With the exception of Duke’s Zion Williamson, no player generated more excitement in college basketball this past season than Murray State’s Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant. The lean 6-foot-3 point guard dazzled fans with an elite combination of skill and athleticism. He regularly produced “wow” moments by making ankle-breaking moves, amazing passes, incredibly difficult shots, and jaw-dropping dunks.
This past season, Morant was the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American selection, and he led the Racers to the second round of the NCAA Tourney. He averaged 24.5 points and 9.9 assists, becoming the first player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game in a single season. His 331 total assists led the nation by far, and were the sixth most for a single season in NCAA history. He also averaged 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. The sophomore shot 49.9 percent from the floor, while making 36.3 percent of his 3-point attempts, and he converted on 81.2 percent of his free-throw attempts. Additionally, he led the country with three triple-doubles, including a 17-point, 16-assist, and 11-rebound performance vs. Marquette (only the ninth triple-double in NCAA Tournament history – see highlights below).
Morant’s efforts this season vaulted him from being a relative unknown to an almost-certain top-10 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Not heavily recruited coming out of high school, he first appeared on the radar at Hoops Prospects during his fine freshman season, when he ranked 19th in the nation with 221 assists. His metrics were outstanding for a player his age, including a player efficiency rating (PER) of 20.1. Of course, we were somewhat skeptical due to the Racers’ relatively easy schedule.
Morant began this season in the top 100 on the Hoops Prospects draft board, and after his 38-point performance at Alabama, he vaulted into the top 20. His impressive performance vs. the Crimson Tide was the first of six against quality competition this past season. Against Bama, Auburn, Belmont (twice), Marquette, and Florida State, he averaged 27.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 7.3 rebounds per game. As a result, we now have him ranked third on our latest draft board, and he is poised to be the highest draft pick in the history of Murray State and the OVC.
|Position:||PG||Team/Class:||Murray State (So.)|
|Wingspan:||6-7||Vertical:||44 inches (max)|
|Shot Hand:||Right||Stats:||Click here|
- Excellent combination of ball skills, athleticism, and body control
- Unselfish, creative, and accurate passer, with excellent vision
- Fearless driver, and gets to the line often (8.2 FTA per game, fourth in the nation)
- Very strong with his “off” hand (left)
- One of the top players in the nation in terms of points-plus-assists per possession (96th percentile)
- Solid shooting percentages from deep and the free-throw line, and can knock down shots on the move
- Excellent in most overall metrics, including win shares (8.2, fourth in the nation) and PER (29.7, ninth in the nation)
- Has the athleticism to develop into a solid NBA defender
- Can play out of control, and highly turnover prone (led nation with 5.2 turnovers per game)
- Shooting mechanics are flawed, including a low release
- Shows potential, but midrange game, including floaters, is lacking
- Needs to work on his right hand
- Not a fundamentally sound defender, and questionable effort at times on the defensive end
- Slight build – needs to add muscle to endure the physicality at the next level
Morant’s offensive game is predicated on speed, quickness, agility, excellent ball handling, and the ability to pass and finish with either hand. He is far more of a driver than a shooter, and his goal always appears to be to get to the rim. However, he is just as likely to pass as he is to shoot on those drives, and he excels at penetrating, collapsing the defense, and then dishing. He plays at a fast pace, and is constantly changing direction and speed in a flash. He uses numerous combinations of dribble moves (crossovers, behind the back, in-out, etc.) along with lightning-fast spins and dizzying head and shoulder fakes. And at the rim, he uses a combination of excellent body control and hang-time to make some very difficult finishes.
By far, Morant led the nation with an assist percentage of 51.8 this season, and he has publicly admitted multiple times that he enjoys making assists more than scoring. He clearly was the best player on his team, and the attention that he drew from opposing defenses gave his teammates plenty of open-shot opportunities. Not just any point guard, however, could have averaged 10 assists per game in the same situation. Morant displays great vision and anticipation, combined with an outstanding ability to pass on the move with great accuracy, even from long distances and/or in the opposite direction that he is moving. You cannot tell that he is right handed when watching him pass because he is equally deadly with either hand.
For all of his scintillation and brilliance, it is a concern that Morant was not more efficient this season, especially since Murray State played a relatively easy schedule. He is somewhat predictable, mainly due to a lack of a midrange game and an inconsistent outside shot, and he has a tendency to try to do too much and play out of control, taking wild shots and forcing passes. He also has a bad habit of picking up his dribble in the paint, he frequently passes while in the air, and though he absorbs contact surprisingly well for his size, at 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, he has limitations when finishing against big men.
