HARTFORD — There are players every March that capture the imagination of sports fans everywhere.
Ja Morant is one of those select few.
The 19-year-old sophomore from Murray State is projected to be a top-3 lottery pick this spring, right behind Zion Williamson of Duke. While he doesn’t have the power of Williamson, Morant has that flare is quickly winning over fans that watch him play.
Everyone inside the XL Center Thursday watched in rightful awe of a player who turned the first-round game against Marquette into his personal playground.
Ja Morant, with 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds became the first player since Michigan State’s Draymond Green in 2012 to collect a triple-double in tournament play. But Morant’s impact went far, far beyond the numbers, like his two-handed tomahawk dunk over Joey Hauser in the second half as the Racers blew past Marquette, 83-64.
“I felt like the defender was playing up my line,” Morant said of his dunk over the 7-footer. “I just made a back door cut, and my teammate Darnell delivered the pass and I seen the opening and I took it. It was a lot of fun just being able to go out with this group of guys, and get a win in the tournament, just feels good.”
“I knew the first day he came on campus. He’s just got some special intangibles to him in addition to the athleticism, the explosiveness, and ridiculous court vision and feel for the game,” said Murray State head coach Matt McMahon. “He’s got an unselfishness and competitiveness about him that’s been contagious within our program, in our locker room. Same for Shaq Buchanan, and it’s been the structure of the culture, the foundation of the culture of our team, that unselfishness and that relentless drive to compete out there on the court.”
Morant’s joy in playing the game is the true attraction. In a tournament that is filled with great storylines every year, sometimes we lose an appreciation of the players that play the game with no strings attached.
That’s not to say Morant’s game isn’t elite in its own right. It most certainly is, and the dozen or so of NBA scouts in attendance here for the first two rounds will attest to that. As a matter of fact, Morant’s play has drawn comparisons to another triple-double machine currently in the NBA – Russell Westbrook.
Born in Dalzell, South Carolina, the 19-year-old Temetrius Jamel Morant is the son of former basketball player Tee Morant, a former high school teammate of Ray Allen. If you didn’t know Ja Morant before this season, don’t feel bad. Neither did a lot of Division I teams when Morant was tearing it up in South Carolina, where he earned All-State honors at Crestwood High School in Sumter, South Carolina.
He made an immediate impact at Murray State, earning first-team All-OVC honors as a freshman. Morant had a breakout sophomore season, which saw him win OVC Player of the Year while surpassing the school record for triple-doubles and the conference record for single-season assists, which also led the entire NCAA that season. But now that Morant is on a MUCH bigger stage, everyone can get an up close and personal look at a player that is going to bring electricity to an NBA arena near you.
But Ja is more than just a flashy point guard who can dish no-look passes with the best. Much more.
“Ja Morant makes a lot of plans look bad. I mean, I’ve been in this for a while. He’s as good as any guard that I’ve coached against, or played against, and I’ve coached against and played against some outstanding ones,” beamed Marquette head coach Steve Wojocieckowski.
“The best thing about that kid is his decision-making. I mean, you’re talking about an elite, elite decision-maker, who’s got elite athleticism. And, you know, when you’re talking about a point guard, you should always start with decision-making. And he made great, great decisions, and he makes everyone around him better.”
“I was just reading the defense,” Morant said. “Early on I seen that they was trying to pack it in on my drive and whenever I have the ball. And I just that just opened up opportunities for my teammates to be open. So I just attack and just drive and kick or and have an easy dump now.”
And what NBA scouts care about is how one lottery pick could make their team instantly better overnight.
“(Murray State is) good without him, but with him, they’re pretty unique,” added Wojocieckowski. “I have a ton of respect for him. He’s a big-time, big-time player. I mean, the triple-doubles, 16 assists in an NCAA Tournament. It’s crazy. You can’t speed him up. You can run two people at him, you can switch, try to get the ball out of his hands. There’s nothing that we found that could speed him up or shake his decision-making.”