Person of Interest: Ja Morant, Murray State’s high-flying top-3 prospect

Murray State's Ja Morant (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

Though Duke’s dynamic duo of Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett have grabbed most of the attention all season long as far as NBA Draft potential is concerned, one other player emerged this season who could threaten what was looking like an almost assured Blue Devils one-two coronation back in November.

Say hello to Temetrius Jamel Morant, better known simply as Ja Morant.

A sophomore playing out of little-known mid-major program Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference, Morant was the OVC Player of the Year, was named a First-Team All-American by the United States Basketball Writers Association and is on the latest shortlist for the Naismith Player of the Year.

Morant helped Murray State earn its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance with an OVC Tournament MVP performance after the Racers won the tournament and earned an automatic bid into the dance.

Like last year, Murray State are a No. 12 seed, and will be hoping for a better performance this year in part because of the emergent step Morant took in his second year that’s now made him a top-three lock in just about every NBA mock draft.

Never heard of Morant before this moment? Here’s a little a more on him and why he has NBA scouts salivating at the prospect of his potential.

Age: 19
Position: Point Guard
Height: Six-foot-three | Weight: 175 lbs
2018-19 season averages: PPG: 24.6 | APG: 10.0 | RPG: 5.5

An insane athlete

One of the first sights you’ll probably see of Morant is his and the Racers’ pre-game ritual that sees him lob an alley-oop to himself, take off about a step just inside the free-throw line and boom down a huge dunk while his teammates jump up and down around him.

This is a big reason why Morant has become as highly-touted as he is right now: His athleticism is otherworldly.

With comparisons tossed around to the likes of Russell Westbrook and De’Aaron Fox, the six-foot-three long-armed Morant has the kind of desirable measurables and athletic ability that you simply can’t teach.

Morant’s lightning quickness, size and the threat of him rising above and booming on a defender will almost instinctually put opponents on their heels the second he has the ball in his hands, giving him an advantage offensively at this level that no one else has, other than maybe Williamson.

It also aids him greatly defensively as he’s been gifted with great lateral quickness that lets him stay in front of his man, a six-foot-seven wingspan that lets him disrupt passing lanes and, of course, a game-changing, borderline criminal recovery skill as a shot-blocker.

In short, Morant is an alien-level athlete and, generally speaking, athletic potential trumps all when it comes to NBA draft prospects.

Feel for the game

Of course, all that isn’t to say that Morant doesn’t have actual basketball skills. He does, obviously, and they’re another major contributing factor as to why Morant has become such a draft darling.

Morant averaged 24.6 points per game on 50.3-per cent shooting this season, so he can obviously score and do so efficiently at that. Even more impressively is the 10 assists per contests he handed out to lead all of NCAA Division 1 basketball this season, so he definitely understands how to pass the ball as well.

Other than how eye-popping they are, those numbers speak to the level of feel Morant has for the game already. Yes, he can physically dominate with his athleticism, but he allows the game to come to him and never forces things as he’s adept at playing at almost any speed, in both transition and in the half-court and in set-play situations or not.

He’s taken great strides to improve his decision-making in the pick-and-roll, and while he’s no Chris Paul yet, the foundation is there and he should only look better running it when he gets to the NBA and is playing with superior players as he looks comfortable going left or right already and is an ambidextrous passer.

The only knock against Morant from a skills standpoint at the moment is his three-point stroke. He only shot 33.6 per cent from the college three this season, taking 4.8 per game. This will have to improve at the next level, but seeing as he shot over 50 per cent from the field in general and got to the free-throw line more than eight times per game this season as well, there is some positive self-awareness on Morant’s part of what he’s actual best at.

Morant’s remarkable athleticism is what shows up on all the highlight reels, but it’s this in conjunction with his high skill level that makes him such an intoxicating prospect.

First-round duel

In a stroke of great luck, or maybe just great match-making by the selection committee, we all will get to see Morant put his talents on display on college basketball’s grandest stage against a fellow Naismith Player of the year semifinalist.

Murray State is the No. 12 seed in the West region of the bracket and in its first-round match, it will see No. 5 Marquette and 2019 Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard.

Howard, despite being only five-foot-11, is one of the most prolific scorers in college basketball, even going for 53 once this season against Creighton in overtime.

A lights-out shooter from deep (40.8 per cent from three this season), despite his smaller stature, Howard has somehow mastered his own variant of the James Harden stepback, with a release as quick as anyone’s in college basketball.

In many ways, Howard is the complete antithesis to Morant as he’s not overtly athletic and doesn’t have close to the size of Morant, but the duel between him and his Racers point guard counterpart has potential to be something very special.

Both can light it up scoring-wise and both have that capability to raise the levels of their games in times of need. Traditionally, 5-12 matchups are great fodder for upsets and high drama. The NCAA appears to really be fishing for just that with his highly-anticipated Morant-Howard duel.

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