Morant finished this season with a 1.93 assist-turnover ratio and a turnover percentage of 20.6. Among players with at least 100 possessions, the former number was excellent (92nd percentile), but the latter was very poor (18th percentile). At the same time, he made just 21 of 61 shots (34 percent) between 7 and 17 feet, including 2-of-12 from the right side. With runners and floaters, he made just 31 percent of his 32 attempts. Around the basket on non-floater shots, he was solid, but not spectacular, making 54 percent of his shots.
Morant’s issues with turnovers and his predictability seemingly go hand in hand. He heavily favors driving to the left, persistently trying to get all the way to the rim, and then kicking out to open shooters if that’s not possible. When opposing defenses have a solid rim protector and do not overreact to his penetration (taking away his passing options), his lack of a midrange game can cause him problems. In the aforementioned games against Alabama, Auburn, Belmont, Marquette, and Florida State, Morant’s FG percentage and assist numbers significantly dipped, while his shot attempts and turnovers increased. In those games, he shot a modest 46.2 percent from the floor, and had a pedestrian assist-turnover ratio of 1.22.
In terms of points-plus-assists per possession this past season, not many were better than Morant, who ranked at the 96th percentile in that category; however, most of the rest of his point-per-possession (PPP) numbers were not spectacular. Nearly 44 percent of his possessions came from either handling in pick and roll or in isolation. His ability to create space with his dribble made him very effective in ISO, where he ranked at the 72nd percentile in terms of PPP. Off the pick and roll, he wasn’t as effective (56th percentile), partially because he shot more jumpers on those types of plays. He was also very good in transition, ranking at the 78th percentile for PPP, and that’s not counting the numerous long-distance assists that he made – he doesn’t just rip and run, he rips and fires. He was actually at his best off the ball via cuts to the basket (87th percentile) and put-backs (91st percentile), but combined, they accounted for less than seven percent of his total possessions.
The game against Florida State probably gave us the best glimpse of what Morant will face in the future. FSU had two excellent rim protectors plus multiple long, athletic defenders at other positions. The Seminoles resisted collapsing on Morant when he penetrated, taking away many of his kick-out options. They also frequently switched on the pick and roll, having their bigs drop. Sometimes, the bigs would drop as far as the restricted area, daring Morant to shoot from the middle of the paint and beyond. In the end, he finished with just four assists while making just 38 percent of his shots. He was 3-of-10 inside four feet, 5-of-6 beyond the 3-point line, and 0-of-5 from everywhere else.
The Florida State contest made it clear that Morant has to develop his midrange and floater games, and he seemingly has the tools to do so. He has a nice step-back move that he often uses from deep, and this past season, he ranked at the 67th percentile in terms of PPP when shooting jumpers on the move. Additionally, his excellent free-throw percentage demonstrates that he should not have too much trouble making shots around the top of the key.
Morant also needs to work on his 3-point shooting because his 5-of-6 effort against Florida State was not typical. As a 3-point shooter this season, he made a respectable 36.3 percent of his shots, but he did so with less-than-ideal mechanics. His release is low (in front of his face), and due to that, his right elbow points outwards at the start of his shot. Also, he tends to open his guide hand as he releases, which has the potential to put a sideways spin on the ball.
While Morant has the tools to be a solid defender, he has a long way to go on this end of the court, which was especially apparent against quality competition. At times, he can be a pesky on-ball defender, but his effort is inconsistent. As a team defender, he is undisciplined, lacks awareness, and struggles to deal with picks. Overall, he heavily relies on his athleticism, which was adequate in the OVC but wasn’t against the likes of Auburn and Florida State. Fundamentally, he is unsound: he does a lot of reaching and lunging instead of moving his feet; he makes wild closeouts attempts after falling asleep; he unwisely gambles for steals and shot blocks; and he often takes bad angles around picks, opting for reach-around pokes and swipes at the ball. All of these bad habits typically put him in poor defensive position, forcing his teammates to try to cover for his mistakes.
