 20+ PER, an offensive rating of (at least) 120, an assist percentage above 30%, and over 5 win shares. It’s unfortunate that it took this long for most people to realize his abilities. That being said, Morant has the world in his palm now, and will likely emerge next season as the hottest mid-major breakout prospect in college basketball. He’ll continue to shoot up draft boards, but his talents go far beyond an alley-oop that caught everyone’s attention.