As an overall defender this season, Morant allowed just .76 PPP (79th percentile). He was excellent in isolation, ranking the 92nd percentile for PPP allowed, but he was not nearly as effective when screens were involved, ranking at the 47th percentile vs. handlers in the pick and roll and ranking at the 38th percentile vs. shooters off screens. In the NCAA Tourney, his numbers dramatically dipped, as he rated at the 13th percentile as an overall defender. For the entire season, he averaged a combined 2.47 steal and blocks per 35 minutes, which ranks at the 79th percentile among the draft prospects that Hoops Prospects tracked this season, but against the aforementioned five best teams that he faced, that number dropped to 1.82 (55th percentile).
Intangibles and Miscellaneous
Considering where Morant is positioned today, one of the questions that must be asked is, “Why didn’t he go to Duke, Kentucky, or some other high-major basketball program?” At least part of the answer has to be that he didn’t take the typical route that most high school stars follow if they want to be heavily recruited. Morant attended a local public high school in Sumter, South Carolina – Crestwood High School, which has an enrollment of less than 1,200. As a sophomore, he played for a local AAU team with Williamson, but while Williamson joined the prestigious Adidas circuit the following summer, Morant stayed put. The end result of Morant staying home and out of the limelight was that none of the major recruiting services ranked him, and his only offer from a high-major school came from the University of South Carolina.
In an article on NBA.com, Morant said that his choice of colleges came down to Murray State and South Carolina. He stated that the main reasons for picking Murray were the school’s point guard tradition, but more importantly, the community, which felt like a big family. He was quoted, “I’m a big family guy. Everybody in the community loves the team.”
Murray State head coach Matt McMahon said similar things when asked how Morant became a Racer. “I think he just found the right fit for him and his future here at Murray State. When his name gets called on draft night, he’ll be the third point guard drafted in the top 35 since 2013 from Murray State; the University of Kentucky is the only other school in all of college basketball that can say that. And so I think a credit to Ja and his family, they weren’t looking for necessarily the biggest name, they were looking for the right fit. And so we were able to build a relationship with him and his family, and I think the history of point guard development here at Murray State, the championship tradition, the NCAA tournament appearances, the sellout crowds that we play in front of, and the family atmosphere, all fit him and what he was looking for as he went to the next level,” McMahon said.
Playing the Devil’s advocate, one could theorize that several other factors came into play for Morant to end up at Murray. By most accounts, he is a quiet young man, and perhaps a bigger school was a little intimidating. Along those same lines, perhaps his family influenced him to keep a low profile; not every parent is enthusiastic about their child becoming a star – fame has its cost and benefits. Lastly, the worst-case scenario is that Morant prefers to be the big fish in a little pond, and if that were the case, it would be fair to question his competitive drive and work ethic.
While not specifically asked about these concerns, Coach McMahon made it clear to me that he believes that some of Morant’s best traits are his work ethic and his competitive nature. “He makes everyone around him better. Players love playing with him because of that. And I think he’s a relentless competitor. He’s a guy who loves to play, he loves to compete, and he loves finding ways to beat you,” McMahon said. The coach also stated the Morant has a very high basketball IQ, calling him a “basketball genius.”
Morant has the athleticism, agility, ball handling, and passing skills to be a good NBA point guard. In order to be a great one, he will need to improve in several areas, including defense and midrange offense. Because of his physical skills, he should be able to improve upon nearly all of the weaknesses mentioned in this report with hard work, effort, and experience.
The last point guard from a mid-major school to be a top-10 pick in the NBA draft was Louisiana’s Elfrid Payton in 2014; in fact, he was the last mid-major player at any position to be a top-10 pick. There is little question that Morant is a better player than Payton, but I disagree with the frequent comparisons to John Wall and Russell Westbrook. In my opinion, Morant compares favorably to De’Aaron Fox, and though the jury is still out on how good Fox will be, he is certainly trending in the right direction.
In terms of where Morant will fall in this draft, I do not believe that he is a lock to be the second or third pick. It’s not difficult to imagine a team in need of a point guard favoring Darius Garland, who is a better shooter, or Coby White, who is bigger, over Morant. At the same time, I do not see Morant falling any lower than eighth due to the high demand for quality floor generals.
Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports mainly come from Synergy Sports Technology and RealGM.com, and occasionally from Hoop-Math.com and Sports-Reference.com. Some background information and the photo were courtesy of Murray State Athletics. Other outside sources are noted with links to the source. Special thanks to Dave Winder, Associate AD – Media Relations at Murray State, and Matt McMahon, Head Coach of Men’s Basketball at Murray State.